Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tag Team from the GA

I recently attended the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly in New Orleans (JFNA GA NOLA, because we like acronyms!).

This blog is a piece I wrote for the Challah Back Blog which is sponsored by the JFNA National Young Leadership (JFNANYL). I am curious to hear from Davar Acher readers their take on changes JFNA may need to take to reach younger leaders, and also to reach more of the Jewish education constituency.

Ten days ago, a former student of mine asked me what advice I had to give as she prepared to attend her first GA. I responded:

@edenrachael advice for the #nolaga. First thing - bring snacks. Second - most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. Third - business cards.

This exchange embodies my GA experience.

First of all, it happened on Twitter. According to JFNA leadership, there were about 4,000 tweets that came through the #nolaga hashtag. This in and of itself represents a new feeling about the GA. The use of technology and social media to build community, transmit ideas, and disseminate information was profound at this year’s General Assembly.

By running an archive application on the #nolaga hashtag, I was able to ascertain the top words which appeared in the tweets.

NOLAGA, Jewish, Thanks, Israel, Netanyahu, Speech, Jews, New Orleans, Young, GA, Community, Best, Students, Hero, Amazing, Plenary, Twitter, 2010

In thinking about these as words that represented the GA, what I find as fascinating is that words I would typically associate with the Federation (i.e. fundraising, campaigns, leadership, boards, etc) are not the words that were highlighted in the list. This either indicates an overall shift in what took place at the GA, or it represents what those drawn to a tool like Twitter feel is important. This is an important lesson for JFNA as it continues to struggle with how to engage “the next generation.” (More on that later!) The archive tool also generates a list of the top-tweeter. Hillel came in first and pulling into the second slot is William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America. There’s a commentary in that juxtaposition as well. Note: I did make the top 10.

Continuing on the note of technology, in one session I attended (and was asked by organizers to live-tweet), The Jewish Futures Conference, the organizers invested in equipment where participants could vote from their seats in a poll and live results were displayed on large screens. There was a clear sense of enjoyment from the over 300 attendees. The presence of “Bloggers Alley” (sponsored by Jewlicious) in the Exhibit Hall is another sign of the infiltration of technology and social media into the GA.

Lastly, while not an actual display of technology itself, the Nolaism Schmoozeup, attracted a few hundred people who use social media regularly. It gave me a chance to meet people whom I have been conversing with for a while on Twitter or in the blogosphere but have never met. The introductions are unique: Hi, I’m Robyn Faintich…Silence. JewishGPS…Oh, wow, so great to meet you, I’m [insert Twitter name here]. But as unique as the introductions are, the foundation for a collegial relationship, and often times a friendship, are already laid and the conversations pick up where they left off in cyberspace. (BTW, only to be picked back up in cyberspace the second we departed for the airport.)

But, back to my advice to @edenrachael. First, bring snacks. As a frequent attendee at a large variety of Jewish conferences, the GA stands out to me to be a unique entity unto itself. At no other conference do the sessions run all the way through the day without any meal breaks. At no other conference, are meals not a general part of the conference culture itself. This is a downside to the GA in my opinion. Meal times allow for de-briefing, re-energizing, and community building. As a result of the lack of meal breaks, people who need to meet and network are forced to do so outside of the sessions. Which brings me to my second piece of advice.

Most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. In my experience, the GA is less about the sessions themselves then they are about the conversations that are feverishly scheduled to take place in the lobby, in the Kosher Café, in the chairs under the staircase, on the front steps of the hotel, or standing up in a hallway. I am pretty sure that this is not what the JFNA organizers intended when they GA was first thought into being, but it is certainly now a primary focus of what the conference has become for many participants. As a new start-up Jewish education consultant, the time in the hallway was priceless. I was able to create several dozen face-to-face connections with people, who are all phenomenal Jewish leaders, within a two-day period of time. In addition to the formal meet-ups, the quick passing in the hallway, elevators or security lines of old colleagues and dear friends, added value and rounded out my GA experience.

My last piece of advice to her was to bring business cards. In a fast-paced environment like the GA, sometimes the exchange of a business card is the only thing two people have time for before moving on to the next conversation. The business card exchange is actually more about what happens after the GA than what happens during. The follow-up, post-conference conversations are often stewarded by the business cards you end up with by the end of the GA.

The Twitter exchange with @edenrachael highlights another part of the GA experience. Mentioned briefly earlier in this article, it is the goal of JFNA to engage more “next generation” Jews. I heard and read on twitter about this through the entire GA (and in fact, last year’s GA as well). A few items come to mind when I begin to contemplate this. First, I am not thrilled with the term “next generation.” There was a resounding pushback from those between the ages of 21 and 40 saying, “We are not the next generation of leaders, we are leaders now.” I challenge JFNA to come up with another term to describe this age cohort and for readers to offer suggestions. Perhaps JFNA can use the upcoming TribeFest ( as a forum for the actual end-users to come up with and vote on a name. It seems the liveliness and edge of the TribeFest messaging and marketing is exactly what JFNA should try and replicate throughout its work with this age cohort.

Second, the formality of the GA – both in physical space and in dress code is often a turn-off for this group. Frontal panels and speakers, in theater-style seating, is far from the intimate environments that young Jews are building for themselves in Hillels, Moishe Houses, independent minyanim, and entrepreneurial startups. I suggest thinking about how some sessions could be conducted more parlor-style, including couches, coffee tables, in the round, breakout spaces, etc. I know when trying to arrange logistics for 4,000 people, this kind of specialty setting may seem over-the-top, however, it goes back to the goal of JFNA try and engage this population. Another formality of the GA is the suits and ties. The formal dress code of the GA demonstrates a disconnect between the conference culture and the current dominant professional culture of business casual and in many cases, casual, dress. One question that has to be asked is if the leadership of the GA wants to encourage a huge cultural shift at the conference and blatantly persuade attendees to dress down. If the answer is no, there may be a real challenge to be debated here because while the staff/leadership may give “permission” to the crowd to dress down, if it’s not an entire conference culture-shift, then those who choose to will still stand out, be set apart and possibly be judged as un-professional. This tension already exists: I had a discussion with a woman who was in-town attending the International Lion of Judah Conference. They had participated in a volunteer project in the morning, and therefore had attended morning plenary in casual clothing. She was lamenting why it was important to get “all dolled up and dressy” to attend the next day’s sessions, when she was just as committed, confident and content in her jeans and sweater. I overheard a similar conversation at the GA when participants were attending Monday’s Plenary dressed for the Day of Service that commenced as soon as the Plenary ended. It would be interesting to ask in a survey how the culture of the GA impacts the overall experience. Informally, I encourage discussion about this here.

Overall, I noticed a significant difference in the overall energy of the GA due to the make-up of the conference as result of the influx of young participants, the increased representation of independent non-Federation organizations, the introduction of text study and service-learning opportunities, and the embracing of technology and social media. Next year, as we all descend on Denver (hashtag still being widely debated!), I will be curious to reflect on how far I have come in my new venture in Jewish education consulting (what will the meetings at this GA turn into?) and how far the GA has come in making space in the schedule for meetings, in the further embrace of a younger, more independent participant, and in “providing snacks.”

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