‘Putting the Joy Back Into the Oy’: Professionals Gather for JPRO19 Conference

a group of 17 Philadelphians who attended JPRO19
Some of the Philadelphians who attended JPRO19 in Detroit this year (Photo by Addie Lewis Klein)

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia CEO Naomi Adler had worked as a co-chair of the JPRO19 conference for close to a year when the event began on Aug. 12 in Detroit, Michigan.

She and the rest of the planning committee labored over what themes to emphasize and which speakers to bring to emphasize them; they went back and forth and, as the week of the event approached, 400 attendees sounded pretty good for a couple days of panels, breakout sessions and networking.

The hard work paid off: Now that she’s back from JPRO19, which drew roughly 600 Jewish communal professionals from across the country, Adler said this year’s event was among the most unique, energizing conferences she’s attended in her decades of doing so.

Her proof? A majority of the people seemed to actually attend the sessions they signed up for.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that at a conference,” Adler said.

JPRO has only been called JPRO since 2014; originally founded in 1899 as the National Conference of Jewish Charities, the organization began as a network of Jewish community members teaching one another how to most effectively raise and distribute charitable donations to millions of recently arrived immigrants. Later, it became a version of what it is today — a national network of Jewish communal professionals, with chapters across the country, that convenes every few years. The last conference was in 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.

While the conferences still feature sessions on best practices in fundraising, in keeping with the organization’s origins, the scope of what is expected of a Jewish communal professional is much broader than it used to be.

This year’s conference focused on four thematic areas: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice; Building Resilient Communities (essentially, how to react and stay strong during crises); Civil Discourse in Complex Times; and Designing Workplaces for the Future. It was more than enough to fill the three-day conference with roundtables, panels, smaller discussion groups and, as Adler and others from the Philadelphia delegation tell it, plenty of extracurricular discussion.

“The vibe was something I never experienced before at a conference,” Adler said. One factor that she greatly appreciated was the reflection of an oft-missed fact: Seven in 10 Jewish communal professionals are women, she said. Thus, to speak on and be spoken to by panels that often reflected this reality was a welcome experience.

Attendees discussed the most pressing material and cultural issues facing the Jewish community today, Adler said, from the persistence of poverty in the American Jewish world to the increasingly difficult prospect of unified community sentiment on Israel. All topics were discussed passionately and respectfully.

Her favorite line of the week? “We have to put the joy back into the oy of Judaism,” she said.

In terms of local representation, it wasn’t just Jewish Federation representatives at JPRO, though some members of the Philadelphia delegation were subsidized by the organization. Eve Berger, the Philadelphia director of Moving Traditions, heard about JPRO through Penina Hoffnung, the senior manager of community engagement at Jewish Federation, and leapt at the chance to go.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘Me! Me! Me!’” Berger laughed.

What she found was a group that wanted to “lead authentically,” as she put it, to give one’s full self to the job of forging Jewish community in the hopes that it would inspire the people who make up that community.

Aside from a weekend of acquiring new knowledge and skills, Berger said, she was able to connect with other Jewish communal professionals from across the country, which was a good way to learn about best practices from people in similar positions.

Ironically, it was also a chance to meet Jewish communal professionals from Philadelphia, Berger said, such as Galia Godel, the LGBTQ Initiative program manager at Jewish Family and Children’s Service who was recently profiled in The Forward. One of the key elements of Godel’s work is to improve Jewish organizations’ inclusivity for LGBTQ members of their communities.

Like Berger, Godel heard about JPRO through Hoffnung. Also like Berger, she was grateful to receive a subsidy from the Jewish Federation to attend. She expected a fairly typical conference: panels, workshops and the like, and perhaps a chance to meet a few interesting people. But the conference turned out to be much more than that, even though there are few people whose job descriptions match hers. Days after the conference, she was still brimming with excitement over the people she had met.

“It was actually kind of fantastic,” she said.

One thing that made it special was the surprises.

“Like, oh my gosh, it would have never occurred to me that the development team of a JCC in Canada would have so much to offer for the work that I want to be doing here in Philadelphia here as an educator,” she said.

She was especially energized by the discussions regarding polarization.

“It felt so useful and moving, and I was really excited about it,” Godel said.

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