I just returned from the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans. Over the past 30 years, I've attended many G.A.'s, dating back to when the organization was the Council of Jewish Federations (and I liked that name just fine, but time marches on). Rather than highlighting what went on in New Orleans, my reflections are more about crunching the years together and observing through "time lapse" glasses how the G.A. has changed, mostly for the best:
- It was an honor to be part of the planning team for the Jewish Futures Conference that took place, as a collaboration of Covenant Foundation, JESNA / Lipman-Kanfer Institute, The Jewish Education Project and Jewish Federations of North America. http://www.jewishfutures.net/. Although it may have been hyperbole to call it the first ever futures conference, it was nevertheless a landmark in bringing together 400+ communal leaders, professionals and students to think and discuss openly what the future of Jewish learning could be. This would never have occurred at a G.A. in the dark and distant past.
- Another new approach during the Futures Conference were presentations by younger thinkers who had been selected through open competition. As one of these presenters, Patrick Aleph of Punk Torah http://punktorah.org/ suggested, folks who looked and thought like him (and who, quite literally, danced around the room as part of his presentation) might have been kicked out by security in ancient times. This year, he, and other "out of the box" thinkers and activists, were not only welcomed but highlighted.
- Back in the day, Jewish text study would have been objectionable to participants at G.A.'s. Over the years (and with the help, historically, of organizations like CLAL) there has been a steady increase in actual text study sessions and the inclusion of Jewish values and language. The visibility this year of Global Day of Jewish Learning as a vehicle for text study was particularly notable.
- College students were more visible than ever. Not only has the number of students participating skyrocketed, but students are being treated as welcome guests rather than as space aliens who dropped into a party that they weren't supposed to be at. There is now a recognition that these students are not simply future leaders, but are leaders currently.
- Social media was all over the place and added to the value of the conference. When I wanted to be in three places at once, all it took was twitter feeds to participate in two sessions virtually while participating in one in real time. This may not seem revolutionary to "digital natives", but to those of us who've experienced the G.A. over the years, it is a major coup.
- Visual and performing artists were all over the place, and demonstrated powerfully, how their arts are used as a means of engaging people in Jewish conversations and Jewish learning. Needless to say, for me, the edgier the better. Like my friends at Punk Torah (who may not even think of themselves as performing artists, but definitely are) or my new friend, Maya Escobar (pictured below with the shomer negiah panties -- for the uninitiated, the phrase refers to a person who follows the rabbinic tradition that prohibited even touching someone of the opposite sex, other than a spouse and only if the woman had observed mikva laws) http://mayaescobar.com/. Big surprise that I like the folks who "push the envelope" in order to engage people in learning? Shouldn't be.
- Not such good news: there are still plenary sessions in for which participants wait in long lines to hear dignitaries and a few select leaders speak in huge auditorium spaces. I understand that there is a value to having Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the house. But three long, frontal plenaries, at the expense of time in dialogues designed to share learning and information is questionable in the world we live in. A bit too old school of an approach for me.
Overall, I'm a happy camper. Looking back at where it's come from vs. where it is now, this turned out to be a pretty great experience. And hey, it was in New Orleans!