Now’s the time for all good men to get together with one another;
we got to iron out our problems and iron out our quarrels
and try to live as brothers. –Lyrics to “Yes We Can” by Allen Toussaint
Last Monday night in New Orleans, well after the midnight hour in a nondescript bar in uptown, one of the great local house bands, Papa Grows Funk, started belting out the words of the Lee Dorsey classic and post-Katrina anthem while a room of dancing, sweating and smiling listeners grooved along. Certainly not an unusual sight for a city that has made its reputation by singing and surviving, but what made this room different from the standard Mardi Gras/JazzFest/Spring Break crowd was who was in the room and why they were there. Jewish professionals, young leaders from across the US, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, a few Jewish funkateers and even an Israeli government official were all swaying to the music and all in New Orleans for one reason – the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly.
It was at that moment I realized why the GA still matters.
The truth is, I almost didn’t go to the GA this year. The truth is that I was beginning to wonder if my prediction a year ago that this would be an amazing, new type of GA would be proven wrong. To be most truthful, I had begun to wonder if the GA mattered at all any more. In a busy calendar of family, work and community, the GA didn’t seem to be worth the effort or the energy; and as much as I love seeing my global Jewish family, I also hate to be away from my ‘real’ family at home in Atlanta. Besides, did I really need to be a part of the ‘big embrace in the Big Easy’ when I could just Skype everyone from my office?
Despite my hesitation, I went. I went because I still wanted to believe in the potential of the GA. I went because I know too many people who worked hard, dreamed big, navigated difficult financial constraints and limited hotel space to make this GA something special. They believed the GA could still evolve, and I still believed that supporting them mattered as well. Regardless of what wasn’t going to happen at the GA, plenty of things were going to happen – some by design and some by serendipity. The GA, for all of its limitations, still reflects the unlimited potential of the Jewish people to connect, combine and contribute with one another. It is still a historic place filled with a special people that are keenly aware they are a historic people with a special place in the world.
And it is that fact that makes the GA, and this particular GA, so special. It is a Jewish mash-up, with people, projects and passions all coming together for a whirlwind of activity that’s scope is equaled only by its complexity. Every table is filled with discussion of Jewish life and its challenges; every parlor is filled with gatherings of Jewish people and their celebrations. This year was no different – ideas were floated, challenges proffered and even dignitaries heckled. 20-something Hillel students and septuagenarians donors sat together as they listened to a Jewish astronaut and danced together as they listened to something altogether Galactic. This GA was indeed an experience that provided much optimism about the potential of future General Assemblies.
Now to be fair, it was not perfect. More people could have been there, and affordability remains a key limitation of the potential of the GA. While there were new ideas injected in this GA – an afternoon of service, programming by Jewlicious and an Innovator’s Alley, these ideas only scratched the surface of what the GA can become. For example, the days of the Jewish entrepreneurial community being lauded and fetishized on panels is long over; at this GA this rapidly growing cohort roamed the hallways en masse and put on panels of their own. What was a curiosity of the future a few years ago is now a fundamental aspect of the present and bringing more of these Jewish futurists to be present at the GA is and must be an essential goal of future GAs. It was big, but it must get bigger; it was diverse, but it must become more diverse.
There has been a great deal of hand wringing about the future of the Jewish Federations of North America and how that future will unfold very much remains to be seen. But even its harshest critics must credit JFNA with at least one thing, the General Assembly remains an important moment where the Jewish world can find one another in one place, even if they are not of one mind. Only when we come together, only when we mash-up our passions, our hopes, our needs and our fears with one another, can we truly embrace one another as a common people with shared history. Only then can we, as a Jewish community, dance together into our collective tomorrow.
“I know we can make it.
I know darn well we can work it out.
Oh yes we can, I know we can can
Yes we can can, why can’t we?
If we wanna get together we can work it out.”
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth served as a member of the recent Strategic Planning Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel and is a Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and member of the board of Joshua Venture Group. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] hklaw.com.