Doubling down — in a healthy way — during a crisis 

On Oct. 7, when the horrific attack on Israel took place, our team at Jewish Federations of North America was one month away from what was going to be our largest-ever professional conference. As part of a generous investment from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, FedPro 2023 was not only going to bring together hundreds of Jewish federation professionals, but it was also going to be our opportunity to launch several new system-wide talent initiatives.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack, federations across North America mobilized. We raised $600 million, $148 million of which was allocated through partner organizations in Israel within the first month. We also galvanized communities to advocate on behalf of Israel and the hostages and respond to rising antisemitism. 

While others might have decided to cancel the FedPro conference with everything else going on, we made the opposite decision. Rather than pull back, we doubled down on offering this experience for our professionals. Times of crisis — the moments that try us all and stretch us thin — are not times not to be alone. They are the times to come together. 

Within the week of Oct. 7, we allowed everyone off the waitlist into the conference and made room for new professionals who now wanted to be with us at FedPro. This decision impacted our expenses, of course, but our hunch that more people might want to join us was validated. 

In the end, close to 1,000 professionals joined us at FedPro 2023. In the process, we learned several lessons about the importance of investing in professionals in the Jewish community and being able to hold multiple truths at once:

Allow space for work… 

In the lead-up to the conference, we heard from some participants who were concerned they were too busy to attend. To meet this need, we opened a “mobilization and support center” room at our conference. This room was continually staffed by JFNA professionals and was a room where people could do work,and get in-person consultations, resources and assistance with their ongoing projects. By building this room, we not only acknowledged that people would have to do work during the conference, but we also centered that experience and helped them get their work done. 

… and allow space for breaks

We created a wellness room, on-site but tucked away from the hubbub of the conference, with comfortable seating, aromatherapy, adult coloring books and more; and each day, we hosted prayer, meditation, yoga, walking and running groups. Our chief Jewish learning officer also offered rabbinic chaplaincy hours. Finally, we scheduled networking breaks throughout the conference, giving people extra time and space to decompress and connect with one another. 

Allow for tears…

There were many tears throughout the conference. In plenaries, we shared stories from Israel, lessons from leadership challenges and poignant moments from the past month. Multiple speakers were authentic and vulnerable from the main stage and in sessions, demonstrating that even these most seasoned leaders face challenges. 

… and allow for laughter

Before Oct. 7, we were very excited about an evening program scheduled with the Second City improv troupe. In the days following the horrific Hamas attack, we vacillated about whether to cancel it, whether it was appropriate at a time of war. Ultimately, we kept the event, adding Jewish framing about the importance of humor throughout our history. It was a jam-packed room, and many participants commented about how healing an evening of laughter was.

Allow for a focus on Israel… 

Much of our content shifted in the weeks before the conference to ensure that it was timely and relevant. We quickly put aside sessions, videos and other assets to create an experience and agenda that was timely and relevant, with many sessions focused on particular topics related to Israel, communications, advocacy, mobilization and fundraising at this time.

… and allow for other business

But we didn’t totally rewrite the agenda. We recognize that the work of professionals in their communities is wide, and that many came for crucial professional development that will help them both now and in the years to come. That’s why we also had sessions ranging from managing staff culture to Jewish identity and engagement to new developments in AI use in nonprofits — and much more. 

Allow for affinity groups

While we are all federation professionals, our identities — both functionally and individually — vary widely. We had many opportunities to gather in different kinds of professional and personal affinity groups throughout the conference, including sessions exclusively for CEOs or development professionals and private lunches for groups like Israeli-Americans, LGBTQ employees and non-Jewish people working in federations. Groups gathered informally too: a special late-night David Broza concert became a bit of an affinity group itself, for instance, gathering people with a deep connection to his music and the memories it inspires in them. 

… and allow for diverse togetherness

In the end, federation is about community, togetherness and collective action, and that is how we ended our conference. Singing together in our closing plenary, the professionals assembled in the room spontaneously broke into dance. We closed as one community, energized to return home.

FedPro taught us that what professionals need now is to be together. This is the moment not to cancel that staff retreat, that weekly lunch, your team meeting. It’s a moment to learn, cry, laugh and lead together. Community has sustained our people and our field for generations, and it will sustain us now.  

Liz Fisher is chief talent officer for Jewish Federations of North America.