Bay Area reps inspired at annual federation summit

washington  |  The star power of two Supreme Court justices, a best actress Oscar winner and the vice president of the United States brought them to their feet. The tales of Israeli loss, fear and courage in the face of Hamas terror this summer brought them to tears.

The General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of 153 local federations, was held Nov. 9-11 at National Harbor, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. This year’s theme: “The world is our backyard.”

Part pep rally, part training session, part family reunion, the G.A. drew nearly 3,000 federation and Jewish community activists from around the world, including a contingent from the Bay Area. Many said the G.A. provides both inspiration and practical ideas to take back home.

Matt Youngner of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation photos/dan pine

“This is possibly the best G.A. I’ve been to out of about 12,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. “There is very creative programming, and the sessions about using technology effectively for crowdsourcing, social media and engaging the next generation are very relevant. Every time I come to a G.A. I come home inspired by the power of the collective.”

Federations face an uphill battle at a time when studies show younger American Jews are less affiliated than previous generations and less likely to give to any Jewish causes, let alone their local federation.

Though federation annual campaigns are up by about 7 percent over this time last year, the number of federation donors has declined by about one-third since 2000, according to one expert. Meanwhile, last year’s Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that 43 percent of non-Orthodox Jews ages 30-49 donate to Jewish causes, compared to 60 percent in the 50-69 age group.

Despite that backdrop, the event got off to a rousing start Nov. 9 with an opening plenary featuring two sitting Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, both Jewish. Kagan said her Jewish identity didn’t come up during her confirmation process. “The one thing nobody ever said, the one thing I never heard was, ‘We don’t need a third Jewish justice,’ or ‘There’s a problem with that,’ ” she said. “So that’s a wonderful thing. My grandmother would have said ‘Only in America.’ ”

Breyer said that, in the course of making decisions, he often thinks about the tradition of tzedakah. “It’s not quite charity,” he said, “and it’s not quite rule of law either, but it’s part of trying to create a better world.”

n was Vice President Joe Biden, who told attendees at a Nov. 10 plenary that the Obama administration would not sign on to “a bad deal” with Iran.

“We will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, period,” Biden told the crowd on Nov. 10. “I would not put my 42-year reputation on the line were I not certain when I say we mean it.”

Biden addressed the not-so-secret mutual dislike between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by comparing the U.S.-Israel relationship to close friends who sometimes disagree. “We love one another and we drive one another crazy. I’m serious. That’s what friends do. We are straight with one another,” he said.

Netanyahu, speaking to the assembly via video link, focused on Iran.

“Iran is not part of the solution. It’s a huge part of the problem,” Netanyahu said, referring to reports that the United States may be coordinating with Iran in a shared battle to crush ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “The Islamic state of Iran is not a partner of America. It is an enemy of America and it should be treated as an enemy.”

Jewish Federation of the East Bay CEO Rabbi James Brandt (left) and president Steve Zatkin chat with Rachel Botsman, an expert on collaboration through technology.

Perhaps the biggest newsmaker at the conventio

Netanyahu said such treatment should extend to nuclear talks now underway between the major powers and Iran “by keeping tough sanctions on the regime, by making clear that the international community is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to get the bomb.”

He added that a deal that would allow Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity would be a “disaster of historic proportions.”

Meanwhile, 1987 best actress Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”), NBC News reporters Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks each addressed plenary sessions.

Sacks gave a rousing address about the importance of Jews’ commitment to each other despite their differences. “I don’t need you to agree with each other,” he said. “I need you to care about one another.”

Joanne Neuman, development director for the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, said that while she enjoyed the high-profile speakers, she was “moved hearing from the people who were impacted by [Israel’s] Operation Protective Edge and by people in Ukraine. It’s a living affirmation of the work that we do and it brings me to tears.”

Offering scores of speakers and breakout sessions, the G.A. covered topics from Jewish education to interfaith issues to growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

Brandt moderated a session titled “The Power of Faith: How rabbis and federations can play together in the same sandbox.”

“This is a time when the boundaries are blurred,” Brandt said. “Synagogues have tzedakah collections, and federations are sponsoring adult education. We’re all pressured in a philanthropic landscape in which Jewish organizations are more and more in competition with the opera and the zoo to get the attention of Jewish philanthropists.”

Brandt added the burden of strengthening the relationship between synagogues and federations should fall mostly on the latter because of their traditional role as convener and coordinator. “How can federations work with congregations to position them to be the place where Jewish innovation happens?” he asked.

In another plenary, Rachel Botsman, a global thought leader on collaboration through technology, talked about enterprises such as Airbnb (home sharing) and Uber (citizen taxi service), and challenged the Jewish community to devise ways of tapping underutilized assets like those entities do.

There were also plenty of sessions about innovative fundraising and how federations can better serve their communities.

“The most valuable time I have here is connecting with like-minded people from other cities and learning from them,” said Joseph Levin, chief development officer of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “The synapses start firing about how we can use this for the everyday work we do at federation.”

Reaching young adult Jews remains a perpetual goal of Jewish federations. A session titled “Beyond Happy Hour: Solutions to the Young Adult Challenge” featured the S.F.-based federation’s community campaign director, Matt Youngner, giving a snappy primer on how the popular Blue Monday program has also helped raise money and involvement.

“It’s a simple, time-tested formula,” he said. “Find an awesome venue, pump in some hot music, send out an invite to your entire young adult listserve, rinse, repeat.”

He described how Blue Mondays brought in $10,000 in the last fiscal year and turned hundreds of hard-to-entice young adults into federation donors.

Youngner was one of many young adults at the G.A. Another was Sonoma State University senior Taylor Millman, 21, who attended on a Hillel International subsidy. The president of her campus Hillel, she was impressed by the scope of the G.A.

“I love how open everyone is,” Millman said. “You can go up to any table and talk to people. It’s a reminder of how large the Jewish community is and what’s out there to explore. This has gotten me out of my bubble and comfort zone.”

David Saxe, president of the S.F.-based federation’s Young Adult Division, said he learned a lot at the G.A. but that the conclave wasn’t all business. One night, he joined a few select others at Nationals Park for a soiree with the Lerner family, which owns the Washington Nationals baseball team.

It was a cool experience, he said, but was it tinged with a small measure of payback for the Giants’ victory over the Nationals in the playoffs last month? The San Francisco group didn’t get to go into the Nationals’ expansive clubhouse.

“They only let us into the visitors locker room,” Saxe said.

JTA contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at