Why does the Jewish world put on conferences?

Click photo to download. caption: U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew (left) and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (right) were among the major speakers at the June 7 Jerusalem Post-hosted conference in New York City. In the background, seen speaking on the projector screen, is Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde. Credit: Maxine Dovere.


By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

In one of the larger Jewish-related events of the year, more than 1,500 people as well as an impressive lineup of political and thought leaders convened for the Jerusalem Post newspaper’s annual conference in New York City on June 7. But why was an Israeli newspaper hosting a conference on American soil, and why does the Jewish world put on conferences to begin with?

A conference “is a very powerful way to engage people,” says Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar. 

Yet in an increasingly digital age, with news and speeches at practically anyone’s fingertips through a simple Web search, are brick-and-mortar conferences likely to remain a staple of the American Jewish immersive experience? Dinar believes so. She tells JNS.org that when it comes to “cause communication,” engagement needs to be 24/365. A conference, such as JFNA’s annual General Assembly (GA), which draws around 5,000 people, brings those conversations and the people who are holding them together for an opportunity to share.

“You have to decide what the goal of each conference is,” says Dinar, who explains that conferences generally achieve at least one of these two goals: getting a community to focus on ideas important to the host organization, or getting the ideas of a community out to a larger audience.

“A conference has the potential to propel a cause forward,” Dinar says.

In the case of the recent Jerusalem Post conference—or the Times of Israel gala, which took place earlier this year—the goals might be slightly different, says Steve Rabinowitz, founder of the Bluelight Strategies public relations firm and the White House director of design and production under former president Bill Clinton. In his role as a messaging, marketing, and media outreach and relations professional, Rabinowitz has watched (or helped) dozens of Jewish conferences grow and evolve.  

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) hosts the largest annual conference of any Jewish-American organization, with 15,000 attending the latest iteration in March. Major organizations ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to Chabad-Lubavitch also hold annual conferences.

“But I do not think [the] J Post or Times of Israel [conferences] serve the same purpose,” Rabinowitz tells JNS.org. “Those are branding opportunities.”

In Rabinowitz’s estimation, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has probably changed its conference the most over the years, moving it from a standard large-scale annual event to one that is smaller, with a heavy focus on fora in which members can study and plan together.

Rabinowitz likens the flashy Jewish conferences—with big-name speakers, VIP receptions, and photo opportunities—to the Nike store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He says that the store is so large that shoe sales alone cannot likely support it, yet “the brand transcends what is lost” and leads to more sales.

“I think those events (Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel) are opportunities to get their name in front of their readers and potential readers, and to reinforce the idea that they are the go-to place for news about Israel,” Rabinowitz says.

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Times of Israel Founding Editor David Horovitz both confirmed that their news outlets’ events are not meant to fundraise.

“Each year the conference gets bigger and better,” Linde says of his newspaper’s gathering, held at New York’s Marriott Marquis. 

The Jerusalem Post conference was devoid of glitzy signage, expensive cuisine, or entertainment. But attendees say they got what they came for. One Christian attendee, Rev. Dr. Bob Lanicky, explains that he used the conference to empower himself with strong messaging against fellow Christians who support boycotts of Israel. Another attendee says he watches for the dynamics on stage to get a feel for who the key Israeli players are, and who they might become.

“I came here to listen and get a feel for the Israeli street,” says Seymour Lipton of Skokie, Ill.

Juliya Arango of Brooklyn calls the Jerusalem Post conference “a gift from Hashem” and notes that she came looking for tools to educate her students at an English as a Second Language (ESL) school about Israel.

“I want to be able to put a spin on Israel that people can understand,” Arango says.

Horovitz says the Times of Israel gala was meant to tell the media outlet’s story as well as the story of the Jewish homeland. He thinks the organization succeeded.

“People left the gala better informed, more knowledgeable, and capable of understanding what is going on in Israel, around the Jewish world, and in the Middle East,” says Horovitz.

JFNA’s Dinar believes the same is true about Jewish conferences in general.

“The GA, J Post, all of us are inviting people in to address issues we need to talk about,” she says. “I think it is amazing as a Jewish community that we have all of these opportunities to power—and empower—our communal infrastructure.”

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Posted on June 11, 2015 and filed under Features, Jewish Life, U.S..