Inside the GA: ‘The Original Jewish Social Network’

Jewish professionals from all walks of life gather in Denver for the Jewish Federations of North America 2011 General Assembly, hoping to forge new partnerships and bolster existing ones.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

Frantic networking in the GA exhibit hall following the 2011 program's opening plenary in Denver. Credit: Jacob Kamaras.

DENVER—Dubbed by its organizers as “The Original Jewish Social Network,” the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) 2011 General Assembly was the ideal venue for Jspace.com—the newest Jewish social network.

Launched two days before the GA in Denver, Jspace is a Facebook-style platform where individuals can sign up for profiles, but also hosts pages for Jewish organizations, event calendars for Jewish communities, Jewish-related news stories compiled by Jspace staff writers and other sources, and down the road, a dating network.

“We want the organizations to be exposed to this great tool they can use,” Shimshon Meir, a marketing coordinator for the New York-based site, told JointMedia News Service at Jspace’s GA exhibit.

In essence, the GA is the largest Jewish business card exchange of the year. Outside of the large-scale plenary sessions with renowned keynote speakers, tangible connections are made in the buzzing hallways, as professionals from all walks of Jewish life forge new partnerships and bolster existing ones.

“You’ve heard this catchy phrase used for the GA, but it’s more than a catchy phrase,” Kathy Manning, president of the JFNA Board, said of the “Original Jewish Social Network” moniker at the conference’s opening plenary. “It’s actually an accurate representation of what goes on at the GA.”

Jews have been playing “Jewish geography,” Manning said, “long before [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg was even a glint in his mother’s eye.”

The Jewish Sports Foundation manned a booth at the GA to garner votes for the 2011 Jewish Sports Awards, which the foundation revealed results for on Monday, but more importantly to spread its mission “to use sports to keep people connected to their Jewish identity,” said founder Roy D. Kessel. The foundation runs sports events through Hillel houses on campus and publishes the Jewish Sports Blog (www.jewishsportsblog.com).

The Jewish Book Council's booth at the 2011 GA in Denver.

In an age of kindles and other gadgets, the Jewish Book Council displayed an assortment of hard copy volumes at the GA. The point was to generate interest in Jewish-themed titles, regardless of whether they end up buying traditional books or electronic ones, said Program Director Miri Pomerantz.

In an age of kindles and other gadgets, the Jewish Book Council displayed an assortment of hard copy volumes at the GA. The point was to generate interest in Jewish-themed titles, regardless of whether they end up buying traditional books or electronic ones, said Program Director Miri Pomerantz.

“People see it, they come look at it, they get new ideas,” Pomerantz said of the book exhibit.

The Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore was already looking forward to next year’s GA, when Baltimore will host the event. The city of Baltimore set up a booth to highlight tourist attractions in a place where the Jewish population amounts to 110,000. Promoting the event well in advance was important because 80 percent of GA attendees normally return the next year, said Josh Fidler, general chair of the 2012 GA.

“The Baltimore Jewish community is large and very engaged in the life of the city and influential in the life of the city,” Fidler said.

Denver-based Youth Directions, which coaches educators to help Jewish children find their direction in life, lucked out to have the 2011 GA in its own backyard. The group, whose programs are currently targeted for 13 to 20-year-olds in Denver and nearby Aurora and Boulder, used the GA as a launching pad for its goal of expanding to other metropolitan areas.

“This is a process of inner discovery to learn what you’re really meant to be doing in life,” explained representative Elisa Levinson.

Bay Area-based UpStart, a group that guides innovation in the Jewish community and helps cultivate new organizations, saw the GA as a chance to help various organizations—formed and unformed—come up with new ideas. Executive Assistant Natasha Uponson said UpStart professionals leverage your existing knowledge on issues like sustainability, business planning, and leadership.

“We’re not in the business of changing what you do,” Uponson said.

Moishe House—which provides rent and programming subsidies to Jewish 20-and 30-somethings whose homes and apartments become community hubs for their peers—came to the GA to “let people know about where we’re expanding to,” including four new houses in New York and another in Miami.

Nevertheless, in a tough economy, Moishe House’s focus is on “securing the funding for existing houses” and not worrying about new houses unless the funds are there, Western Regional Director Aviva Tabachnik said.

Representatives of "Torahs for Our Troops" examine a Torah scroll at their GA booth in Denver. Credit: Jacob Kamaras.

The “Torahs for Our Troops” initiative, which raises money to help scribes write Torah scrolls for the U.S. military, displayed the fifth Torah it has commissioned with the hopes of getting GA attendees to sponsor letters and words in memory of loved ones, and to inspire local communities to hold letter-writing events.

A Torah costs $36,000 for the organization to commission, army reserve chaplain Rabbi Barry Baron explained, in addition to extra expenses like the $900 it once cost to ship a Torah back to the U.S. in a trunk from Afghanistan.

Development authorities from the Negev and the Galilee in Israel shared a booth to promote what those regions have to offer from tourism, industrial, environmental, and quality-of-life perspectives. The authorities aim to bring 300,000 more Israelis to the Negev and Galilee, respectively, aided by a 13 percent reduction in taxes for individuals and a 20 percent reduction for businesses.

“Generally, the Negev and the Galil, until now, were on the periphery,” said Shiran Adi, tourism and culture coordinator for the Negev Development Authority, comparing those areas to the “center” of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But while networking is all well and good, GA co-chair Judy Silverman said that current events—including Occupy Wall Street (she initially slipped up and said “Occupy Israel,” drawing laughter from the crowd), the Arab Spring, and United Nations proceedings on Palestinian statehood—dictate that the community needs more.

Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.

Posted on November 7, 2011 and filed under Features, U.S..