Are you going to the 2011 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Denver in November? Will this be your first time attending the GA? Are you attending the GA as a student representative? If so then this guide is for you. Let’s begin with the basics – the official lines so to to speak. According to their Web site:
The Jewish Federations of North America represents 157 Jewish Federations & over 300 independent Jewish communities… The Federation movement, collectively among the top 10 charities on the continent, protects and enhances the well-being of Jews worldwide through the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charity and social justice) and Torah (Jewish learning).
What does this mean? Well, local Federations raise money in their communities. They then pool the money and use it to fund local charitable organizations. Part of the money is also used to fund charitable projects in Israel and around the world and some of it goes to the JFNA for national undertakings. The JFNA is a sort of umbrella organization that speaks for the Federation movement on a national level and runs various projects that are national in scope, like say TribeFest or… the GA. And what’s the official line on the GA?
The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly is the premier North American Jewish conference; it inspires and engages current & emerging Jewish leaders, tackles the critical issues of the day and showcases the best of the Federation movement.
And what does this mean? Well, the GA is essentially a three day professional conference that attracts Jewish communal professionals from around the world. In attendance are Federation executives, management and employees, local, national and Israeli politicians, representatives of major and minor Jewish non-profit organizations, lay leaders and volunteers, companies and consultants that service the Jewish non-profit sector, members of the press that cover the Jewish world, young professional contingents affiliated with local Federations, and student/youth representatives. In brief, it is the biggest Jew event of the year.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you are on the younger side of the attendee age continuum. This may be your first exposure to the organizational side of the Jewish community. You may be wondering what to expect. A quick perusal of the GA site will answer the obvious questions. You are presented with a wealth of programming options including Tikkun Olam style volunteering opportunities, a massive variety of speakers, entertainment (including an acoustic evening with Matisyahu which we are co-sponsoring, skills sessions, round table discussions, big name plenary sessions, private by invitation only events etc. Topics covered include everything of relevance to the Jewish world – promoting greater inclusiveness of the GLBTQ (sorry if I forgot an initial) community, greater inclusiveness of the Haredi community, Israel stuff, Philanthropy stuff, what’s with these kids today stuff – if it’s Jewy, it’ll likely be discussed by the Jewy superstar speakers du jour.
Looking over the program it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So I am here to help you make the most of your time in Denver.
1. Are you at the GA because you are looking for a Jewish community job?
If so then you have my… oh never mind. I am constantly amazed by some of the people I meet who work for the organized Jewish community. Many are not what you would call “the usual suspects” and being proactive about your future employment prospects is fine, especially in this economy. The thing is that you’re not the only one here looking to advance their career prospects. The program offered is amazing and exhaustive but all the real stuff happens in the hallways and in the shmooze. The key is to come prepared. Try and determine ahead of time what organizations you are most interested to work for. Find out all you can about said organizations and put together a list. Scan the badges and find the reps of your prospective future employers and, well, stalk them. Try to approach them and engage them in conversation. You already know what the organization does so just walk up to them, introduce yourself and ask them a question. Most people are pretty friendly and will respond, ie “Oh I see by your name tag that you work for blah blah blah. I was very impressed by that initiative you organized. Did you get the results you were looking to achieve?” – see? It’s the shmooze. It takes place in between sessions, at meals, at parties etc.
Other opportunities to impress future employers exist at the panels where you can stand out by asking really intelligent questions – especially if a target employer is a sponsor. The GA schedule is up, the topics and sponsors are listed. Be prepared! Another thing you can do is to bring a smartphone and write quality tweets. On twitter. Last year thousands of GA related tweets were released into the uhm, twittersphere and I expect more this year. Pay attention to who the important tweeters are and engage them in conversation. Stand out in a positive and professional manner and it’s quite possible that important people will notice. Do not tweet about how drunk you are. Duh.
2. Are you at the GA because you want to promote your local Hillel or Jewish Organization?
The GA is big on emphasizing the participation of young Jewish leaders. Many young Jews do indeed attend thanks to generous subsidies provided by their local Federation or Hillel. And why not? It’s basically a free trip, free accommodation and fun times with other Jewish student leaders and peers. But if you are conscientious and really want to help your organization, a bit of preparation goes a long way. For instance, call your local Federation and find out which of their executives are attending. Make an appointment to meet them for a quick coffee at the GA so that they can have the opportunity to find out what your sponsoring organization has been up to (read: what are you doing with their money). Don’t assume that they actually know this already. Make a good impression and this will bode well for your organization’s the future financial health.
