I have just returned to life in the office after an incredible whirlwind experience at the 2009 General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly UJC). Together with over 3,000 Jewish professionals, philanthropists, lay leaders and politicians from around the globe, I took the opportunity to learn, share, and schmooze with others on the verge of a new and exciting era for the Jewish community and federation system. I also had the privilege of helping lead this year's student program, which brought close to 250 students from over 50 university campuses to the conference.
Our goal was to foster a positive environment for students attending the GA, allowing them to take advantage of all the conference had to offer. We created a student- friendly schedule of workshops and forums, a professional development brown bag lunch, and numerous formal and informal opportunities for students to network and process the experience. The students took to heart our challenge to make their voices heard, ask questions, and forge enduring personal and professional connections.
Three moments stand out for me as highlights of the experience. Sunday afternoon's opening plenary was extraordinary - the energy, passion, and commitment I felt among the participants were contagious. In a time of economic hardship and turmoil for so many, including my family and close friends, it represented the resiliency and perseverance of the Jewish community. It demonstrated our shared determination to take on the challenges ahead and emerge even stronger as a result. These compelling moments were complemented by Marisa Johnson, a senior from Northwestern University Hillel, who helped set the tone by elegantly and confidently sharing a vignette with the entire audience about her journey to Jewish life.
Monday's workshop, "Strengthening Identity through Jewish Service Learning," featured five current and former Hillel students who beautifully articulated the role that Alternative Break social justice trips have played in cultivating their Jewish identities. I was particularly struck by Jenna Mitzner's story, a recent graduate who is currently the Program Associate at the University of Central Florida Hillel. After stepping out of her comfort zone to join a Hillel/Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) trip to Argentina, she was moved to re-engage in Jewish life and go to work for Hillel. She has since organized numerous trips a year for students so that they could also feel the sense of belonging and fulfillment she experienced in college.
Finally, Monday's late night student dessert reception with Hillel President Wayne Firestone left us all yearning for more. Students openly and honestly engaged in conversation with Wayne to reflect on the GA experience and tackle many "big questions" facing our generation - How can I make the most of this opportunity? What is the community's responsibility to me as an emerging leader? If I am to be a leader of the next generation, how can I transform that charge into action? Where do I fit into this continually changing Jewish landscape? Along with Wayne, lay leaders like Bea Mandel, Chair of the International Hillel Board of Directors, stayed into the wee morning hours to genuinely help students grapple with these important questions. It was a powerful experience!
For me personally, the GA experience was a welcome reminder that my work at Hillel is an integral part of a greater Jewish whole, which needs partnership and collaboration with other people and organizations in order to work effectively. I am proud to have participated in the GA on behalf of Hillel. It was invaluable for me and the student delegates to witness the power of the collective community in the physical presence of each other. I welcome you to check out the pictures and see for yourself what an extraordinary spectacle it was. I am confident Hillel's presence at the GA was inspirational not only for me, but for the entire community.