November 16, 2006
GA taps into passion, will, power of the people
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"I think if I have any disappointments it is that we pitched a lot of ideas initially and approached a lot of local institutions in town to share what we think are really innovative programs and are starting trends in Jewish life," Fishel said. "But when suddenly the decision was made to be more overseas focused, it cut into that programming."
Los Angeles programs were pushed further into the background by geography: The major Jewish institutions are not downtown, and leaders from other communities did not venture into the heart of the Jewish community.
But many participants were glad to focus on Israel and said that is one factor that brought them to Los Angeles.
"It was very smart to change the focus from the 'same old' to what is relevant to what is going on today," said Winnie Goldblatt, director of endowments for the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, who has been coming to GAs for 19 years.
She said the expertise and knowledge bank concentrated in the GA is especially exciting for those from small towns.
"It's one thing to read about things, and it's another to be here talking face to face about these things that affect world Jewry," Goldblatt said.
But some felt the conference preached to the choir and didn't ask leaders to stretch their thinking into a more creative embrace of Jewish education, culture and peoplehood.
"I think this is a tremendous opportunity to capture the energy of the community and create a common agenda and to push people forward in a common direction, and I'm not sure that opportunity has been fully utilized," said Jennifer Krieger, a community activist from Santa Monica who stood with some friends at the end of Monday's sessions, lamenting the buzz and creativity they all agreed was missing.
"As people who are Jewishly engaged, we want to hear something provocative and new that brings you to a new level of understanding and action. So far, I haven't seen or experienced that," Krieger said, her friends nodding in agreement.
But others felt inspired and rejuvenated to be among so many active leaders. "I like to think of the GA as a Birthright for adults in America," said graduate student Shira Moldoff, referring to the free Israel trip that since 1999 has infused more than 110,000 young adults with a passion for Judaism. "We're all in one room and we come together to share our ideas and our passions and our vision for the future, and I find it empowering."
The event is huge, and one can't help but be impressed with the bigness of it all -- the plenary hall where row upon row of chairs clothed in El Al seatback covers, the larger-than-life "One People, One Destiny" signs everywhere, the vastness of the Convention Center halls filled with Jews who care about being Jews.
"The conference is going phenomenally well," said Gail Reiss, UJC's vice president of development, who was in charge of planning the GA, on Day 2 of conference. "The turnout has gone beyond our expectations."
Given the size and scope of the event, things ran remarkably smoothly -- plenaries and sessions ran on time, the program and locations were accurate and logistics mostly worked well for out-of-town guests. Some glitches during registration had people waiting an hour or more, and Disney Hall holds only 2,500 people, leaving many with no tickets to the Monday night concert.
Participants came from all denominations, but attendance seemed to skew heavily to the over-50 crowd. Hillel brought in about 300 students for the conference and had 1,000 students spread out doing hands-on charitable work on Sunday. There was fair representation of leaders in their 20s and a larger than usual crowd of the often absent 30- and 40-somethings, thanks to a young leadership conference layered into the GA. But even those 200 young professionals did little to make the 30- to 40-year-old demographic proportionately represented.
The L.A. Federation said that 700 members of the Los Angeles community participated and an additional 750 volunteered.
All conference sessions, events and exhibition spaces were open only to those who shelled out $275 for the three-and-half days (discounted from $525 for out-of-towners). The 150 exhibitors, including many jewelry, book and art merchants who came from all over the world, complained that being closed to the public -- not always the case at GAs -- hurt their exposure time, as did the limited hours and time slots available for participants to browse the hall.
And while organizers put the number of participants at 5,000, it seemed that many were not staying for the full duration of the conference or not attending major sessions.
"There is no reason why in a city with 600,000 Jews, the plenary hall had to be half empty," said communal activist Selwyn Gerber, who said he thought the conference was inspiring, informative and very well run. "The boards of all the local shuls should have been invited to the discussion between the heads of the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbinical schools. They have a stake in that conversation." (See story on Page 13.)
But despite the complaints, participants and organizers are calling the event a success, one that will have a lasting impact on this city.
"I think beyond any conference or interesting things to see and hear, what this really did was mobilize a whole segment of the community that would not normally come out for something like this, and it made them feel good to be part of a larger Jewish community," Fishel said. "Whatever criticisms I have, that is the lasting piece -- we did something important, and we're part of something fun and exciting. I think there is a tendency in L.A. on occasion to look at the glass as half empty, rather than half full, but we did some good stuff here."
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