Reflections from the GA

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Delegates Michelle Hirsch, Suellen Kadis, and Campaign Chair Dan Zelman share their experiences at the 2014 General Assembly.

Unifying for One Cause

by Michelle Hirsch

As I sat waiting for the opening session to begin, I had no idea what to expect. This is the first time I attended JFNA's GA and the amount of Jews in one room was truly an incredible, yet overwhelming feeling. Thousands from around the world gathered here, representing different age groups, levels of observance, and community involvement – for what? How could they possibly put the right people on stage to inspire so many Jews (with so many differing opinions) in one room? I usually take a glass half-full approach, but this was surely the definition of a tough crowd.

The spotlight hit the stage, the thousands of Jews kibitzing throughout the room went silent, and at that very moment you could hear a pin drop. The stage comprised of stories after stories of Jews from all different backgrounds sharing their personal experiences of how Federation and the global Jewish community changed their lives. This is the force that brings so many Jews from around the world together - to change lives. The last speaker of the opening session so eloquently said "we don't all have to agree with each other, but what we do need to do – is all care about each other." By the end of the opening session, the enormously overwhelming diverse crowd simply became one big family. A family I could not be more proud to be a part of.

Making a Difference in our Backyard

by Suellen Kadis

Plenaries, breakout sessions, meetings in the hallways, connections between professionals, lay leaders finding inspiration, powerful stories, little sleep – all part of this year’s GA. Representing our community in this national arena is always meaningful to me.

The 2014 theme “The World is our Backyard” was woven throughout the events. We make a difference in our own backyard and in the backyard of Jews and non-Jews in many countries. Each participant learned and grew from the experience. I loved hearing Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer talk about how Jewish values guide them in their work on the Court and Academy Award winning actress Marlee Mattlin talk about overcoming disabilities and the importance of a supportive family and community. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, spoke passionately about the importance of Jews’ commitment to each other despite their differences. “I don’t need you to agree with each other; I need you to care about one another,” he said.

JFNA Board Chair Michael Siegal reminded us of the importance of collective action in the Jewish world. Together, we can make a difference in the number of students on college campuses who can knowledgably and articulately respond to attacks on Israel. We can increase the participation of young people in the future of our Jewish communities, if we reach out to them before, during, and follow-up after experiences like Birthright, Onward, and Masa programs in Israel. Outside of the Orthodox community the intermarriage rate is high; there was a lot of important discussion about inclusion of interfaith couples and making access to Jewish life more readily available to those with disabilities.

Oksana Galkevich, a Ukraine native, who has spent the last 15 years working to revitalize the Jewish community in Ukraine as a social worker, and now as Director of External Relations and Government Affairs, for JDC FSU, inspired us. Carole Sebbah from France made aliyah to Israel 18 months ago, spoke about how uncomfortable she was being Jewish in France and thanks to the Jewish Agency, she has found her home in Israel.

We learned from each other, heard from powerful speakers, and networked with friends and colleagues from around the world. Sharing this GA with my husband, Larry, and my son, Justin, who has spent the last 15 months in Krakow, Poland working with Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of JCC Krakow, was a highlight for me. They are passionate about rebuilding Jewish life in the most unlikely place, so close to where much of European Jewry was wiped out and where 75% of North American Jewry can trace their roots. Introducing them to lay leaders and professionals who also care deeply about our Jewish community was a real pleasure!

An Exchange of Ideas

by Dan Zelman

My wife, Ellen, and I just returned from three days in Washington DC attending the JFNA General Assembly with 35 other Clevelanders. Highlights included hearing from Prime Minister Netanyahu via Skype, Vice President Biden in person, as well Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. We also attended many sessions sharing best practices at Federations throughout North America and others providing us info and updates on many projects being run by our overseas partners, The Jewish Agency and The Joint Distribution Committee.

We also spent a lot of time in casual conversations with leadership from many other Jewish communities. We all came away with better knowledge of issues we face and with ideas to make our community better. The meeting also reinforced what we already knew about our great Jewish Community right here in Cleveland. We are lucky to have so many active leaders from our home town. Congratulations to Michael Siegal for his leadership in putting on this event.

After two days away - back on the Campaign trail Wednesday morning!

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