Right in Our Backyard

Last year’s G.A. hosted overflow audiences. (AG for JFNA)

Last year’s G.A. hosted overflow audiences. (AG for JFNA)

Nearly 3,000 participants from 124 communities, including 1,000 first-time attendees, will gather at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County beginning Sunday to discuss today’s pressing Jewish issues, including rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish life on college campuses, Jewish education in North America and the ongoing conflict in Israel and the wider Middle East.

The overarching theme of the 2014 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is “The World is Our Backyard.” It runs from Nov. 9 through 11.

“We want people to understand that it’s as casual and easy to be involved with the Jewish community as it is to be in your backyard with your friends,” said Gail Norry, co-chair of this year’s G.A. along with Baltimore’s Howard Friedman. “It’s the same across the Jewish world.”

This year’s conference features heavy hitters in American, Jewish and Israeli life. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan will open the G.A. with a session hosted by National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg. Vice President Joe Biden has been confirmed for Tuesday. Participants will also hear from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and NBC’s Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell.

“It speaks to the power of the G.A. that we were able to attract so many prominent speakers this year,” said Norry.

Jewish Times editor-in-chief Joshua Runyan and Geoffrey W. Melada, editor-in-chief of the JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week, will also make presentations at the G.A. and the adjoining conference of the American Jewish Press Association.

“We, the federation, touch more Jews on the planet than any other movement. We want this to be the largest gathering of lay leaders in the business of federation,” said Linda A. Hurwitz, national campaign chair of JFNA and chair-elect of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “We want to build the G.A.’s reputation as an event that is the central gathering of federation leadership, where there will be multiple delivery of messages through combinations of thinking
sessions, inspirational moments that define our work.”

Half of world Jewry is represented by JFNA with 153 federations and 300 smaller communities throughout North America.

In a similar vein to last year’s “Fed Talks,” this year’s G.A. will debut “FEDovations” a series of breakout presentations highlighting the most successful JFNA programs and activities.

“I’ve been on many missions and it’s always fascinating to me when you get together with federations across the country, people are champing at the bit to learn about each other’s best practices,” said Norry.

Baltimore will be well represented at the FEDovation breakouts on Tuesday with presentations from Renée Dain, director of community services at The Associated, titled “Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance: Transforming the way individuals and families navigate transitions and access services,” and from Leslie Pomerantz, senior vice president at The Associated, who is presenting “Riding the Wave of Giving Tuesday: Seizing unexpected opportunities to drive dollars and donors.”

Also new to the 2014 G.A. is the Joshua Society inaugural lunch. Similar to the existing Prime Minister’s Council, the Joshua Society honors those families and individuals who pledge $10,000 to $24,999 to their federation’s annual campaign.

G.A. participants and watchers can keep track of events through the Twitter hashtag #JFNAGA and the JFNA Twitter account @jfederations or by downloading the JFNA GA app, where users can share pictures and posts, trade likes and find programming notes and locations.

With a diverse range of panels, breakout sessions and conversation pits to attend, what is the hoped-for takeaway for participants?

“First and foremost, I think it’s important for people to go to the conference and see the power of the national organization,” said Norry, “to hear about the most pressing issues and to have great ideas and information to bring back to our individual communities.”

“As a part of the federation, as a contributing member of your community, this is your opportunity to be with other people who care as much as you,” said Hurwitz. “There will be people from all over the world, and this is just an hour’s drive away from us. It behooves us as Baltimoreans to take advantage of this opportunity right in our backyard.”


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