Local Leader Believes JFNA’s FedLab a Deep Dive Laboratory for the Jewish Future

Eric D. Fingerhut speaks at FedLab
Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, speaks at the FedLab conference in
Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Jewish Federations of North America)

Local leader Gail Norry can tell you that FedLab wasn’t an ordinary conference.

Nor was it designed to be.

Last winter, the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America asked itself, “What would happen if, instead of our annual General Assembly, this year we tried something altogether different? What if we bring together our top movers and shakers for intensive hands-on workshops, to wrestle with the most pressing issues facing the Jewish world today?”

The result was FedLab, where for nearly three days in November 900 of the most influential professionals and lay leaders from Federations across North America gathered in Washington, D.C., to explore and brainstorm solutions to some of the Jewish community’s greatest challenges.

It was a format that, for this year, replaced the traditional General Assembly, which typically attracts some 3,000 people and has been a mainstay of the Jewish community for the last 86 years.

“It was a bold experiment and one that succeeded far beyond our expectations,” JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut said. “FedLab was a powerful think tank where we had the undivided attention of 900 top leaders who were all committed to taking a deep dive and hard look at some of the most crucial and complex issues facing our Jewish communities today.”

The goal: laying the groundwork for local and collective action going forward.

To keep the focus on the brainstorming workshops, there were only a handful of speeches and presentations at FedLab.

They included Sarah Hurwitz, author of “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism,” as interviewed by Erica Brown, director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, and Lior Zoref, author of “Mindsharing – the Art of Crowdsourcing Everything,” presenting on strategic uses of crowdsourcing for the Jewish community.

But the main spotlight was on the hands-on workshops. With three tracks to choose from — Action for Good in the 21st Century, EngageJewish, and Security and Empowerment — it was a natural choice for Norry to focus those three days on Jewish engagement.

Not only is Norry vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and chair of the Internal Review, while overseeing volunteer engagement, but she also chairs JFNA’s Emergency Committee and is actively involved in day school leadership on the PRIZMAH Center for Jewish Day Schools board.

“Across the board they nailed it,” Norry said. “It was a really interesting format, more of a series of working meetings with people telling their stories and sharing best practices.”

Two standouts for Norry: Zoref’s crowdsourcing plenary, as part of an emphasis on inspiring people of all ages “to think of things beyond themselves” and learning about JFNA’s planned new initiative for engaging the next generation.

Norry has long been involved in studying the differences between the generations and has worked with foundations to help them engage people of all ages.

“We are quickly learning that the next generation is not necessarily interested in the same things we have been,” she said. “At FedLab, there was a lot of talk about breaking down the silos and learning to think differently.”

Participants were also briefed on many of the creative offerings designed to engage the next generation, including one program in Chicago where 10 young families decide how they want to come together, be it for Shabbat dinners, hikes or story times, as well as OneTable, a Shabbat dinner hosting initiative now being supported by many federations including Philadelphia’s, Norry said.

“We saw clearly that we can’t be dictatorial about the things we want to happen; we have to let them help them drive this,” she said. “It’s a new and very exciting challenge.”

Next year, JFNA leadership is planning to return to its time-honored General Assembly format, this time in Chicago, with some 3,000 participants expected to be on hand.

“We plan to bring into the next GA much of the impact of FedLab, which was a laboratory for creative solutions that our communities can truly use going forward,” Fingerhut said. “That way we’ll be able to engage even more people working together to create a Jewish future that’s stronger, more secure and more vibrant than ever before.”


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