Recently, 10 days or so before the General Assembly, the woebegone FedWorld headlined that GA attendance is booming -- the small print revealed:
Should the article have included: "...and one upstate NY Federation has tripled its attendance -- to 3"?
GA15 BUZZ: REGISTRATION MORE THAN DOUBLED from Federations in Ann Arbor, Buffalo, Calgary, Detroit, Heart of NJ, Los Angeles, Northern NJ, Toronto and Utah.
I dunno. Shouldn't the GA in 2016, as in the early days of JFNA, sell itself without the need for the constant begging for attendance with "pitches" like this one? (And, which of the chachams scheduled this year's GA in conflict with the previously scheduled 5,000-strong URJ Convention? Remember the days of CJF publishing an annual Calendar that helped to assure that conflicts like these would not occur? No more. JFNA...too busy.) Shouldn't content be the draw? And, it should be noted, content at the Plenaries at this GA has been uniformly good, with the usual exceptions, of course.
But, tradition demands that JFNA annually state as fact the fiction that there will be 3,000 registrants. Yes, each and every year...3000. Not 2,999; not 3001; not even the 713 it actually registered last year. (Neither I nor you was supposed to know that.) BTW, the 3,000 registrants number is such a fiction that it springs forth annually with no basis in fact. Here is how attendance has been reported to me by a source, a great pro in whom I have great trust but who shall remain anonymous;
"3000? The ballroom (in which the Plenary 1 was located) has a capacity of 900. The press and film stage has eliminated at least 10 rows. There is a terrace around the main floor which I assume could seat a couple of hundred. There are no chairs on the terrace. There are about 40 chairs in each row and at best 15-16 rows of chairs not all filled."3,000? Sounds more like 600 attendees to me. Why fabricate? Why continuously fabricate? It's all so sad.
Let me a propose some suggestions to push GA attendance: JFNA must advise the national agencies supported by the system that they must hold their annual meetings contemporary with and at the General Assembly. Offer a discount to the agency Board members and staff. Instead of subsidizing Vendors with GA discounts, provide registration discounts to Federation Board members (not the "early registration" "discount" but, say, half). Then require all of JFNA's constituencies to hold their annual gatherings at the GA as well, integrating them into the GA program. If the GA is as important as we wish it to be, make it so.
So, perhaps to hype JFNA's importance in Jewish life, outgoing Board Chair, Michael Siegal, gave an "eve of the GA" interview to The Jerusalem Post. You may recall that Siegal gave a similar interview on another "cusp of the GA" with the ever-present CEO Jerry at his side, calling for a $1 Billion Special Campaign to provide a free Jewish Day School Education to all. A noble cause, certainly, but one without any substance whatsoever just tossed out there and never followed up upon. And, of course, neither Siegal nor Jerry Silverman did a thing to implement a proposal unheard of before or since. Now, as he departed his office without a single JFNA achievement to show for his tenure plus the irrational reengagement of Silverman (quite an unbelievable achievement that one), he has surpassed, if possible, the $1 Billion Special Campaign non-starter with the announcement that apparently the greatest challenge facing North American Jewry is to dramatically increase the number of "non-Orthodox Jewish babies." Let's throw billions at that one, shall we? Michael, a fine person, had been sitting as JFNA Board Chair for three years and this is where he ends up -- underscoring the laughingstock that the organization he led has become. (Oh, to prove the value of this JFNA FEDovation, Siegal cited a new "Miracle Babies" fertility program at work in Miami, maybe providing fertility drugs and counsel to 85 year old and more Jewish Snowbirds. Ohhhh G-d.)
But, Michael wasn't done. I have written before about the alternative universe in which Michael Siegal lived and led when he extended Silverman's tenor re citing Jerry's supposed "achievements" -- of which all of us know were and are none. Now, in this excellent Post piece, Siegal's alternate universe was there for all to see and read. As in:
"Asked what he had achieved in his three years as chairman, Siegal pointed to what he saw as significant advances made by JFNA in working together with other Jewish organizations...
“When I got to the role, we had some issues with our partners. We have created a much more open dialogue with our partners at the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee,” he said. “There is now what I’d call ‘shalom bayit,’ respect for everybody’s role. I think we’ve created organizational structure to support the communities of North America, which is our role.”Sure. Only the leader who extended that awful contract could assert, let alone believe, that JFNA relations with our partners were "significantly advanced" during his 3 years as Chair when in each of those three years -- as will be the case this year as well -- allocations to JAFI/JDC core reached a new abysmal historic low. Statements like Michael's here are reflected throughout JFNA's work and throughout the Agenda of this GA. Its leaders live in a fictional world of their own creation. And I don't get it. Michael Siegal is a fine person, a great philanthropist, bright, energetic and, I thought, committed to effecting substantive changes at JFNA. Then...nothing.
My cynicism tells me that no one among the failed leadership was listening to pioneering mega-philanthropist Les Wexner's Plenary address in which he observed that to lead one must understand "where we have been, where we come from and where we are" and commit to your organization's values and purposes -- surely Jerry Silverman if he was listening couldn't possibly have understood what this great philanthropist was telling us. Les didn't offer his views as criticism; instead we as a Jewish polity should take them that way.*
Friends, it's time for transformational change; in fact, it's way past time. Do we have the right people in place to effect real change? On the lay side, quite possibly; on the professional side -- well, you know my strong, strong sense that for change to occur at JFNA, first, there must be change at the top of JFNA's professional pyramid.
Then again, so long as the GA has become nothing more than TribeFest, that Festivus for None of Us, or old Best Practices rebranded as FEDovations for lay leaders and a gathering place for communal professionals, would any of this work? With no one there and no one listening...
...It is JFNA after all...Thinking Forward/Acting Backward.
BTW, that JFNA Executive Committee that was "killed off" earlier this year. It no longer exists but THERE IT WAS, Chaired by the Board Chair, of course. I must admit, I thought this was just a typo -- then I figured it out -- just JFNA being JFNA.
* Visit the Times of Israel rebroadcast of the Plenaries and watch them in their entirety. A great service.