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At Denver GA, talking about connectivity and the lack of star power

DENVER (JTA) — If there was one message that the Jewish Federations of North America was trying to promote at this year’s General Assembly conference here, it was connectivity.

Tweets from the conference were broadcast on large screens outside the main ballroom, sessions were organized by Jewish groups across the country rather than by the federations’ hierarchy, late-night salons were held to deconstruct those sessions and the conference’s tagline was “The original Jewish social network.”

Of course, connectivity is what the GA has always been about: an occasion for professionals from Jewish community federations, nonprofits and other fellow travelers to gather once a year, talk about their priorities, and get their batteries recharged for community service work and the tough job of raising funds for Jews in Israel and around the world.

It’s an increasingly difficult undertaking.

While Jews may be more socially connected than ever before, divisions over Israel, the partisan divide in the United States, the long-term shift away from federated giving and toward direct philanthropy, and the economic downturn all have made it more difficult for the federations to muster collective action to address the major Jewish issues of the day.

This year’s GA sought to address that problem both on the grass-roots and executive levels. Students from schools across the United States were flown to Denver to inject the conference with energy and engage the so-called next generation in the federation world. At the top, the JFNA’s board convened to vote on a new plan to mobilize collective giving overseas through something called the Global Planning Table.

There was much talk here about the GA’s lack of star power. The top speaker, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last month canceled his planned appearance. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in May and next month’s Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Washington landed President Obama, the highest-profile political speaker at the GA was the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.).

Ultimately, however, the federation system will be measured not by the stars it can corral but by the ordinary Jews it can mobilize. Will Jews feel connected enough to the community to donate money to their local federation rather than just to their local synagogue or their favorite art museum? Can federations in the U.S. and Canada band together to support major projects to transform Jewish life in America, Israel and around the world?

The answers to those questions will be the enduring legacy not just of this GA but of the federation system as a whole.
 

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