By Stephanie Burton
The Jewish people do beautiful things—this is the message that resonated within while I participated in this year's United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Toronto. From the Hillel Student Shabbaton, to the performances of Israeli musicians Ivri Lider and the Idan Raichel Project, I would describe the five days as nothing less than inspiring and educational.
The weekend began on Friday with a gathering of 300 undergraduate and graduate students from universities all over North America. We had the opportunity to connect with our peers while attending learning sessions on a variety of topics related to living as a young Jewish adult. We participated in a range of prayer-service options and reunited afterward for Shabbat meals. The weekend was a wonderful preparation for the GA experience, and it also included an inspiring late-night session with Hillel International President Avraham Infeld, as well as a session on how to get the most out of the GA as students.
When the GA began on Sunday, it was a bit overwhelming to see the number of Jewish leaders and professionals – about 4,000 participants. However, I decided that I would have to take the entire experience one step at a time. The opening session I attended was called "10 Important Preparatory Steps to Working as a Jewish Professional." Not only was the session very informative and impressive, students were encouraged to participate and tell the other students and adults about our goals. After speaking about my goals, numerous professionals approached me with job ideas, offers and suggestions for my future. By not being shy, I was able to open so many doors, meeting great people and making important connections.
On Sunday evening, I attended a Hillel reception where Avraham spoke informally to students and professionals about Hillel's recent study on today's college students, the "Millennials," and the presentation that would take place the following day. He briefly spoke about the future leaders of North American Jewry and why they are so different from their baby-boomer parents. Avraham did a great job leaving the guests at a cliffhanger, wanting to hear more at the Millennials presentation.
The Millennials presentation was one of the highlights of my GA. I learned interesting and useful facts about my generation. The fact that Jewish professionals are working so diligently now to make sure to reach my generation effectively made me feel confident about the future of the Jewish people. However, I did decide to speak my mind about my Hillel and ask questions. Once again, the professionals received me really well and numerous people approached me, wanting to learn more of what I had to say, and give me their wisdom. They thanked me for making my comments; I felt very positive about the willingness of the professionals to y=hear what the young people had to say.
At my first plenary session, I had to opportunity to shake the hand of the prime minister of Canada, Paul Martin. It was really interesting to see the important faces and donors of the Jewish world, the people who make opportunities like Taglit-birthright Israel possible. I have to say, though, that my second plenary session was much more meaningful. The actress Valerie Harper played the role of Golda Meir and told her story about raising $50 million in just two weeks, which led to the founding of the Jewish state and allowed the Jews to defend themselves. This plenary focused on Jews helping other Jews around the world. There were presentations of the Jewish Agency's Operation Promise -- the promise to bring the rest of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel -- as well as the JDC's project to help needy, suffering Jews in the former Soviet Union.
The head of the Jewish Agency spoke about his passion for helping people, and something hit me when he ended his speech. He closed by giving his Israeli cell phone number, and telling all 4,000 Jews in the crowd that if they ever had a problem in Israel to give him a call. I realized the degree to which Jewish people are reaching out their hands to their Jewish family globally.
This night ended with an inspirational concert from my favorite Israeli band, the Idan Raichel Project. My GA experience seemed to all fit together during that concert. The Ethiopian members of the band were Jewish, and the students surrounding me cared about their Judaism and the future of our people. My connection to Israel and to my fellow Jews strengthened, and I knew that this UJC General Assembly had been an experience I wouldn't be forgetting soon.
Stephanie Burton is a senior at The George Washington University and an intern in Hillel's communications department.