Let's start with this fact: I have attended over 30 General Assemblies from my first as a Chicago Young Leadership Award winner well into the "oughts." I, like so many of you, experienced some of the most exciting moments over those Assemblies and looked forward to each from the moment that the last Closing Plenary brought the curtain down. And, as you know, with you I have watched with growing horror as the merged entity has taken the General Assembly to new lows year-after-year since the merger.
If you are at 25 Broadway (or at JFNA-Israel) you "brand" this year's GA as the Global Jewish SHUK -- GA 2013 -- A Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate, it's sited in Jerusalem and, then, it's apparently "G-d will provide." And, now, all of a sudden JFNA is trying to hype attendance by stipulating, with nothing to support the answer: "Why is this year different from all other years?" A very good question. With all due respect, friends, this question is the one JFNA should have asked itself since last November if not before.
Now, if the rumors are true, the current iteration of JFNA will disprove the common belief that if you merely announce a General Assembly in Jerusalem, we will flock there in incredible numbers. We have learned and the Board Chair has confirmed in an e-mail to selected JFNA leaders that GA Registration as of this date, is bad -- it is, in fact, the lowest for a Jerusalem GA -- ("not trending near our projected numbers" in the gentle words of Michael Siegal). (Date for date, Registration is even below that of poorly attended domestic General Assemblies of the recent past.) If you recall the last Jerusalem GA, you will remember, JFNA lay and professional leaders grossly misrepresented and overstated the number of registrants, convincing themselves (but few others) that siting the GA in our beloved Israel was all that was necessary for "success." These "leaders" so deluded themselves that they willfully ignored the symptoms of the disease eating away at the GA -- a malaise that saw reduced registrations year-by-year-by-year while JFNA trumpeted phony numbers (3,500 registrants in Baltimore last year -- preposterous) with a straight face.
What did JFNA do? First, the "leaders" refused, even in private, to acknowledge the declining numbers or that the "GA reset" (drafted by that one person band, Kathy Manning, who chaired a one person GA Study Committee that failed to consult with a single prior GA Chair even though Manning was staffed by a superb pro) had been a total disaster. Then, Silverman hired a promising professional to run, among other things, the so-called Global Planning Table and the GA: and, before she could even truly begin, only months into the jobs, Joanne Moore resigned. And, CEO Jerry handed those reins to those who had yet to achieve anything meaningful -- the senior professional of JFNA-Israel and her minions.
Then JFNA's outgoing Chairs reappointed the Gelmans (who had co-Chaired a successful Israel GA in 2003, supported by then CEO Steve Hoffman, who had sequestered sufficient budgeted funds to subsidize large numbers of registrants; at a time when many federations also subsidized Mission participants who stayed for the General Assembly) to Co-Chair this GA; while other potential Chairs were forced once again (it has become a JFNA sad "tradition" to either trot/drag out its own Board and Executive Chairs as GA Chairs or to recycle past GA Chairs to do it again even if the first GA they chaired was a flop) to the sidelines, the Gelmans have brought such energy to the task as they have been able to muster -- they should have been visiting each of largest 40 federations face-to-face and doing some real recruiting. But, no.
All of these events were happening, my friends, while federation leaders individually and in City-size were telling JFNA leaders that the costs of convening and attending another GA in Israel had become prohibitive, urging JFNA to defer a Jerusalem GA in 2013 to a later year, to such time that JFNA and the federations would have set aside funds to subsidize the costs. JFNA was paying these federation leaders no attention at all.
With a Registration fee of $1 less than $700 and air fares and hotel rates at all-time highs, the JFNA "65 reasons to attend the GA" (e.g., "great hummus," "meet really cute soldiers of the IDF," etc.) apparently weren't nearly enough to create even the possibility of success. Most federations it would appear, even with reduced Registration fees for professionals (yes, $575 is a "reduction" from $699), are finding it impossible to justify from an expense perspective a 2-1/2 day conference 7,000 to 9,000 miles away. Sources inside 25 Broadway have told me of the "incredible pressure" on constituency leaders to "produce bodies" in November. The major federations again had been promised the "complete GA calendar" by this date -- yet, go to www.generalassembly.org and what you will find are some good "bones" ("Israel's Civil Society," "World Jewry," etc.; check the Plenaries -- "Plenary 1, Plenary 2....nada) and no meat -- much like JFNA itself -- and some curious choices (the National Women's Philanthropy Luncheon featured speaker is...Beau Biden!! [and Biden has just been struck ill] The CEO of SodaStream [I use it and like it!!] will speak!!). And, insiders tell me that for reasons totally unclear, JFNA has handed off responsibility for major Sunday/opening day programming to fine organizations like PresenTense and ROI Community, which some might view as competing with the federation system, rather than to the federations themselves.
What does all of this portend? Well, it sure ain't success; far from it. So, what can be done? JFNA appears to be in total panic mode.For now...very little (unless Chicago, New York, Cleveland, LA, Miami and others have a secret cache that will enable an individual subsidy [in the $1000s not the $100s] that will really be a catalyst for registration). But, as occurred prior to the Los Angeles GA, the federations need to totally capture and reorient the Agenda of this GA to that of the Federations -- as, clearly, those responsible for GA programming at JFNA know so little of federations needs and wants, and it's fair to conclude that JFNA-Israel knows just about nothing. I want this GA, all GAs, to succeed, but where is the meat, where is the buzz? Right now it's just cost.
P.S. I was pleased to read the Board Chair's August 9 Briefing that the GA Calendar was being modified to include a "Twilight Gathering" at the Kotel "...to stand up for the idea that there is a place for every Jew at the Wall." The idea of just such an expression of Jewish Unity at the GA was first suggested on these pages in a Comment from one of our readers months ago, and then included in a Post pleading that the GA include just such an event -- a Post which I sent to Silverman and he refused to read. We congratulate Michael Siegal and Dede Feinberg for moving this important event on to the GA Program.