"Cool. Very cool."
That's how student participants describe the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington, D.C. The annual gathering brought together more than 3000 Jewish leaders from around the globe for three days of discussion and networking to help advance the community's agenda. More than 240 students from 50 different campuses participated in the event.
Both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu were scheduled to speak at the conference but the president was forced to cancel in order to attend the memorial service for soldiers killed in Ft. Hood, Texas. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spoke in his place.
The students were fully integrated into the GA program but Hillel provided them with special opportunities to get to know the federation system, to explore careers in the Jewish community and to socialize. Carnegie Mellon sophomore Lilli Passero, a leader at the Ed and Rose Berman Center for Jewish Student Life in Pittsburgh, sang the national anthems to begin the conference. Northwestern University senior Marisa Johnson, a former Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative intern, addressed the opening plenary session of the conference.
Rachel Barnehama, a senior at CUNY Queens College, says that she "loved the GA: I loved the plenary sessions where you got to hear from international leaders and the smaller forums where you could explore specific issues that were important to me personally. I was never bored."
Her friend, Sheri Liebman, reveals that Rachel "cried at every session" whenever she heard a Jewish communal success story, such as the emigration of an Ethiopian Jew or a young person whose identity was strengthened by a trip to Israel. Sheri was not familiar with the strength of the Jewish federation system. "Seeing what we as a community have accomplished is just unbelievable," she says. "Having the opportunity to learn about all of the issues that the Jewish community deals with will make me a better volunteer leader when I am older."
University of Texas, Austin sophomore Ben Freed, a participant in the Jewish Agency's "Do the Write Thing" program, agrees. "Coming as a college student enabled me to schmooze with really cool people. I have been able to go up to anyone and strike up a conversation. And the more often I come to these events, the more people I will get to know. This has definitely helped me to further my career as a Jewish lay leader."
"Plus," he adds, "I got to hear (Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman and former refusenik) Natan Sharansky three times in two days!"