The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is probably the Jewy-est conference of the year. More than one thousand professionals, volunteer leaders, and students massed in Denver this year, but what is the conference about, who does it represent, and what does it accomplish? The GA is a yearly conference that attracts people from all over the world. With speakers ranging from politicians to entrepreneurs, sessions covering the gamut of trends in the Jewish world, and intense networking, it is often seen as a must-do conference, or the belly of the beast, simply a matter of perspective. For ease of reading, let's break this down into a couple sections.
Who Attends the GA?
The GA is not cheap. For a young adult registering early, you are out $500, plus flights, hotel, and any other incidentals. Registration can reach almost $1000 if you are late and advanced in years. For this reason, the vast majority of people attending have someone else footing the bill. These people are basically broken down into professionals, that is, people working in the Jewish community, for whom their organization (meaning the donors to their organization) have covered the cost, or students, for whom Hillel (meaning the donors to Hillel) have provided a large subsidy. There are also a number of volunteer professionals or donors who are very involved in their local Federations, who have either merited subsidies through their leadership, or are affluent enough to swallow the cost. Also, anyone looking to sell anything to a Jewish Federation or Hillel is probably making an appearance, too.
What Happens at the GA?
Officially, there are any number of sessions, covering leadership, Israel updates, ideas on advocacy, trends in philanthropy, and about anything else you could imagine. These sessions often take the form of single speakers or panels of community experts. I went to one such panel speaking about how to best leverage the energy of young adults returning from Israel trips. Interestingly, the audience for the session leaned younger, with many of the questions they asked taking the brazen form of, "why haven't you created X for me or given me the opportunity to do Y". Several of the questions also acknowledged the vast investments being made in sending young adults to Israels and expressed appreciation for those efforts.
This, however, isn't where the real action of the GA was taking place. The real action is in the lobby, the lounge, and at the bar. Many professionals take the opportunity of so many of their colleagues congregating in one place to set up endless meetings. Ideas are shared, opportunities pitched, and business closed. When it is all said and done, this is where the value of the GA really lies: the network.
It is almost cliche to speak of Jewish geography, but it is also an incredibly powerful shared activity and experience that binds together so many of the participants. A recent study done by facebook and the University of Madrid found the average distance between two people to be 4.74 'hops'. At the GA, the maximum was 2....maybe. Everyone went to school, camp, youth group, Israel, or worked with your friend, your uncle, your sister. It is simultaneously comforting and terrifying when you meet a former Defense Minister of Israel and end up getting invited to his house for Persian food by his wife because you know his daughter through her boyfriend.