Imagine being at a conference with 3,000 other passionately committed Jews from across North America and Israel. Now, imagine the diversity of political opinions from left to right; all manner of religious observance, practice and non-practice; all backgrounds and varying community size. And, yet, at the same time, I cannot imagine a more united and connected group of people. After attending the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA), November 8 to 10 in Washington, D.C., it is clear that far more unites us as a people, than divides us.
It is uplifting to be in a room with 3,000 others who share a similar commitment to making a bright future for the Jewish people, and a secure, peaceful and prosperous Jewish State of Israel, even as we differ and debate how best to accomplish this.
The GA is about learning best practices that are having a positive impact in other communities, networking with colleagues, engaging in Jewish learning, and revelling in the passion of others, particularly the hundreds of college students and young leaders who infused the conference with spirit and optimism.
It has been several years since I last attended the GA, so perhaps I cherished the learning even more this time. In particular, I want to share two lessons and experiences.
The first was from a session called “Chabad and Its Secrets to Success: How to Build a Movement.” With multiple concurrent sessions, the GA can feel like speed dating as you quickly move between sessions trying to find a connection. The GA is an endless sea of people, always on the move, always searching for either a person or a session.
As I approached the Chabad session, something unexpected happened. The speakers and organizers stood outside the room personally welcoming everyone, introducing themselves and encouraging everyone to come into the room.
This was out of the ordinary and did not happen at any other session. What a simple and yet profoundly powerful experience. In the midst of conference anomie, Chabad was offering a personalized and caring experience. With this enticingly warm welcome, I entered the room. But I had already begun to learn the secret of Chabad: it is all about the person and not a program or institution.
The second lesson was from Rabbi Adina Lewittes on leadership (full disclosure, she is a friend).
Rabbi Lewittes’ central thesis is that we often place too high a premium on experience. Rather, she encouraged participants to learn how to become an expert beginner. There is much joy and wonder in a first-time experience.
Remember when you first became a parent or grandparent, dove into a lake in summer, or put on skates for the first time and glided around the ice? Remember the unbridled enthusiasm and the grin from ear to ear as you savoured the experience?
That infectious passion and joy is how an expert beginner feels every day. And they do this by learning to focus more on the actual experience and less on how to accomplish a task or achieve goals and objectives. Expert beginners often find creative solutions leading to better outcomes. Experience brings many advantages, but can also lead to linear solutions and a more mechanical way of doing business – very efficient and effective, but perhaps not optimizing results.
One of my all-time favourite movies is Dead Poets Society. English teacher John Keating, portrayed by Robin Williams, stands on his desk and explains to his students that he was doing so because we should constantly look at things in a different way.
Expert beginners look at things in a different way each and every day.
At the GA, I increased my knowledge about fundraising, leadership and best practices in the field, all of which are useful skills and which should help me as I continuously strive to be a better leader, professional and person.
But, at the end of the day, the greatest take away was the juxtaposition of what I learned from Chabad and Rabbi Lewittes. Always look for new ways to make individuals feel connected and welcomed. Become an expert beginner in creating authentic, Jewish, personal experiences – and the rest will follow.