3. Are you at the GA because you want funding for a future or current Jewish non-profit venture?
The GA has been called a giant shmooze fest. It is also a giant schnorr fest. Schnorr is a derogatory Yiddish term, but I didn’t really mean to use in a negative manner. Jewish non-profits don’t run on fumes (though it sure does seem that way sometimes) and there is nothing wrong with using the GA to establish and solidify contacts with current or prospective sources of funding. The beauty of the GA is that they are all there! The problem is that you are competing with a lot of people who have the same idea as you do. What you need to do is to stand out. Use twitter effectively – focus on quality interactions with influential people rather than on volume of tweets. Find out which foundations in attendance are most likely to be open to discussing supporting your venture. Find their staff and leadership at the GA (remember, keep a list!) and engage them in conversation. If you can, contact them ahead of time and try to block off some time for a quick meeting. Stalk them relentlessly – though be gracious if they aren’t receptive to your ideas. Establishing familiarity via human interaction makes a big difference when it comes to making decisions about financial allocations. It’s easy to say no to a faceless, anonymous proposal.
4. Are you at the GA to have a good time?
Yes. It is entirely possible to go to the GA just to have a good time. There are many folks out there with healthy expense accounts who will be more than happy to ply you with liquor and the occasional fancy meal – especially if you’re, you know, young, cool and kinda hot. In that and uhm… other respects, the GA is just like any other professional or industry conference where all kinds of otherwise ill advised shenanigans abound far from prying eyes. You are going to try and shmooze with people likely to help advance agenda. That’s what everyone else is doing there essentially. The machers are going to be looking for gelt, political support, career advancement etc. and you’re going to be looking to the machers for the same thing. So the question is, what do you, a young, wet behind the ears little punk, have to offer that would interest the bigwigs? If you can figure that out then you can have a really good time at the GA…
Oh all right. I’ll tell you. If you simply have a brief chat with a local Federation exec, I guarantee you that when he or she returns, they will promptly tell their colleagues about the hope inspiring-edifying-life affirming meeting they had with local young ‘uns at the GA. This will in part help them to justify the expense of going off to Denver and promote the notion that they have their fingers on the pulse of the all important young Jew demographic. Everyone will conveniently ignore the fact that they could have reached out to you and your friends at any point in time without having to bother to fly all the way to Denver to do so. To be fair, many Federation people do that, but the vast majority don’t.
If you can strike a rebellious pose, sell yourself as a representative of disaffected, unaffiliated young Jews, then you might be able to attract some serious attention. See, almost every Jewish organization is obsessed with the need to attract said demographic. Millions of dollars have been spent on finding a way to engage otherwise uninterested young Jews. In fact, the future of the Federation system itself, its continued viability and vitality, rests on the need to attract the next generation of young Jews – to bring them into the fold of the organized Jewish community. And by them I mean you. Once you understand this, you can turn the tables. Talk about how the whole system alienates you, how it doesn’t sufficiently address your generation’s concerns, how it only really represents the interests of a narrow slice of big donors etc. Talk about how inspired you are by grass roots expressions of Jewish identity, how moved you are by youth driven Jewish innovation – make them think that you hold the key to solving all their problems and the gates of philanthropic heaven will always be open to you. You’ll score drinks, dinner invitations, meetings with fancy shmancy funders and more. Just don’t ruin it by being TOO Jewy. Always frame your issues within a cultural and not a religious context. Most of the big funders are staunchly secular and traditional Judaism makes them nervous and itchy. Anyhow, as I was saying, gates of heaven, gravy train, blah blah blah. Got it? I’m talking big fun!
Really? Do I have to end this with a succinct conclusion? Like an episode of South Park where Stan says “You know, I learned something today…” I guess the point of is guide was that now you don’t have an excuse to bumble around the GA like a clueless n00b. I have given you the keys to the kingdom. You can now work the room like a savvy networking master. Lots of money is being spent to put together this thing. Lots of time and effort as well. Your sole responsibility is to make the most of your three days in Denver. In doing so you will increase the likelihood of your having a good time and maybe contributing something positive to this whole experience. Or maybe I am just full of it and have it completely wrong. Feel free to let me know and we can discuss it further.
Gah… lamest conclusion EVER! Oh. one more thing… that guy in the illustration? He’s William Daroff, a big mucky muck at the JFNA (Vice President for Public Policy & Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America – I had to look it up then copy and paste – whew). He’s also one of the most accessible Federation professionals in the world. Seriously. Follow him on twitter and definitely stalk him at the GA. He’s a vegan, a lover of fine whiskey and a veritable fount of useful info and contacts. If you really want to impress him, show up wearing an Occupy Daroff t-shirt. In case you think I am merely trying to suck up to him, I assure you I am merely giving you good advice, besides, to paraphrase the bandito “Gold Hat” in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a classic 1948 film starring Humphrey Bogart: “Daroff? We don’t need no Daroff!”