An Alternative to the GA … at the GA

by Tilly R. Shames

I don’t have any particular artistic talent. I can’t sing in tune. I can barely draw a straight line. As my sporadic tweeting will attest, I also don’t have much technological savvy. And I certainly can’t combine the two to bring any artistic talent to the masses by utilizing technology. Moreover, I don’t have the skills or knowledge to bring my passion for and knowledge of Judaism to the world through the intersection of art and technology. But thankfully there are people who can, and even better, there are forums like the Jewish Futures Conference that bring these talented individuals out and expose them to a field of Jewish leaders, including educators, professionals, entrepreneurs, students and volunteers.

As I decompress and unpack the cacophony of messages of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, I cannot shake two images from my mind.

The first image is of a page of Talmud, which flashed on screen as Beth Huppin, fifth-grade teacher of Judaic Studies at the Seattle Jewish Community Day School, received one of three Covenant Awards. Huppin compared that image of the central text surrounded by commentary to the tables in our lives: the table around which she teaches her students, the dinner table around which she sits with her family, and our tables that night at the Covenant Foundation Awards Dinner, and the richness of the commentary that encircles our many tables as it does our texts.

The second is the array of the dynamic presentations at the Jewish Futures Conference, sponsored by The Jewish Education Project, the Berman Foundation, JESNA, and, again, the Covenant Foundation. Patrick Aleph of PunkTorah danced around the room as he and his partner, Michael Sabani, criticized how we count Jewish affiliation in our community and questioned who is being left out. PresenTense Group alumni Russel Neiss and Charlie Schwartz (the only student to present at the General Assembly) presented a futuristic portrayal of the post-modern Jewish family and how their lives will be enriched through progressive Jewish educational tools. Ori Brafman concluded with a thoughtful image of the starfish (a metaphor for leaderless organizations that can regenerate themselves like a starfish regenerates from an amputated leg) over the spider (a figure of traditionally led organizations which die if decapitated). This image encapsulated the potential of our community’s mainstream institutions and innovative entrepreneurs coming together for the greater good.

Most important about this session, as a lesson to all of us who run conferences and workshops at any scale, was the interactive and inclusive components that stood out from the rest of the GA. The Jewish Futures Conference democratized the experience through the use of remotes for each participant to engage with the material while speakers like Laurie Karr amazed us with statistics that caused the room to buzz with comments as the tallies appeared on the screen. We engaged in a rich text study exploring how our diverse people with differing levels of Torah skills and social practice come together to make a cohesive community. And we concluded with a facilitated discussion that allowed all of us in the room to dive deeper and create our own tables of text and commentary.

As I left the session, I felt no inner struggle with the fact that I do not have the skill to make music like Clare Burson or a website like MediaMidrash. My role is not to always strive to be the “remixer” between our texts, values and tradition, and our modern modes of delivery. Yes, as a Hillel professional I “remix” plenty. But sometimes it is just as important as Jewish educators to take a step back as we did at Jewish Futures, look at the landscape of innovation that exists, understand how our students are interacting with these outreach tools today, and position ourselves at the crossroads, around the table with our students, to ensure the text and tradition and values shine through for our modern commentary and are not lost in the remix.

Tilly R. Shames, in addition to being a terrible singer and failed tweeter, is the Associate Director of University of Michigan Hillel.