It was hard to miss the Pittsburgh contingent at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly Sunday night, waving their Terrible Towels and cheering with robust hometown enthusiasm as the chairs of the 2016 conclave, Cindy and David Shapira, took the podium at the opening plenary session.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh sent its largest delegation ever to this year’s G.A. — 42 staffers and volunteers who were not shy about showing their Pittsburgh pride at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. The two-day conference allowed members of the Pittsburgh Federation to share best practices with cohorts from Jewish federations throughout the United States and Canada.
In their address to the General Assembly, the Shapiras described the impact that Judaism has made on their own lives, and the crucial role of federations in enriching the Judaism of others throughout the world.
“Our journey is part community, part intellectual, part spiritual, and part integration of Jewish rituals into our daily lives,” said Cindy Shapira, who currently serves as the board chair for the Pittsburgh Federation. “We are as deeply interested in the ‘why’ of Judaism as we are in the ‘what.’”
David Shapira, a past chair of the Pittsburgh Federation, emphasized that the JFNA’s mission is based on the Talmud’s teaching that we should “study, pray and do mitzvot.”
“Everyone’s Jewish journey is unique,” he added. “However whenever we are on that Jewish journey, I think something that is really important is that we truly respect that each of us is a good Jew no matter where we are on the path.”
Three thousand delegates joined together at the G.A., learning from a range of prominent speakers including Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and attending a host of breakout sessions on issues of concern to those helping navigate being Jewish through 21st century America and beyond. Sessions were held on a range of topics including how to effectively respond to the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, empowering young adults to lead, and innovative ways to strengthen education.
Education, and its role in Jewish continuity, was a key focus of the chairs of the G.A, and a motivator in their decision to take the helm of the conference.
“I think that we felt that this was an opportunity to express our deep interest in Jewish continuity, in understanding where we come from in terms of our Jewish values — from a place of learning, from a place of Torah, from a place of peoplehood,” Cindy Shapira said in an interview. “And this is the largest Jewish communal organization, people who come together from diverse backgrounds, not to push any other agenda other than strengthening the Jewish people here and around the world. We saw this as a great opportunity to lead in that.”
A commonality between Jews of disparate backgrounds is their “grounding in education and therefore understanding where our values come from,” she added. “That was a very important message for us.”
Unification was another important theme of the conference she said, as well as “what we work on, on a daily basis: building Jewish identity, particularly among young people.”
Federations must look to education and ritual, as well as cultural aspects of Judaism to help promote Jewish identity, David Shapira said.
“If we are going to have Jewish continuity, I think it is important for Jews to understand what being Jewish is,” he said. “And part of that is the ritual that is associated with Judaism. The ritual and the cultural and social aspects of Judaism along with learning are what make us what we are.”
Pittsburghers showcased their own innovations and accomplishments in various breakout sessions.
Amy Cohen, the Pittsburgh Federation’s Volunteer Center manager, led a session called “ I-Volunteer: Motivating Millennial Community Through Service,” co-presenting along with cohorts from other communities that have created programs to engage young adults. Cohen described how the Volunteer Center offers opportunity for community service as a gateway into Jewish involvement.
Ilene Rinn, senior manager of Planning and Allocations, led a session called The Silver Tsunami: Managing the Age Wave, in which she described AgeWell Pittsburgh’s model of collaboration between community agencies in helping senior citizens and their families find solutions to issues of aging.
On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh delegation met with representatives from the Jewish Agency for Israel, including its chairman, Natan Sharansky, who spoke about French immigration to Israel, as well as religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
The aim of the work of the JAFI is to “strengthen the Jewish family, to strengthen Jewish identity,” Sharansky told the Pittsburgh Federation members. The agency works to accomplish this goal, he explained, both by facilitating aliyah, and by sending shlichim from Israel to enrich Jewish communities in the diaspora.
While some people whose lives the JAFI touch will move to Israel, others will become more committed to Jewish education, while still others will develop a deeper attachment to Israel from afar, Sharansky noted.
“It’s all part of the same plan,” he said. “We don’t tell them what to do with their lives, but we help them make our family much more strong.”
Sharansky praised the Knesset’s decision last January approving the creation of an upgraded egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews. While not much progress has yet been made in carrying out the decree, Sharansky urged American supporters to make their voices heard so that its realization becomes “a high priority.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.