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CLEVELAND, Nov. 16 (JTA)--In the pink halls of the Cleveland Convention Center, a black Jew opened the annual conference of the North American Jewish federation system by belting out familiar Hebrew prayers with a gospel twist.
Under the banner "Imagine," the theme of the United Jewish Communities' 2004 General Assembly, Joshua Nelson's rousing rendition underscored the conference message of reworking an old song to a new tune--that is, reinventing the image of the federations.
Giving a younger, hipper face to the largest American Jewish charity, Josh Malina, star of the "West Wing" television drama, moderated the Sunday night opener of song, sermon and stories, inspiring many in the audience.
But with the closing of the opening act came a focus on more mundane matters--the ins and outs of federation fund raising and ways to reach new donors and contributors.
In a sense, in this city of ultimate insiders--Cleveland has an impressive track record of spawning national federation leaders--came the ultimate insider's G.A.
Of course, there was the traditional reunion of handshakes and hugs, the occasional "Nu?"--the Yiddishist's "What's up?"--among colleagues, and networking about new ideas and programs.
But this G.A. was markedly different, and it was meant to be.
The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the federation system, created a committee to envision a new G.A. that would focus on grooming Jewish leaders. A track was devoted to professional development with an emphasis on reaching a younger generation, whose attention is tougher to garner amid a slew of competing charities.
Keynote speeches mainly were from business gurus and focused on how to retool federations. Except for a post-election analysis with James Carville and William Kristol, this G.A. lacked the slew of luminaries--such as senior U.S. officials or Israeli leaders--that have, in the past, helped to draw participants who like to hobnob with policymakers or feel they know the inside scoop.
That may account for the fact that this was the smallest G.A. in years. UJC officials estimate that fewer than 3,000 people attended, while participation has ranged from 3,250 to 6,000 over the past six years.
Others said the choice of Cleveland as host city didn't help. Indeed, many federation professionals said they struggled to recruit participants from their communities.
Take Chicago, which sent some 50 lay leaders to the G.A., but only a few years ago sent nearly twice that number. Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, could not explain the drop.
Still, many in attendance felt this year's G.A., coming five years after the UJC was formed from the merger of three national Jewish organizations, was right on target.
"It's time to focus" on strengthening federations to raise more money, said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. "We're doing that."
"We're talking about more relevant things," agreed Fred Zimmerman, president of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and a member of UJC's board of trustees. "I think they're making great strides" in areas such as reaching younger activists and interfaith families.
The challenge is refurbishing the image of the federation system, which many see as closed to new and younger voices, Zimmerman said.
The perception is that "it's your parents' philanthropy," Zimmerman said. But, he said, "this can be a place where great things happen, and it is."
The conference embodied the tension of tradition and change as the organization focuses on remaking itself to attract new donors. But some in attendance felt the G.A.'s inward focus meant that some of the broader communal issues and ideas weren't given as much attention.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, said he hoped future G.A.s would become the meeting ground "where major issues in Jewish life are debated and discussed."
Over many years we've moved away from that," he said, suggesting that issues such as Jewish continuity or the Israel-Diaspora relationship amid the intifada should take center stage.
Others said the gathering seemed to lack a spark.
"Show me the passion," said Elie Kaunfer, the leader of an egalitarian minyan on Manhattan's Upper West Side, who was participating in his second G.A.
"The excitement about UJC does not come through," he said. "Give me some of your passion and I could get excited about it."
Participants seem to be coming with a mission, which is figuring out, "How can I fix my broken federation?" Kaunfer said. "People at UJC should be proud of the stories they have to tell."
One of those stories came from Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, whose family was brought from the former Soviet Union to the United States by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a UJC partner that runs relief and welfare services for Jews abroad.
At the opening plenary, Spaulding told how her father suffered a broken leg in a skiing accident and could not get proper medical attention for months, straining his already impaired health. The family was adopted by a host family in Passaic, N.J., and a network of Jews helped put her father in touch with a top heart surgeon, who saved his life. The surgery was paid for by the local federation.
Many audience members were moved by the powerful story from the stage.
Others found inspiration in the hallways.
"I think the sessions are fabulous, but I think the real reason to come is what happens in the halls," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the Israel Project, which aims to bolster Israel's public image in America.
The opportunity to connect with so many colleagues allows Mizrahi to create partnerships and do business.
Additionally, it's "good for me to see young people who are given real responsibility," said Mizrahi, 40, who chairs her local federation campaign in Annapolis, Md. `
"I think Jews have sort of cornered the market on how to complain," she said of the G.A.'s critics. It "wouldn't be a Jewish conference if there wasn't somebody who found some reason to complain."
Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, an online provider of Jewish material, said the G.A. shows that the UJC is "doing a better job of listening to their constituent federations" by providing "tacheles," or basic, "trade association kinds of things."
But that is "still no substitute for a vision," he said. "I think people here want clarity and courage," and they expect it to come from the UJC's new president, Howard Rieger, Abramowitz said.
Mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman stressed the challenge for the federation system to attract younger donors.
"Instead of expecting the next generation to come to us, we have to go to them," she said.
Take Aaron Tapper, 31, co-executive director of Abraham's Vision, which aims to train Palestinian and Jewish Americans to lead dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses.
A fellow in the Wexner Heritage program, which trains young Jewish leaders, Tapper admitted, "This is a pretty major event, and it's completely not on my radar."
Tapper, a doctoral student in comparative religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he found the session on post-denominational Judaism interesting.
But some younger participants weren't as captivated.
Some of the 300 Hillel students in attendance said they felt spoken to, not spoken with, said Avraham Infeld, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Infeld was proud of the fact that students made up such a large percentage of those in attendance, but he said, "I'm sorry that that's true not because of the high number of students, but because of the low number of other participants."
Infeld recommended that the G.A. be held only every two years, with regional meetings held in between.
"It would increase the excitement for the G.A. and would allow an opportunity for participants at the G.A. to deal with real organizational issues on a regular basis," he said.
Other kernels of advice for the federation system came in a keynote speech from Jim Collins, author of the New York Times bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't.
"What is on your 'stop doing' list?" Collins asked. "Put your 'stop doing' list on your 'to do' list," he said, urging the federation system to focus on finding the things it does best.
Put the most passionate people in key positions before determining direction, he said. Meanwhile, "Keep the values. Change the traditions. This is the secret. This is your challenge."
Rieger hinted at some of the same concepts when he introduced Collins, whose book was given to him by a colleague when Rieger took over UJC's reins.
"Why is the UJC not seen as a great organization," he asked, "when federations in their own communities are seen as really setting the standard for others to follow?"
One reason may be poor communication, Rieger said. But he also emphasized the need for the organization to narrow its focus.
"We can't be all things to all people," he said.
At this G.A., the UJC appeared to make that point.