Jewish Journal

‘Tackling Hard Issues’: the GA Makes a Return to L.A.

Every November, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) convenes thousands of Jewish lay and professional leaders to discuss pressing issues, share knowledge and network in hotel conference rooms and hallways at its General Assembly. The GA, as it is known, returns to Los Angeles for the first time since 2006, running from Nov. 12-14.

“The GA has changed a great degree over the past 10 years,” said Rebecca Dinar, JFNA’s associate vice president of Strategic Marketing and Communications. Instead of opening with a large plenary session, this year’s event will kick off with “four powerful sessions that touch on some of the biggest looming questions that the Jewish communal world is thinking about.” Participants can opt to participate in one of the two-part sessions, which carry titles such as “Distressed Donors & Discourse: Maintaining Mission Amid Conflict,” “Imagining and Re-Imagining, Engaging and Re-Engaging: The Present and Future of Jewish Life” and “Israel and Us: A Changing Relationship.”

The conference’s theme, “Venture Further,” is about “going really deep into conversations that some might say are hard conversations to jump-start,” said Dinar, who added that organizers have made efforts to understand what draws GA participants and provide pertinent programming. “It’s all done in a way that is relevant to the people who power Jewish Federations.”

One of those is Julie Platt, chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who is co-chairing the GA with her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt. Julie Platt said she has attended “more than many” GAs, with highlights such as engaging with Supreme Court judges and touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.,  with Susannah Heschel and John Lewis.

“But more than all of those things, I am always rejuvenated and re-energized being with people for whom this is the way they want to spend three days,” she said. “The kind of person whose priority it is to take time out of your life to be inspired and enriched — you’re my kind of person. I love that people care in the same way that I do.”

Jay Sanderson, the L.A. Federation’s President and CEO and a veteran of about 15 GAs, said that compared to previous GAs, the this year’s will be “much more current and about today, tackling hard issues in the system and in the community.”

Platt noted that, in Los Angeles, Federation’s conversations “are truthful, dynamic and bold, and the Federation is on the cutting edge of open discussion, and innovation. We are not afraid to try things, to be nimble, innovative and dynamic.”

“I love that people care in the same way that I do.” – Julie Platt

Platt and Sanderson hope to show off the L.A. Federation’s “leading-edge” programs. Platt pointed to NuRoots, a project to build and curate unique Jewish experiences for Jews in their 20s and 30s. She also mentioned JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ-support organization, saying she was “so proud” that it “formed before anyone else was thinking about it, so people don’t have to choose between doing LGBTQ and being Jewish.”

Sanderson highlighted the First 36 Project, an initiative that uses neuroscience and psychology to help early childhood educators in contributing to the growth of Jewish children.

In a typical year, the GA draws 30 to 40 people from Los Angeles; this year, 250 people from the greater L.A. area are registered, and many will bring specific agendas.

Michelle K. Wolf, a disability activist and executive director of JLA Special Needs Trust, who is also a Journal contributor, said she plans to advocate for disability inclusion, “encouraging JFNA to take a very strong and public stand to stop the proposed Medicaid cuts in the Trump budget.”

Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger — which helps college students direct dining credits toward fighting hunger — will participate in a GA mainstage panel about Jewish millennial engagement. But she said she feels Federation doesn’t represent her as much as organizations such as American Jewish World Service, IKAR and Bend the Arc.

While her organization is secular, Sumekh said she feels more connected to Judaism than do many of her colleagues at Jewish nonprofits, because she has paved her own Jewish path. “That old model of simply inherited Judaism no longer sticks,” she said. “My Judaism shows up in every right (and left) swipe on JSwipe and every page of Abraham Joshua Heschel I read, every meal I serve.”

Sumekh said her goal in attending the GA is “to make the Federation more representative of me and my values.”

Susan Freudenheim, executive director of Jewish World Watch (and former Journal managing editor), said she is attending “to learn more about the philanthropic climate we are working in today, about networking with the next generation and other creative ideas.” She also looks forward to promoting her organization and “the opportunity to be with so many engaged Jews.”

Janelle Eagle-Robles, a first- time attendee, and her wife Jenna Eagle-Robles, will be introducing a Honeymoon Israel video, and, she said, “representing both the LGBTQ and interfaith communities of Los Angeles” in what she called “a big and valuable visibility moment.”

David Katz, executive director of Hillel 818, in Northridge, attended three previous GAs, but owes a particular debt to the 2014 gathering, in Washington, D.C., which he attended “with the specific goal of finding my next professional opportunity,” he said. His conversations and networking there influenced his decision to accept the Hillel 818 job.

Besides highlighting the Los Angeles Jewish programs, this year’s GA will also reflect its location and connections to Hollywood. One session, featuring Marc Platt, will focus on social consciousness in filmmaking. Another features Nina Tassler, past chair of CBS Entertainment, and Marta Kauffman, creator of “Friends” and “Grace & Frankie.”

“What we want to do this year is to create conversations in the room that stimulate conversation outside the room and for days, weeks, and months ahead,” L.A. Federation’s Sanderson said. “I’m hoping this GA is taking the GA, and the system, in a proactive, relevant direction, dealing with the great challenges we are facing.” n

For more information, visit http://generalassembly.org/.