(JTA) — This time, it’s not going to be just talking. There’s going to be listening and debating — and, eventually, action.
That’s what Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, says will distinguish this year’s General Assembly, which is slated for Nov. 10-12 in Jerusalem, from past G.A. conferences.
“We have really changed the format of the G.A. to really create debate in varying forms,” Silverman told JTA. “It’s about really creating the great debate and dialogue on the challenges of our times.”
The first showcase of the new approach will come Sunday, on the afternoon before the conference’s formal opening, when some 250 young adults convene for a “shuk” (Hebrew for marketplace) to debate and contribute ideas to “tackle key challenges facing Jewish communities and Israel – according to the five themes on the main G.A. agenda.”
The themes are Israel and philanthropy, Israel and world Jewry, Israel as incubator, Israel on the global stage, and Israel’s civil society.
“We don’t know what they’re going to say,” Silverman said. “They’re young people who have varying opinions, both through them or their friends who are less affiliated and whatnot. The idea is to hear.”
Silverman’s pledge for a G.A. makeover this year follows efforts in the past few years to open up conference planning to input from individual federations and outside groups. But such efforts have failed to win over critics, including some federation executives and observers, who say the G.A. has been declining in excitement and importance.
Following last year’s conference in Baltimore, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote a column calling for a “radical rethinking” of the G.A. to “reverse its slow slide toward irrelevance.”
The conference, Rosenblatt wrote, was “a microcosm of its parent body, the Jewish Federations of North America: an impressive collection of committed, caring professional and lay people spread too thin and lacking in focus, and giving the impression of following rather than leading at a critical juncture in Jewish life.”
In his interview with JTA, Silverman acknowledged that recent assemblies have fallen short, particularly when it comes to producing outcomes.
“I don’t think we’ve done the best job of using the G.A.,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful discussions but we haven’t concretized them. One of the things we’re very committed to coming out of this G.A. within a very short time period is concretizing what we do, creating a call to action around certain areas.”
One of the top priority areas, he said, will be what to do about the findings of the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jewry, which has alarmed many community leaders. The survey paints a portrait of a rapidly assimilating American Jewish community, particularly among young people.