The Logistics, Wins and Losses of Jewish Conference Inclusion

Tribefest was JFNA’s last “conference experiment.” Will FedLab have greater staying power? Photo: eJP archives.

By Esther D. Kustanowitz
eJewish Philanthropy

Every fall, as we emerge from the High Holy Days marathon of praying and eating, there’s a sudden burst of year-end Jewish conferences. The November tentpole conference has been the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (#JFNAGA), drawing thousands of Federation professionals and assorted others (educators, clergy, innovators, musicians) for special sessions and massive plenaries on the big issues.

One year, I spoke as part of the “next-gen” plenary about how social media can bring us together as a community. For three years after that, I was a consultant for the GA in charge of convening innovative programming: it represented a departure for the JFNA, and an acknowledgement that they needed to stir things up. We stirred, and it was great, and then after those three years they didn’t do it again. And over the past ten years or so, I’ve been “present” on social media streams during the conference, watching the online progress of plenaries and sessions, even when I was thousands of miles away.

This year, the GA was reinvented with a narrower focus as FEDLAB, a three-day laboratory promising to “reexamine our approach to long-standing issues and begin exploring new methodologies for the concerns on the horizon” through engagement with “expert facilitators in deep conversation and interactive, problem-solving experiments that test assumptions, explore potential solutions and take us to the next level in addressing them.” In other words, network theory, innovation, design theory, and all the buzzy approaches to rethinking systems and processes you may have heard people reference in your work but didn’t know exactly what they meant … hence the “LAB” part, to show it is very experimental. It even rhymes with, and was perhaps inspired by JEDLAB, an online space of more than 10,000 innovative Jewish educators worldwide. But unlike JEDLAB – and unlike the GA itself – it was “by invitation only.”

Having worked with some smaller programs over the year that were either “by invitation only” or “by application only,” I know the kind of community response that can provoke: some call it FOMO (fear of missing out), but for some, FLOMO (feeling left out most often – I just made that one up).

Missing out on an experience you’re not invited to used to be a more subtle and internal affair: you’d feel the disappointment at not being included, served in a rejection reduction. But in the age of social media, joyous inclusion and resentful exclusion are served up publicly. And with this new JFNA iteration, not only were fewer people invited in a curated group (that excluded many stakeholders in today’s important Jewish conversations), but there was much less online participation. There was also the online resurgence of a critical conversation about how “who is included” excludes others.

So what’s a conference planner to do? And what is our responsibility, as the individuals who are invited or excluded, to the experience, the convening organization and to those outside the room? To battle the rising tide of FOMO and FLOMO, and for our conferences to have greater impact, we need to look at the truths of Jewish conferences and how we can do them better and more inclusively.

  1. We need to acknowledge that conferences, no matter their size and scope, cannot logistically include every person who would like to attend or who could make an impact on the content. We all know this logically, but we all feel left out anyway. There are big conferences (#JFNAGA, the UK’s Limmud), and there are smaller conferences (#JEDLAB, ROI, Reboot etc). Achieving an agenda may demand a tighter focus. As a Jewish writer, I wouldn’t expect to be invited to the Reform Cantors’ Assembly conference or the Orthodox Union West Coast Rebbetzins conference; and while December’s Association for Jewish Studies conference might appeal to those who are Jewish studies-adjacent, the FLOMO isn’t the same as for a conference that seems to have included everyone you know and work with except you. Whatever the size of gathering, the right stakeholders must be in the room (and hopefully represent true inclusion of people across the various categories of diversity of the Jewish community). For now, at least we can all agree that Jews will always complain that the big conferences are too broad to achieve anything, that the small ones are too exclusive to have wide-reaching impact, and that the food and coffee, of course, is terrible and in short supply.
  2. Most conferences are expensive and therefore may not be attracting the people who can most valuably contribute, but instead bring in those who can afford it (or whose organizations are willing to foot the bill). Registration fees can be hundreds of dollars, with flight and hotel additional. Once I was sent to cover a conference and while my room was covered, I had at least two “young Jewish innovators” sleeping on my floor so they could attend the conference at which they had been invited to present. If you’re inviting people to speak at a conference, ideally, they should be paid, even if they’re young or financially unstable. At minimum, it shouldn’t cost them money to attend, especially if they’re young or financially unstable.
  3. Whether Jewish conferences should be open to all or for targeted audiences depends on what you’re trying to achieve and what your budget/space limitations are. Do you choose people who are already in this conversation and making an impact, or widen the creative circles and introduce new ideas and approaches? Is there funding for people who are not self- or organization-funded? Is there a hard limit to the capacity, to ensure an appropriate depth of conversation or narrowing of focus? Whatever your conference’s answers to these questions, make sure to practice radical inclusion, ensuring that Jewish community is represented in its entirety, including across gender identity, ethnicity, physical abilities and beyond. #allyisaverb #livethepledge #nomoremanels #equityeverafter
  4. Do these gatherings have an agenda and projected outcomes? What are the actual goals? Who is responsible for follow-up with participants and with non-participant stakeholders? So many times the GA and other conferences have convened incredible people and generated energy that evaporates after the final session. Enthusiastic attendees return to their communities where others proclaim these new ideas “not a priority” (“not in the budget”). Perhaps conference organizers should ensure that they are bringing both budgetary/strategy decision-makers and creative ideators, perhaps insisting that they attend in pairs – one strategist and one creative – to expand buy-in and the likelihood of some kind of change. With a focus on outcomes and follow-up, conferences will be able to engage more people in the conversations and expand impact after the conference’s close.
  5. Speaking of expanding the conversation, is there a way into the content and conversation for those who were unable to attend in person? Many of us used to “virtually attend” conferences via Twitter, and there were moments when it was almost as satisfying as being there. But recently, while there has been more livestreaming, there has been less interaction in social spaces during and after these conferences. Bringing back social media as priority during a conference of any size is a commitment to sharing out lessons learned and takeaways.

JFNA is taking a brave step into a new conference model: playing around with format and content to create something that may in the long run be more productive or “takhlitic” (practical). But because the smaller product is by definition more exclusionary, some in the community have perceived this experimentation as a constriction of idea flow and professional energy of those who are actively driving these conversations outside the room. Furthermore, lack of transparency over how participants are selected can obfuscate the purpose of the gathering and may reinforce a perception of an organization’s approach to hearing new voices.

When convening conferences, community leadership discusses room capacity, content, email marketing blasts and press coverage. But they should also talk about next steps, expanding impact, and communicating outcomes to and brokering relationships with people who were not invited into the room for whatever reason.

The disappointment that non-participants feel at being left out is actually a positive thing for conference conveners and for the Jewish community at large. It means that we are hungry to be included. It means that we are passionate about our work and the chance to meet current and future colleagues in both virtual and real space. Instead of creating a moat around a conference, with a gatekeeper deciding who gets to cross over to the inside, let’s put all this passion and energy to work, toward building a stronger Jewish future, creating a space of communication and access – and hopefully, better and abundant coffee – for all.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Los Angeles. Twitter: @EstherK