Heard Round WexWorld: #JFNAGA
Pictured: US Supreme Court Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan had a lively conversation moderated by Nina Totenberg at the 2014 JFNA GA.
The Wexner Foundation brought Wexner Graduate Fellow Classes 24 and 25 and Wexner Israel Fellowship Class 26 to this year’s JFNA General Assembly. As a group, we gathered for meals and to reflect throughout on the entire experience, from the plenaries to the individual sessions. Participants were also honored to hear from Vice President Joe Biden, and to experience a few “FEDTalks,” the GA’s own take on TEDtalks. Fellows had the chance to mingle with many professionals and lay leaders at The Wexner Foundation reception at the GA. Here are some of their reactions:
“Attending the GA with Wexner was a fascinating experience. I will admit that I found the sheer number of attendees and the pomp and circumstance of the plenaries a bit overwhelming, but I was also very impressed and a little humbled by many of the attendees whom I actually met. It is easy as a borderline Millenial to discount the relevance of the Federation to present-day Jewish life, but the GA reminded me not only of the Federation’s past accomplishments, but also that Federations today fund many of the Jewish institutions that I hold dear, and it allowed me to put names and faces to some of the very earnest, passionate people who themselves fund the Federations. I was also reassured to find that the JFNA and I share some key priorities, Jewish education being chief among them. I particularly enjoyed attending the dinner honoring the educators who received this year’s Covenant Awards, as well as talking with a group of lay-leaders about our desired outcomes for adult education and the particular needs of baby boomers at a breakout session on the purpose of Jewish education.”
Abby Phelps, a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 25), holds a B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from Stanford University. In college Abby served on the board of the Jewish Student Association and spent three summers working for Camp B’nai Torah in North Bend, Washington. In 2008, she followed her passion for Jewish youth work and education to the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, where she spent the 2008–2009 academic year serving as student outreach coordinator. At Yale, she discovered a love of Jewish texts that led her to study first as a 2010 summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in New York, and then from January–May 2011 at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Abby is currently a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and serves Congregation Beth Jacob in El Centro, California as their rabbinic intern. Abby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“As an Israeli, my first time at the GA gave me an excellent opportunity to learn about American Jewry’s values and culture, and particularly the Federations’ staff and lay leaders. One of the most profound lessons for me was the opening plenary, which included a talk by two(!) Supreme Court Justices. The conversation was very open and friendly. They talked about themselves and how their Jewish identity connects to their work. But they didn’t say one word about “real issues”. After my first disappointment, I realized that coming to speak at the GA is their way of connecting to the Jewish peoplehood, something that they cannot regularly do. This was a family gathering, not a professional lecture they were giving, and this experience enabled them and the audience to celebrate their shared values and identity. More contentious issues I found in different panel discussions: the need for freedom of marriage in Israel and why should it matter to the American Jewish public; talking about Israel within American Jewish society; and the current situation in the Middle East.“
Einat Hurvitz is the Director of the Legal and Public Policy Departments at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which is the legal and public arm of the Israel Jewish Reform Movement. She has headed IRAC’s many legal battles towards equality for all people, religious pluralism and social justice. Among these, the winning case against gender segregation in public buses in Israel, equal recognition and resources to the Reform and Conservative streams and the groundbreaking case allowing “Women of the Wall” to pray at the Western Wall. Einat initiated and led the writing of various public reports documenting significant civil rights issues, among them: “Love the Stranger As Yourself? Racism in the Name of Halacha – Racial Incitement by Rabbis in Israel” (2011). She is a 2002-2003 New Israel Fund law fellow, and in 2003 completed an L.L.M., specializing in human rights at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington D.C. She was awarded the Gallanter Prize at the New Israel Fund Guardian of Democracy Dinner in San Francisco this fall. Einat can be reached at email@example.com.
“This was my first GA experience, and while I was a bit overwhelmed by its flashy videos, fancy speakers and constant networking, I was also encouraged to see thousands of people invested in the Jewish community. With so many engaged Jewish professionals in the room, however, I was disappointed that the GA didn’t do more to empower attendees to specific action. It struck me that so many plenary sessions focused on the many accomplishments of Federation from decades ago (helping Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, for example), and I was left wondering what the Federation envisioned for its future actions. I would have loved to have seen Federation’s goals, hopes and mission for the coming years. Without this, I wasn’t left with much of a charge; rather, I was left wondering what to make of my collection of gathered business cards, facts from panel discussions and nostalgic feelings from well-presented video montages — not to mention a purse full of delicious Wexner brownies. Despite this, I was inspired to see both the dedication and contribution of both those working in Federation and the philanthropists who invest time and money to ensure a strong Jewish future. I just hope we can help determine a more clear vision for what we want that future to be.”
Elizabeth Bonney, is a current Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 25) at Hebrew College Rabbinical School, pursuing vocational work in the rabbinate aimed at serving pluralistic Jewish and multifaith communities. She also holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Yale Divinity School. Originally from Overland Park, KS, she graduated from William Jewell College with majors in Religion, Philosophy, and Gender Studies & Human Sexuality. There, Elizabeth served as the Founding President of the College’s first recognized LGBT-Ally organization and initiated an annual publication, “The Empty Chair,” printing voices from LGBT students and faculty about their experiences on the historically Southern Baptist campus. Elizabeth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I was glad to have the opportunity to see how JFNA talks about itself and to learn about the Federation system from the inside. I was particularly energized by the two sessions I attended that called for our communities to become much more accessible to people with disabilities. I was quite moved by the speech by Marlee Matlin at Monday’s Plenary, where she praised Jewish community for shaping her life and empowering her successful career as an actress who is also deaf. She called on us all to do more to make sure everyone can have meaningful experiences in our communities.”
Joshua Fixler, a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 25) is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. Previously, he served as the Assistant Educator and Youth Director for Temple B’nai Shalom, a Reform Synagogue in Fairfax Station, VA (2009-2012) and volunteered at 826DC, a nonprofit that provides free after-school tutoring to inner-city youth. He has been privileged to have participated in a number of pluralistic leadership training programs which have contributed to his professional and spiritual growth, including the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, the Rabbis without Borders Rabbinical Student Fellowship and the Jewish Organizing Institute & Network’s Seminary Leadership Course. Joshua can be reached at JoshFixler@gmail.com.