It was like a Jewish field of dreams: If you build it, they will come.
And they did. Nearly 1,000 people showed up April 10 for “FedFest One Hundred: Shaping our Jewish Future,” a daylong series of speakers, workshops and panel discussions. The event not only marked the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s 100th birthday, it was also a thank-you to donors for supporting the institution.
Taking place at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, FedFest brought out scores of Bay Area macherati. Though the topics addressed in the discussion sessions were serious, the mood was light and the shmoozing nonstop.
“The only problem I’ve got is I can’t be in two places at once,” said Jerry Greenberg of Belmont, who pored over the schedule of events trying to decide what to attend.
His friend Charlotte Epstein noted that the schedule included all kinds of interesting people. “And the price is right,” she added. It was free for JCF donors.
The atrium of the conference center was abuzz all day, with attendees fueled by good conversation and unlimited Peet’s coffee.
In one corner, colorful six-foot panels detailed 100 years of federation history. In another, the Jewish environmental group Hazon offered free smoothies, made with a blender powered by a stationary bike. Plenty of people lined up to pedal for drinks.
Attendees had many workshops from which to chose. In one room, four local historians talked about the Bay Area’s distinct Jewish history. In another room, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor talked about the current unrest sweeping the Arab world and how it might impact Israel.
At a panel discussion on trends in philanthropy, private philanthropy consultant and former Jewish Community Endowment Fund executive director Phyllis Cook introduced the term: “disintermediation.” In economics, it means cutting out the middleman; in philanthropy, Cook said it refers to donors who want total say over their philanthropic dollars.
It’s a trend, she said, that has adversely impacted federation unrestricted funds. But despite that, and despite a turbulent economy, “This is a terrific time for philanthropy,” Cook noted, adding that new Jewish nonprofits nationwide received more than $200 million in donations last year.
In another room, leaders of the S.F.-based Institute for Curriculum Services explained how they work with state public education departments and publishers across the country to correct textbook errors in Jewish and modern Israeli history.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which oversees the ICS, said the track record is good, with publishers accepting 70 to 80 percent of recommended changes.
As an example, one history textbook included the following passage: “When [Israel] was born in 1948, war broke out between the two groups.” After working with publishers, the ICS had that changed to “… the surrounding Arab states attacked Israel.”
“What we’re after is accuracy,” said Jackie Berman of ICS. “We don’t want publishers to put in propaganda. We wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
At a discussion co-presented by Be’chol Lashon and the federation’s LGBT Alliance, a panel of gay, biracial, transgender and intermarried Jews discussed juggling multiple identities.
Sara Spencer, who is married to an Afro-Caribbean man and is raising two sons (she calls them Jewmaicans), said, “It’s important for me to live in a Jewish community that is welcoming. How do we foster our young people, who have to choose among multiple identities, to choose Judaism?”
Asked if being Jewish ever caused problems for the panelists in their dating life, Jamie Wolfe, a male-to-female transgender woman, said, “If they can get past the trans, they can get past the Jewish.”
In a panel discussion about the changing Middle East, Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond said, “One thing that gives me hope is that there is a kind of liberal element to these [Arab] revolutions, and less reflexive anti-Americanism, less obsession with Israel in general.”
Regarding Iran, Diamond sounded a more pessimistic note. “Iran has disappeared from the radar of political drama,” he said. “The regime has seized on that to crack down further. We cannot lose our focus on Iran.”
The best-attended event of the day was a talk by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has a new book out titled “The Social Animal.” Not surprisingly, he titled his lecture “Are Jews Social Animals?”
Brooks warmed up the standing-room-only crowd of more than 800 with some zingers, noting that being a conservative columnist at the Times is “like being chief rabbi of Mecca.” Then he launched into a disquisition on historical Jewish social attributes — the good, the bad and the hilarious.
(A frequent traveler to Israel, he recalled dialing Israeli 411 one time to get a number for a local restaurant. The operator told him, “Nah, you don’t want to eat there.”)
Drawing on his book’s theme that people are driven by unconscious emotional forces that “assign value to things,” Brooks observed that all Jews are informed by their religious and cultural past.
“Even with WASPy secular Jews,” he said, “there are things that are deep that flow in us. Judaism surrounds you with a scaffold of small behaviors, like seders and going to synagogue, that establishes grooves in the mind.”
Brooks is married to a Protestant-born woman who converted to Judaism and now runs a tight Jewish ship at home. In response to an audience question, Brooks noted that for him to tell his children not to intermarry would be hypocritical.
“My wife,” he said, “has no such problem.”
The final event of the day was the presentation of the Federation Centennial Award to former Secretary of State George Shultz, 90, for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry during the Reagan administration.
In his acceptance speech, the San Francisco resident recounted tough negotiations with the Soviets to free the Jews.
Eventually, nearly 2 million immigrated to the United States and Israel. Shultz said their stories inspired him then and now. “Israel must be strong,” he said. “So strong it deters aggression.”
As the day ended, attendees gathered once more in the atrium for a final toast (and rendition of “Happy Birthday”) to the federation.
“This was a fabulous day,” said incoming federation president Nancy Grand. “It made me so proud.”