In just over a week, the biggest annual event in the Jewish world - at least in terms of donor money and activist causes represented - will take place in the unlikely venue of Music City USA, more commonly known as Nashville, Tennessee.
Practically, the annual three-day General Assembly of the North American Jewish federation system will bring together the Jewish world's major donors, both institutions and individuals, with many of the activists and thinkers in Jewish life in North America and Israel. The event is well-publicized, with appearances expected from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, along with MKs, Tennessee's governor and many others.
But, according to Joe Kanfer, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization holding the event, the GA will be about something much more down-to-earth and practical. In an interview this week with The Jerusalem Post, Kanfer promised the GA will be about creating and disseminating practical ideas for improving Jewish life in the communities the UJC represents.
First, Kanfer believes, the UJC must be useful to its customers, the American Jewish community. He laid out some of the problems in American Jewish communal life that will be handled at the GA.
The first problem he mentions is not an obvious one. "We have a very mobile population," he notes. "Jews are moving from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West." This is a problem, he explains, because the institutions in the older communities are more experienced at fundraising and community-building, while Jewish federations in the West are less able to mobilize communal resources.
"For example," he says, "Cleveland's 70,000-80,000 Jews have a campaign that brings in about $32 million. Las Vegas, with a similar population, gives about $4-5m."
It's not that Las Vegas Jews don't donate, he believes, but that the institutions don't fully know how to take advantage of, and attract, the local community's philanthropy. At the GA, and in coming years, "we're going to reach into those communities and help them build their communities."
The GA will also focus on bringing "good business practices, measurements, databases, and comparisons of communal performance" into the federation system to make it more efficient and responsive to the communities, he says.
"Finally, we're deciding to tackle the big issues of Jewish life," Kanfer promises. Beyond being "great in emergencies," as seen in the special Israel Emergency Campaign that raised upwards of $300m. for Israel's North and $25m. raised in response to Hurricane Katrina, "we're also [getting into] other significant issues no community can handle alone, such as the expense of Jewish life. If you want to live a Jewish life, you have to pay maybe $12,000 in tuition for your kids, and belong to a synagogue and such." There will be sessions at the GA - "with communities and people from the Jewish day school world" - dealing with that issue.
What of the shrinking budgets of the international Jewish organizations, which are steadily diminishing as donors look for more involvement with their philanthropy, and steadily leave behind the large organizations? According to Kanfer, donor money for the UJC's core budget - untargeted donations sent to the UJC itself - "has been going down for years, but now it's become flat."
Jewish Agency officials have complained this week of budgets cuts biting deeply into programming in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Are these cuts a sign of things to come?
Overall, donations are up, Kanfer says, because of increased donations that are specifically designated for certain projects. "People have to get involved, to see the youth programs. Once people donate [through a designated contribution], they also donate to the core budget. Until you see the programming it's hard to give to the core budget, but once you do, you understand the need for it."
Furthermore, it's understandable that Jewish Agency officials "will focus on core budget, since everybody wants undesignated money. But donors now want specific programs. When I was young we called [federation donations] the 'Jew tax.' That worked with my father, a little less with me. But it just doesn't work anymore."
Finally, what significant role can a large umbrella group such as the UJC play in Jewish life today?
For Kanfer, the federation system's strength does not rest with any one issue, but in its networking capability.
"The federation system can convene on almost any Jewish issue and people will come," he believes. "There are many individual organizations - schools that teach, the ADL that deals with anti-Semitism - but we stand for the kehila, the community itself. We're the umbrella network. It's not just about dollars. We have social capital, the fact that we can bring people together."
What should observers look for in a successful GA? "If people say they took away ideas - not just thoughts, but pragmatic ideas to act upon - that will be a success," he says. "We will do a post-GA evaluation and we'll ask, 'Did we tackle the issues?'"