The Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) is made up of so many things: sessions and plenaries, lines at the restrooms, chance encounters in hallways, glances at badges to help you identify people you may not remember but who seem to know a lot about you. It’s happy reunions of camp friends and co-workers as well as awkward encounters with ex-significant others and ex-bosses.
In a gathering of thousands of Jews from all over the country, the GA is #FOMO Central, as attendees fear whatever offering they choose to attend will be the wrong choice. I was there opening day, and will be joined by several Jewish Journal colleagues Monday and Tuesday to bring you photos, videos, tidbits and local flavor to help you curb your FOMO and give you an inside scoop of what it’s like to be in the embrace the annual event.
Entering the hotel, I ran into person after person: Hillel professionals, foundation professionals, family members (true story), former colleagues, people I know from New York, colleagues from Los Angeles, and people who have been following me on social media but whom I had never before met. Now, here they were, right in front of me and blocking me from registration. It took 20 minutes to get up to the press counter to register.
Trading bon mots with a staffer about how my name reminded him of Estelle Costanza (something I’ve heard once or twice before), I ran into a friend and went through security. Arriving in the exhibition hall, I talked with some local people about their plans for the next three days, talked with members of the new class of NLP, the Federation’s program to train new civic leaders, and had my picture taken with cardboard cutouts of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.
I watched as folks streamed into the ballroom, finding spaces in sections designated by reserved signs on seats and flags waving overhead. The plenary began with four Houstonians talking about the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and how the community stepped up in the aftermath. Some of them were close to tears as they remembered the trauma. Some audience members noted the importance of having these people tell their stories but also noted that future support would also be important.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood spoke on the importance of Jewish literacy: “If you believe that the Jewish tradition has something to give to the world, then you have to know what that thing is. … We need to keep learning (about Judaism) not because of the way our ancestors died, but because of the way they lived.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti talked about his mixed heritage — “bagels on Saturday and Menudo on Sunday” — and about the integral role that Jews played in shaping Los Angeles. He mentioned having studied with his rabbi and one person in the back of the ballroom yelled, “Wooo!” (It was not Sharon Brous, but likely was an IKAR member, gone rogue with enthusiasm.) He also noted that while we were in the windowless conference room, we’d missed a beautiful sunset, but that we could check out his Instagram to see it.
What’s the swag scene on the floor at the GA? An initial walkthrough revealed candy, chip clips and pens aplenty. Who has the best swag? The jury is still out, but Hillel International is reportedly leading:
On my way out, I ran into two of my friends who work at Federation, who decided to prove how happy they were to see me by freestyle rapping about me. Toward the end of that, I saw Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the JCC in Krakow, Poland, where I’d visited in July. We talked a bit about the nationalist march in Warsaw, and he noted that there had been rallies like that one in the past, but this time, it was much bigger and more widely publicized.
I capped the evening with the Covenant Awards dinner, honoring three exceptional Jewish educators, including my cousin, who founded MATAN, an organization devoted to finding ways to connect and include children with special needs in Jewish life and ritual.
And that was only the first day!