Jewish geography at the GA

Throughout its 80-year history, the assembly has always focused on contemporary issues facing Jews and Judaism.

GA 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Repair the World)
GA 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Repair the World)
Six months ago Doug Seserman, president and CEO of the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, and I walked into the offices of Larry Mizel, a real-estate magnate and a major Jewish philanthropist, who among other things helped found the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Doug and I were there to talk about this year’s General Assembly and to ask Larry to consider partly sponsoring the event.
“So Doug, you brought the big guy from New York,” Larry joked about my visit as president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella for the 157 Jewish Federations that raise some $1 billion to help Jews across the globe each year.
“No, I’m just a country boy from Oklahoma,” I replied about my roots in Tulsa.
“Wait, I grew up in Tulsa, and the only Silverman I knew was a cantor who made a huge impression on me and my brother,” Mizel said. “I don’t understand to this day how he got us through our bar mitzvahs!” I looked at him. “That cantor was my dad,” I said.
As Jews, one of our most important tools is Jewish geography, finding the quarter-degree of separation that bridges us. For 80 years, the North American Jewish community has relied on that critical connecting force at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, and we’re gathering in Denver for our eighth decade. The GA – what we call “the original Jewish social network” – brings together thousands of Jewish communal professionals and volunteers, from Hillel students to multi-million-dollar donors, in the biggest Jewish communal event on the calendar.
On one hand, we have conducted intensive market research to find out what our community really values about the GA, and how we can raise the bar of excellence for our program content. Built around proposals by all corners of our community, this year’s GA follows five tracks, each leading to dozens of dynamic sessions that generate meaningful dialogue, ignite learning and issue a bold call to action. These areas tell you something about what our communal concerns are these days: Inspirational Leadership; The Innovation Imperative; The Middle East 2011-2012; Community Building and the Federation Philanthropic Forum.
Looking across eight decades, one can see the GA agenda reflecting contemporary challenges, but also how our Jewish imperative – kol Yisrael arevim ze le ze – all Jews are responsible for one another – remains unwavering. At the first GA in Cleveland, in 1932, the biggest topic for the newly formed Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds was a fundraising strategy for communal social service agencies.
In 1963, in Hollywood, Florida, delegates focused on helping Jews in the Soviet Union, an effort that ultimately coalesced into the historic Soviet Jewry movement. In 2006, in Los Angeles, we met with Israeli leaders after raising more than $360 million to help Israel’s north recover from the Second Lebanon War, and in 2009, in Washington, we focused on nourishing Jewish identity through Jewish service.
But the GA is much, much more than a place where we plan our top priorities and address global needs. It is, at its heart, a place to network, a venue to meet new people and to forge important new relationships. At every single GA, including here in Denver, the hallways are filled with the buzz of intense dialogue about lifechanging initiatives and innovative new ventures. We’re creating connections that unite us in a timeless chain, the Jewish People.
THE GA is also a place where we celebrate the knowledge that we are making a real difference in the lives of millions of Jews in more than 70 countries around the world – from aiding those in our own backyards hit hard by the economic downturn, to supporting poor elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, to bringing the last remaining Ethiopian Jews home to Israel. All of this incredible work could not be accomplished, of course, without our historic partners, the Jewish Agency, JDC and ORT.
At every GA we’re also challenging ourselves to raise the bar of excellence, because we always have so much more to think about and do. Whether that means creating new advocacy strategies to counter the demonization of Israel, engaging younger Jews through the intensity of Israel experience programs, or raising awareness of the lifesaving mission of Jewish Federations through memorable branding and cutting- edge technology.
A week before Rosh Hashanah, my colleagues and I sat with Aviva and Noam Schalit in their protest tent in Jerusalem, and as a parent I could only imagine the deep pain and complex challenges they faced. Only a few weeks later, along with our brothers and sisters in Israel, we all were glued to our TV sets, rejoicing as Gilad – a son, a brother – came home. Perhaps this form of Jewish geography set the most powerful stage for another impactful and inspiring GA this year, where we gathered together to map our communal future.
The writer is president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America