The NOW Generation of Emerging Leaders at the GA

There’s a different kind of marathon that I participate in – it’s not the 26.2 miles that my friends run in the ING NY Marathon, or the Disney Marathon.  It’s the 36+ awake-hour marathon I run at the GA each year.  And while the exhaustion is different than the toll a regular marathon takes, it is still physically exhausting and then also mentally grueling as well.

 

How can a person maximize their networking, learning, and socializing (it is the Original Jewish Social Network) within the shortest amount of time.  You don’t sleep enough and you take as few bathroom and meal breaks as possible (I swear, if most attendees thought they could combine those two tasks – ew! – they would!).

 

A non-Jewish friend asked me what the purpose of this conference was.  I had to share that it’s different for each kind of attendee.  A Federation lay-leader may go looking to learn about best practices; a Federation professional might go to support the growth of their lay leadership and to build a network of like-positioned colleagues; a Foundation professional may go seeking to hear about new ideas to fund; and a Jewish organization professional may go to find new funders, enhance relationships with existing funders, and to find strategic partners in other organizations.  But what I walked away asking myself is, why does a college student or a teen attend the GA?

 

They attend for an experience of a lifetime: to make connections with potential future employers; to explore possible career paths in Jewish life; to get a glimpse into the inner workings of Jewish institution leadership and life; to experience leadership development at a superior level; to participate actively in the global and national Jewish community; and to meet other students for an enriched Jewish social connection.

 

Do they attend to be called “The Next Generation” with little respect given to the fact that they are the NOW Generation?  Do they attend to sit in frontal and formal sessions, in suits and ties?  Do they attend to be paraded around like the poster-children of the future?  Somehow, I doubt that these are their motivations, but from what I witnessed and heard, this indeed happened over and over again … and while some of the students’ own goals were met, it wasn’t the overwhelming focus of their experience.

 

I have to be fair and honest, that I have not sat with anyone in the leadership at JFNA to ask them about the official vision of the role of college students and teens at the GA (and if I had more time and more sleep, I would do that due diligence) and therefore invite them to respond and continue the dialogue.   However, I am confident that there is an overall sentiment amongst those who work professionally with these target audiences, that the mark has been missed for yet another GA.

 

If we as a national Jewish community were truly supporting the needs and goals of these emerging leaders (ahem, not the “next generation”), what would need to be in place? I offer the following thoughts and suggestions:

  • to make connections with potential future employers:  In the registration materials, ask the teens and college students about their intended career choices while simultaneously asking the adult attendees to a) indicate their career and b) ascertain if they would be willing to serve as a connection to a teen or college student in the same field.  Utilizing this information, offer roundtables/affinity sessions where the matches can meet.
  • to explore possible career paths in Jewish life:  While JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America) has the Lainer-Masa Fellowship™ for Jewish Education (link to: https://jesna.org/our-work/lainer-masa-fellows/about-the-program) and the Fellows are brought to the GA, the program is limited by resources and scope, therefore no one is serving other emerging leaders in their potential desires to become Jewish communal professionals.  Attracting and retaining quality Jewish professionals should be a priority for JFNA in its service to the national Jewish community.  Providing GA mentors and sessions on Jewish professional life, would go far to support potential recruits in this work.
  • to get a glimpse into the inner workings of Jewish institution leadership and life:  At the GA, this seems to happen only by osmosis.  I am unaware of any GA curriculum that helps the teens and college students navigate and investigate this web.  Perhaps some local Federations match their adult delegates with student delegates, but a national intention to assign the students to partner and debrief with adult counterparts in their communities would help the young adults unpack their experience into implementable actions.
  • to participate actively in the global and national Jewish community:  I found the voice of the student delegates to be token at a few of the sessions.  What would happen if teen and college student delegates, under the guidance of JFNA professional staff and in partnership with Hillel staff, were asked to plan and execute a plenary session, putting their needs and ideas at the center of the agenda?
  • to meet other students for an enriched Jewish social connection:  this, they are good at on their own … if only they had a physical space (besides a formal table and chairs Hillel room at the exhibition hall) that was inviting and comfortable for them.

 

I may seem to be very accusational and preachy, but it comes from a place of passion – a place of working with Jewish teens for 15 years.  A place of knowing that Jewish professionals and lay leaders spend a lot of time talking about emerging adults (and the “problem” of engaging them) and not enough time partnership with them – giving them a space and a voice.  I heard a lot about “prosumers” at a variety of sessions at the GA, but I don’t see the GA actualizing prosumer strategies.  I hope that the 2013 GA in Baltimore is developed in partnership with our amazing emerging leaders.

 

[As a personal aside, as long as I am writing about students, can we talk about the fact that the student rate is only geared for undergrads – although not stated in writing on the website – and that graduate and doctoral students aren’t eligible for the rate …. even for this poor doctoral student pursuing a degree in Jewish Education Leadership?]

 

This post was originally written for the NextGenJews Blog, but it has never been posted there.  So I am posting it here.

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