The Time of our Convening

JJF NameTags 2
Name badges from different conferences I’ve attended.

The most common question asked in my household recently has been, “Dad, where are you going this week?”  Similarly, I imagine my team at work also wonders when I will be back in the office.  The end of the Jewish holiday season has brought a new season to the Jewish communal calendar – “the time of our convening.”

We are in the midst of organizational conventions, conferences, and gatherings enough to keep your head spinning.  This week, the news has been about the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Washington, DC and the International Kinus of Chabad Schluchim in New York.  Last week, the Union for Reform Judaism brought together its members in Orlando, FL.  Next week, it is the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s turn with its biennial outside of Chicago, IL.

And this is not just a domestic exercise.  On top of these conferences in the US, worldwide organizations, such as the World Zionist Congress and World Conference of Jewish Community Centers, have convened in Jerusalem.  These are only a few examples of our communal gatherings taking place during this season.

My own field of Jewish camp has also been actively attending other convenings, such as the Inaugural Ruderman Inclusion Summit in Boston, and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s annual camp conference in Springfield, MA.  I confess that Foundation for Jewish Camp has contributed to some of the calendar pressure, hosting a Funders Summit on Jewish Camp recently in Los Angeles, CA.

What’s going on?

I don’t recall hearing of other groups or religions gathering together so frequently.  Comparing to my own previous experience in the corporate world, while others may gather for a global leadership summit here or a regional team meeting there, the frequency pales in comparison to our Jewish world.

Why so much communal time and resources spent on getting together in so many different configurations?

The most compelling theory I can devise: it is just who we are from our very beginnings.  The Jewish people were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for “holy convocations.”  Our three festivals were celebrations of different harvest periods in which we all came together as one.  Somehow, miraculously, we all united together to pray as one nation.  (I can’t imagine how important the event planners must have been back then to make sure everyone had what they needed without hotels and convention centers!)

At one level, attending and participating in these events can be exhausting.  Plenary sessions, workshops, and breakouts, fill the schedule.  Add tefillot, meal, and late night receptions and you can imagine the days and nights are very long.  (A recent blog post by Rosalind Franklin provided helpful reminders for navigating these conferences strategically while maintaining sanity and energy.)

However, on another level, these events provide a glimpse of the glorious future we have as a people.  I find the agendas relevant and stimulating.  The keynote speakers often provide thought-provoking challenges, such as Charles Bronfman at the URJ last week regarding Birthright trips or David Gregory’s call this week at the GA to renew and deepen our faith.  These gatherings give us the opportunity to push our constituencies out of their comfort zones as we collectively explore new ideas and approaches.  Breakout sessions address the most current topics and opportunities confronting our community today with learning to bring back locally.

The efficiency of gathering together, generally with a cross-section of lay and professional leaders from foundations, federations, and other communal institutions advances our collective thinking.  Hallway conversations always provide helpful feedback, perspectives, and insights.  You can’t replace the face-to-face interactions.  Relationships are made and reinforced just by being “there” and being part of the conversations.  As I think about my calendar, I know this is time well spent.

At a recent Schusterman Foundation “Convergence”, a number of national platform organizations explored a range of possible collaborations; we agreed on the importance of emerging Jewish leadership development and enhancement efforts, and we discussed the use of “big data” in our work.  By coming together, and carving out time to generate new ideas, seek feedback, and sharpen thinking, these gatherings break down silos, advance projects, and produce results.

I should also comment as a convener.  When our Foundation produces such a gathering, we spend significant time preparing all aspects of the event, from content and facilitation to logistics (and of course, food!)  The intentionality is well-appreciated by the attendees.  We know those little details add up to create an environment which is worthwhile for the attendees and the conveners alike.

In Los Angeles at our recent Funders Summit on Jewish Camp, philanthropists and professionals came together in person to build and deepen relationships and to dream about what Jewish camp can be for our communal future.  We generated new ideas and approaches for engaging families with young children, attracting and retaining teens, and developing college-aged counselors into emerging Jewish leaders at camp, on campus, and beyond.

We are now busy planning Leaders Assembly, March 6-8, 2016, our biennial gathering of more than 700 day and overnight camp professionals, lay leaders, educators, and philanthropists.  We are working hard to make sure the topics are fresh, relevant, and responsive to the needs of our attendees, and that together we will help “capture the future.”

For our Jewish community, there is magic in coming together and engaging with one another.  We are far stronger together than when we operate exclusively in silos.

Just as we made the pilgrimage three times a year to Jerusalem, I gladly make the pilgrimage to Newark Airport to participate in our Jewish communal conversation.

About the Author
Jeremy J. Fingerman has served as CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) since 2010. Prior to joining FJC, he had a highly-regarded 20+ year career in Consumer Packaged Goods, beginning at General Mills, Inc, then at Campbell Soup Company, where he served as president of its largest division, US Soup. In 2005, he was recruited to serve as CEO of Manischewitz.
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