By Laura Porter
From Nov. 8-10 in Washington D.C., Jewish leaders from all over the country, both volunteer and professional, met to share ideas and celebrate accomplishments in the Jewish world.
Three thousand people gathered for this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which packed a scant 48 hours with numerous plenaries and breakout sessions.
Notable speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, Natan Sharansky and a host of other “changemakers” in the Jewish community, to use the language of the GA website.
“It’s very important for leaders from North America to come together and hear from prominent speakers, discuss challenging issues facing the Jewish community and celebrate the success that we all experience in our everyday Federation work,” says Howard Borer, who is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts (JFCM). “And it’s a great time to get together with friends and colleagues whom you might not have seen in a long time.”
Meredith Dragon, who heads the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts (JFWM) as its executive director, concurs, noting that “JFNA has been pretty committed to honing in on opportunities to talk about the most important things in the Jewish world for our future.”
Dragon was there in two capacities, as both a director and a presenter. She spoke about JFWM’s Helen and Shefford Goldband Transforming Teaching and Learning Project, a new program she initiated to bring cutting edge technology through World ORT to Heritage Academy, a Jewish day school in Longmeadow.
The program had its inception three years ago in Odessa, Ukraine, where she toured a World ORT school as part of a mission for campaign chairs and directors. ORT schools are renowned for creating smart classrooms using technology as an educational tool.
She had “an epiphany,” she said in her GA presentation, recognizing that “these people could be part of my community. We all want the same things for our children’s education.”
That epiphany, cemented by a second visit to a smart classroom in Israel, led her to wonder why American day schools didn’t have the same degree of technological sophistication that World ORT supports abroad.
A year later, she met with the new Director General of World ORT, Shmuel Sisso, and together, they launched the first World ORT-Federation-day school collaboration in the United States.
Financially supported by the estate of “one of our dear members,” said Dragon, the new program at Heritage Academy began in the fall of 2014 after two ORT Kadima Mada trainers worked with teachers during a two-week training session.
“The new technology allows students of all learning styles to study in the best way for them,” Dragon said. Already the impact has been significant: not only have individual students scored higher, but team-based cooperation and critical thinking have improved.
“It’s not about the technology but the way teachers use these tools to enhance the learning experience,” she said.
Every year, in a program called FEDovation, a play on Federation and innovation, JFNA asks Federation directors to submit projects that they consider especially innovative.
This year, JFWM submitted two: the Transforming Teaching and Learning Project as well as their PJ Pajama Drive, now in its third year. Both were selected.
“Hundreds and hundreds of Federations submitted,” says Dragon, “and it was an honor that they picked two from our community; they try to spread them out.”
Rachel Berezin, JFWM’s NextGen director, spoke at the GA about the pajama drive, a community service program tied to PJ Library that collects and distributes warm pajamas for children in Western Massachusetts.
Transforming Teaching and Learning was one of a few projects singled out to spotlight, and Dragon made her presentation at a plenary session.
The innovative character of the project lies in its reversal of the typical relationship between an American Federation and an overseas partner: JFWM is “turning the model on its head” by bringing the expertise of the overseas partner to the United States instead of vice versa.
“I was so honored to share this story,” she says.
Both Dragon and Howard Borer brought volunteers to the GA with them. Dragon took a contingent of 12 from Western Massachusetts, all of whom were both inspired and validated by the program.
“There were great topics for our delegation,” she says. “When people feel it’s been worth their time, it will convince others to go to another [GA].”
She and Susan Goldman, newly installed president of the JFWM board, particularly found a session for new presidents useful.
Howard Borer attended with two JFCM board members, president Toby Richmond and Sharon Krefetz.
“They enjoyed being there with other federation leaders talking about issues we’re all concerned about,” he says. “How do you attract millennials? How do you deal with leadership in today’s fast-paced world? How do you engage both new people and people who have become disassociated from the work that we do? It’s an opportunity to network and gain new thoughts and ideas on how to approach the issues we’re all facing.”
Borer, who has spent much of his career in the Federation world and attended close to 30 General Assemblies, observes that “the GA has changed a lot over the years. They have made it much more relevant, interesting, exciting.”
Among many compelling sessions, he draws attention to the presentation of journalist David Gregory, whose new book, How’s Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey (Simon and Schuster, 2015), relates his rediscovery of his Judaism. For Gregory, the timing of the GA talk was unexpectedly moving: his father had died two days before and his son’s bar mitzvah was to occur on the following weekend.
“Here he was talking about his journey and two signature events in his life occurred within six days of one another,” says Borer.
Both Federations celebrated special recognition at this year’s GA. Howard Borer was named the chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s executive directors of intermediate communities group, which represents 55 intermediate communities.
From Western Massachusetts, Susan Weiss Firestone was appointed the lay chair of the JFNA group for intermediate communities. Amy Meltzer, lead kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, won the Covenant Award for excellence in education from the Covenant Foundation. Finally, Jeremy Powers received JFWM’s Philip E. Saks Young Leadership Award for outstanding young Federation leaders.
CAP: Meredith Dragon spoke about the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.’s Helen and Shefford Goldband Transforming Teaching and Learning Project, a program she initiated to bring cutting edge technology through World ORT to Heritage Academy in Longmeadow.