“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau
Anyone who has been to a GA knows that there are two schedules – the one that is published in the program book and the one you make for yourself. Between the plenaries and the salons, there are meetings squeezed into bar booths and between sofas, old stories being recalled and new opportunities being explored. Whenever so many people from so many places come together, there is often too much to discuss in too little time; the GA is a microcosm of the Jewish world – passionate, exhilarating and exhausting. Yet somewhere among the hectic schedules there are moments both superb and sublime that comprise the GA, moments that sometimes reflect upon the past and other that portend the future.
One such moment was Sunday night at the GA.
Convened by the grassroots efforts of Nina Bruder of Bikkurim, Keith Greenwald, a Vice-Chair of the National Leadership Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North America, Shawn Landres of Jumpstart, Toby Rubin of UpStart Bay Area, Felicia Herman of Natan, Matt Abrams Gerber and Miryam Rosenzweig of Jewish Federations of North America, along with the support of myself, Steve Rakitt, the President/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and several others, over 120 Jewish leaders and professionals crammed into a room in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for almost two hours in the late evening hours of the first day of the GA. The room was a cross-section of the modern Jewish communal landscape, with representatives from National Young Leadership Cabinet, members of the Jewish social entrepreneur community, professionals involved in building and sustaining community capacity, as well as over twenty executives of Federations from across the country. Intermingled among the tables in the room were artists and journalists, fundraisers and philanthropists, passionate supporters of overseas needs and activists for the most local of causes.
The purpose of the gathering was to have a conversation among a group of engaged volunteers and professionals about how to strengthen and expand local Jewish communities by encouraging new ideas, new leaders and new approaches to Jewish community life. An important and interesting topic for sure, but what made the room so compelling, however, is that for many participants in the room, this was the first time they had the opportunity to truly sit around the table taking to community members from communities other than their own – not just geographic communities, but communities of interest as well. The sheer density of the room broke down silos, if for no other reason than there was no room for the silos to remain standing. Moreover, while many of the participants had shared their aspirations and frustrations of their respective communities with members of their respective communities, this was an opportunity for the various groups to fund common ground if not always common cause.
As pointed out by many attendees, the night wasn’t flawless, and in several respects it could have been improved. Although the hope was that there would be a healthy dialogue, naturally there was the occasional monologue. And without true facilitation, many of the table discussions left participants frustrated with the pace and progress of the conversations. Some suggested that guiding questions might have been a bit vague and next steps might have been unclear. Lastly, just as much as one could marvel who was in the room, one also had to stop and wonder who wasn’t in the room and what it would take to get them there. Nevertheless, the volume of the voices in the room made it clear that of those in the room nobody was keeping quiet and no opinion was left unexpressed. In a GA filled with moments, Sunday night was a noisy, messy, and exhilarating one.
So what to make of this moment? Sometimes a moment is just a snapshot in time, nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes it is the drop of a pebble that makes a ripple, which turns into a wave that transforms a landscape. It is hard to guess exactly what kind of moment that Sunday night at the GA was – a moment that captured the desire for people to more closely connect with one another in transforming their communities, or a moment where silos fell momentarily only to eventually be reinforced again over time. Perhaps it was a moment in the present that was a reflection of moments that could have been, or much preferably, perhaps it was a moment that foreshadows the promise of what can be. To realize that promise, there is no question that there is much work to be done in the moments and months ahead, especially if the participants hope to continue the conversations around those tables and tables in their local communities. Yes, perhaps Sunday night at the GA was a moment in time –
but in time, anything is possible.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.