Pittsburgh Federation gives, gets inspiration at JFNA General Assembly
JFNA General AssemblyThe assembly fosters learning from wider Federation network

Pittsburgh Federation gives, gets inspiration at JFNA General Assembly

Nineteen delegates from Pittsburgh traveled to Los Angeles for the Assembly to learn best practices, gain inspiration and share their own accomplishments.

Israeli activist and author Natan Sharansky joins the Pittsburgh contingent in displaying hometown pride. (Photo provided by Jeff Finkelstein)
Israeli activist and author Natan Sharansky joins the Pittsburgh contingent in displaying hometown pride. (Photo provided by Jeff Finkelstein)

LOS ANGELES — Amid a sea of thousands of professional and lay leaders from across North America gathered at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh was well represented, with 19 delegates making the cross-country trek to learn best practices and gain inspiration from the wider Jewish Federation network.

Representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh were eager not only to hear about successful strategies and programs implemented in other communities in terms of “planning fundraising and community engagement,” but to share their own accomplishments with their Federation colleagues, according to Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Federation.

“Each year, the Pittsburgh group walks away feeling really proud with how we are doing as a community,” he said.

Some of Pittsburgh’s best practices were shared at a National Young Leadership Cabinet Shabbat Experience held just prior to the G.A., which began on Sunday, Nov. 12 and ran through Nov. 14.

Deborah Baron, chief operating officer of Pittsburgh’s Federation, addressed the group of 100 young Shabbat participants, “exploring the power of language and leadership,” she said.

“That is something we have been doing in Pittsburgh with leadership training at Federation and at JPro workshops,” which support the career growth of Jewish professionals, Baron said, noting that Pittsburgh’s Federation is “consistently recognized for our expertise.”

On the planning committee for the NYL Cabinet Shabbat Experience was Pittsburgher Becca Tobe, 34, who serves as the vice chair of educational and leadership development of the NYL Cabinet.

“It was a high energy Shabbat,” Tobe said, “with lots of inspiration and a lot of optimism for the future of young leadership.”

Tobe is “passionate,” she said, about “letting people know that millennials are Jewishly engaged — just in a different way than some people expect us to be. Millennials do care way more than people think.”

A wide variety of topics were covered at the Sunday break-out sessions at the G.A., including the current political climate, reimagining the present and future of Jewish life and the changing Israel/U.S. relationship, serving as a stimulating prelude to Sunday evening’s opening plenary.

Beginning with firsthand accounts by both victims and responders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, the audience heard details of how the Federation movement mobilized to send aid within moments after the storm hit Houston’s Jewish community and gained a sense of how a strong collective, working together, can make a profound difference to individuals as well as those in the broader society.

The power of the Federations was also underlined in a poignant speech delivered by David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angles, as he recounted the story of a young child of a Russian immigrant who, 25 years ago, called the Los Angeles Federation for help when her father had fallen and could not get up.

The Russian father had posted the Federation’s phone number by the phone and told his daughter that in the case of any emergency, “call this number; it’s the Jewish building and they will help you.”

“That’s who you are,” Wolpe told the delegates at the G.A. “You’re the Jewish building.

“Our task,” he continued, “is to create ongoing generations of Jews that will help. That’s our mission.”

Marking the 30th anniversary of a 250,000-person march at the National Mall in Washington in solidarity with Soviet Jewry, Ilia Salita, president and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, representing the Russian-speaking Jewish community, thanked North American Jews and Jewish Federations for the first time for their support in enabling Russian-speaking Jews to immigrate to the United States.

The emigration of Russian Jews in the late 1980s is “considered one of the most successful immigration waves in the history of the United States,” Salita said.

With a nod to the Federations, he added: “You recognized you were investing in our common Jewish future. You helped us discover that wonderful, incredible thing, the American dream.”

Todd Rosenfeld, Ellen Teri Kaplan Goldstein and Roberta Trachten Zeve display their Terrible Towels at this year’s G.A. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Also speaking on the remarkable achievements of immigrants pursing the American dream was Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles’ first Jewish mayor and the city’s second Mexican-American mayor who gave a personal account of his own family’s struggles and contributions as immigrants and his dual identity as a Jew and as Latino.

Garcetti urged his fellow Jews to continue to “connect, speak up and find a better way” to enrich the broader community.

Other highlights of the opening plenary included a “Hollywood Roundtable,” hosted by film producer Marc Platt, who along with his wife, Julie, co-chaired the G.A.

Platt and his panelists described how a story told around a Shabbat table — about the power of connection and caring among three young Jews around the world and a Muslim in Yemen under the threat of death — is making its way to the big screen.

“You can change the world,” Platt said, “which is one of the reasons everyone is here today. Sometimes we can change the world by the stories we choose to tell.”

The plenary concluded with an address by JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman, who highlighted the accomplishments and aspirations of the umbrella organization.

Silverman announced that the JFNA would be putting forth a resolution on religious pluralism in Israel, affirming support for the Jewish state while urging the Israeli government to reverse its decision on the Kotel agreement — which put an end to the egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall — and to permanently halt the conversion bill, which would give sole discretion to the Orthodox Chief rabbinate to perform conversions in Israel.

Pittsburgh’s delegates were energized and motivated by learning and sharing with colleagues from throughout North America. Cindy Shapira, immediate past chair of the Federation, introduced two round table discussions at a plenary session, on millenials and on politics.

“I’m always inspired going to this conference,” said Brian Eglash, chief development officer of Pittsburgh’s Federation. “Whenever I get back to Pittsburgh, I realize what an amazing community Pittsburgh is.”

Katie Whitlatch, who serves on the board of Pittsburgh’s Federation agreed.

“The G.A. is a great opportunity to get a pulse on what’s going on in the Jewish world nationally and internationally,” she said.

The conference is “a really great showcase for everything Federation does,” said Meryl Ainsman, chair of the board of Pittsburgh’s Federation. “It’s rejuvenating to see what other Federations are doing and to appreciate how great we are.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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