Welcome to the Global Jewish Shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate!

The Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly is simply a whirlwind of just that: discussion, debate, dialogue, ideas (big & small) and a full on who’s-who of the “organized” Jewish world.

It has been a privilege to partake in something much greater than any of us but yet, something so great only because of each of us, the celebration of Judaism. Not personal Judaism, though we did that too, but rather our shared history, our common heritage and the unique diversity of our culture.

Sure we don’t always agree. I’d imagine we disagree just a tad bit more than any of us would like. But, when push comes to shove, we can ALWAYS, in any room, at any program, in the face of any threat, come together and find something to unite us all in the flash of eye. Because we are the Jewish People!

During these intense days of dialogue and debate, peppered with a handful of politicians (from Israel, USA & Canada – all countries I hold very dear!), we heard lots about the future of the Jewish people in North America.

What indeed is the status of the Jewish people of North America? And no, I will not invoke the name of the now infamous Pew Report. (Oh wait, too late, just did! But that’s all.) It’s not about who is growing and shrinking, nor is it about what the past has carried.

That’s irrelevant. It’s about something completely different.

The story of the Jewish people is as much about celebrating the past (Pesach, Purim, Chanukah, etc.) and traditions (Tikun Olam, Or Lagoyim, High Holidays, Shabbat, etc.) as it is about authoring our fate together, finding the common denominators, strengthening ties and bridging gaps.

As a professional small talker, I struck up conversation with many in #JFNAGA (as those of us passionately Tweeting the conference know it!) downtime. One thing seems pretty clear; the elephant in the room when discussing Jewish engagement and the status of the Jewish People in North America is Chabad. Everyone involved in Jewish communal life – even those who, in a way view themselves as competition – look at Chabad’s model with admiration.

That’s because Chabad is doing something that works! Quite well in fact. There isn’t a Jew in North America that hasn’t been impacted meaningfully, or who doesn’t at least know someone who has. Chabad’s sharp upward growth rate is astounding, to the tune of 959 centers in the United States and Canada. Chabad continues to expand on the heels of this recent growth, showing no immediate signs of slowing.

I applaud the countless life-changing programs the Federation and its partner organizations (including Taglit-Birthright Israel, for which I have much admiration and the honor to work with) have brought to the greater Jewish world over the last 100+ years.

But, while that recognition is well deserved, we find ourselves at a crossroads of Jewish history. We don’t know which direction we are going. We seemingly have lost our footing, and the growing numbers of unaffiliated Jews are the flavor of pudding that proves it.

Michael Siegel, chair of the General Assembly proposed: “The problem is not the point of entry but rather, it’s the price of entry… synagogue dues, Jewish schools summer camps… we’re talking close to $100,000 a year for a small family! Even our Rosh Hashana brisket is three times the cost of a non-Kosher cut!”

Penny Blumenstein , President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) stated: “Where there is a Jew in need, the JDC is there!”

I offer you both and your organizations wishes of “Hatzlacha Rabbah,” much success. However, please allow me to have the “chutzpah” – if you will – to propose another initiative.  I’d even like to give my initiative a name: “Chabad: The Missing Link.”

At Chabad, while free Jewish preschools and day schools are not yet offered, no one is ever turned away due to lack of funds. There is a no commitment, take what you like type of feel. That’s not to say that everything isn’t important. It’s to say, “folks, we understand you are not comfortable with it all. What can we offer you that you ARE comfortable with?”

It’s not just about the easy entry into the community that Chabad offers. It’s that on the other side of the door there is a Judaism rich with spirituality and intellectual depth. A Judaism that links past, present and future generations to the central event of Jewish history, the transmission of a Divine Mission to mankind at Mount Sinai over three millennia ago.

With programs for the elderly, special needs, university students, teens, families, women, children and even the incarcerated, Chabad is capable of reaching every aspect of the Jewish community. And, with their worldwide network of centers, schools, classes, social action initiatives, Kosher food outlets and soup kitchens, they can reach a range almost no other Jewish organization is capable of.

Don’t want religious services offered by Chabad? How about a Pesach Seder in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (or in thousands of other locations across the globe)? Pretty sure we can nearly all agree on that one! Not in tune with a public Menorah lighting? Does summer camp for your children sound good?

The list can indeed go on. But what’s important is this: The methods have been created on many fronts. The trick is to best determine how, where and when to implement them. As a young activist on a JFNAGA panel stated: “For some, its intimidating to get involved in the Jewish community. They fear they will not favor the playlist offered.” I assure you, at Chabad, the playlist is more flexible than Pandora.

So, I propose we team up and work together. Let’s build a united front to attack the problems of disaffiliation and all that comes with it. We owe it to our philanthropists and communities to use the funds we are entrusted with wisely. Instead of trying to come up with a solutions to a problem that others seem to be dealing with well, why not support them and partner with them?

When we remember that it’s not a competition but rather a global Jewish vision (as President Peres stated, “Judaism is not a business, it’s a vision.”), we can come together, support the fundraising work of the Jewish Federations, the Social Action programs of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish welfare and rescue work of the JDC, the Israel Activism work of Taglit-Birthright Israel… and the Jewish content and hands-on engagement work of Chabad. And, everything in between

But guess what? It’s not only Chabad. When we continue the dialogue and debate of the Global Jewish Shuk that is the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly 2013, we will notice that ideas, initiatives, goals and success stories come from all spectrums.

With the wide and refreshing diversity that is today’s Jewish people, trust me, they can all be considered. They can all be implemented.

But most importantly, they can all succeed!