As the GA approaches once again, where is the open, civil debate as to why this annual, what once was, celebration of federations' centrality and relevance, one that can't even attract flies any more. Recently, the Jewish National Fund attracted more than 1000 lay leaders to its annual conference. or the "new" Israel Action Conference increased its lay attendance at its 2016 Conference from 1,300 the year before to 2,000. Yet, the GA of today languishes at 700 lay Registrants while its top lay leader kvells about how great the GA has become (while the leadership is already throwing out the annual fictional attendance of "3,000"). And, quite surprisingly, someone decided just this week, to "hype" attendance in an email stating it was "[Y]our last chance to join the action." Uh huh.
And, nowhere at no time is the future of this expensive annual failure that the GA has become ever truly debated. Afraid of what the outcome might be, anyone?
Friends, isn't it long past time to see if the federations even want an annual gathering that appears to lack any attraction? (By "the federations" I am talking about the lay leadership not the LCE, and certainly not the so-called "leadership" of JFNA.) Yes, I remember way back when when this issue was actually discussed and the then leadership deferred to those who argued that if we made the GA even an every-other-year event, that somehow we would "lose" the "turf" that the GA represents to other organizations. Hey, wake up, we continue to hold this thing annually and we are losing/have lost this turf to other organizations.
And, sure, I know that even nothing more (or less) than a third class Trade Association holds an "annual conference" of some sort. But, really, JFNA does and should aspire to the excellence that I still expect Richard Sandler to demand of it, just as he demanded excellence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It's just that from 3,000 miles away Richard sees JFNA doing a fine job.
And, it's not that the GA is devoid of content; content for GA 2016 appears excellent, much of it even offering the potential of important takeaways. The roster of federation speakers on the list is truly excellent. It's just that the GA offers no excitement anymore (sure, I love Justice Ginsburg, but a different Justice every year? And, then, there's Lord Rabbi Sacks; a symbol of our internal religious intolerance at a time that JFNA's CEO preaches, "can't we all be friends?" -- Rabbi Sacks who last "headlined" a GA in 2014; etc.). Yep, when it comes to its "headliners," it's Groundhog Day; although the last minute addition of Chemi Peres who beautifully eulogized his late father just weeks ago, as a featured Plenary speaker does show some dexterity on the part of GA planners.
And, this is the "new GA" proffered by a long forgotten one-person "study," the only evident results were the elimination of Houston as a GA venue, multiple Assemblies stuck in D.C. (where that community, itself, appears to have lost interest), and declining lay attendance every year ever since. (Nonetheless, on the cusp of Yom Kippur, JFNA was already throwing around "3,000" once again.) Maybe, just maybe, if they could (and I don't believe it possible), JFNA leaders might reflect on what were decades of successful GAs -- where passion brought us together in celebration of our Jewish Peoplehood and our roles in that. But just how can those days be replicated when this annual gathering is in the hands of technocrats, many/most of whom never experienced those GAs, and if I know them as I think I do, they deprecate anything that didn't happen yesterday.
Our system's lay leaders have cast their vote on the GA in its current iteration -- they have done so with their feet. They just aren't attending. The ruach of GAs past has been gone for too long. Way too long. As with most things, let's just keep hoping "things" will get better somehow...someday if we do nothing.
And nothing we shall do.