Following my trip to Israel last week, I went to Washington, DC for the Jewish Federations of North America annual conference, FedLab (previously called the General Assembly), which I will share more on later.
Instead of flying home from Israel on Friday and then taking a "red-eye flight” back east on Saturday night, I took a detour to visit my daughter at college. The highlight was sharing a Friday night Shabbat together at the campus Hillel.
Hillel hosts three different Shabbat services simultaneously and you could hear the various davening (praying) and singing throughout the building. Services were followed by a special “environmental and sustainability dinner” sponsored by HEAL (Hillel Environmental Action League). It was a very meaningful experience.
As we know, a student’s first year in college can be daunting. A new environment, the need to develop a new circle of friends, being away from home -- it can be a challenge for most.
During our last dinner together, she shared with me how important Hillel has been in her transition to college. She has found a warm and embracing place. She has made friends. And it has become her second home. As a parent, Jewish Federation donor, and Jewish communal professional, I cannot express enough how fortunate students are to have Hillel, Chabad, and other Jewish outreach organizations on campuses worldwide, including those our Jewish Federation supports: Oregon Hillel (University of Oregon and Oregon State University), Greater Portland Hillel (covering Portland State University, Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, University of Portland, and Portland Community College), Chabad at Reed College, and Akiva at University of Oregon. My deep appreciation goes to the incredible campus professionals who do so much for our college students!
After a special visit with my daughter, I traveled to Washington, DC where I was joined by Jewish Federation Chair, Lauren Goldstein, and Jack Birnbach, Jewish Federation Allocations Chair. Unlike past years when the General Assembly brought together thousands of people from around the world, this year was a deliberate and focused conference with 700 people. The program centered around three core tracks: engaging more people in the Jewish community, social service delivery, and Jewish security and empowerment.
The conference was excellent! I would rank it in my top three out of 25 General Assemblies I have attended. Here is an article from someone who also agrees and details some of his highlights of the conference.
I participated in the social service track. The question posed to the group was how are we addressing the issues of today: poverty, houselessness, employment needs, mental health, disabilities, and so much more? And what about those issues we do not seem to discuss in the Jewish community, including domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction? How are we serving these individuals and what more can we be doing? At its core, the primary message was clear – we must create systems (not transactional services) that provide ease of access to services for the client and their family and a streamlined approach for organizations to work together. No more silos!
Some insights and ideas I learned from my “track experience” (Lauren and Jack brought back ideas from their track):
  •  One speaker had a profound comment, “Seeing the problem is easy, really seeing the problem is the hard part.” Do we truly understand the depth and breadth of the social service needs in our community? And are we prepared to address them?
  • Dignity for people matters! Someone shared a story about how clothing and furniture donations should be of the same quality we would want. I remember when my family wanted to donate furniture to the Community Warehouse. When it was to be picked up, they said they would not take it due to the condition it was in. I was upset as the donor because I felt at the time that a family in need should just be happy to have that couch. But I was wrong. I was solely focused on getting it out of my home and the tax deduction. There is no reason a family in need should not have the same quality couch that I have in my living room – it maintains their dignity and helps to improve their quality of life. A good learning lesson.
  • There was much discussion about how bad money decisions can lead to financial crisis and poverty. One community has launched a successful financial literacy program for teenagers, so they can learn early about money management and paying bills. (Our Women’s Philanthropy is currently running a successful financial literacy program.)
  • Home sharing is an idea expanding around the country. Think of a single (elderly) person who now shares a house with someone else. This arrangement brings support, comfort, caretaking, and friendship. With people living longer and wishing to stay in their own homes, this may be a benefit to many in our community.
  • Placing a “food shelf” (not a full pantry) in a multitude of Jewish organizations and synagogues where people in need can come by and get simple food basics. This can be a lifesaver for many.
I am grateful to our social service providers (some you will think of in that way and others you may not) in our community: Jewish Family and Child Service, Cedar Sinai Park, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and so many more for the work they are doing to improve people’s lives. They are on the “front lines” every day. We have much to be proud of – yet still more we can do.
Lauren, Jack and I had a very positive experience at FedLab. We recognize the value of listening to and learning from colleagues across the country. The Jewish Federation system is so robust and we are happy to take ideas from anywhere and utilize them in our community. To do this is only possible because of your generous support.
Shabbat shalom.


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