For Brenda S. Schwartz, the Jewish Federations of North America FedLab represented an opportunity to learn about the impact of anti-Semitism on college campuses.
The chair of the Jewish Community Board of Akron chose to attend the conference, the JFNA’s first such session. It was an invitation-only event, to which only the top echelon of volunteers and staff were invited. About 900 people attended the three-day conference from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12.
Next year, the Jewish Federations of North America will return to its General Assembly format with a Chicago convention, with an expected attendance of 3,000.
With three tracks available to participants – security, Jewish engagement and social action – Schwartz opted to look at the security track, called Jewish security and empowerment.
In that track, she heard from author and historian Deborah Lipstadt and speakers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Studying just one topic had its benefits, Schwartz said.
“It allowed us to delve deeply into one specific area and do some actual interactive workshops,” she said. “We got to hear from some very high-level people what was going on and what kind of responses have been tried.”
She said two students from the University of Illinois were also featured speakers.
“I was not aware that there had been such widespread anti-Israel action going on on that campus,” she said. “And so it was very eye-opening to see especially these young people coming and caring enough and being willing to stand up and (share) their experiences about being part of student government at the university at a time when it’s very fashionable, for lack of a better word, to be anti-Israel and (call) Israel an apartheid state.”
Schwartz said she also received some affirmation that the work she has been engaged in is valuable.
“It’s critical that we’re not just siloing ourselves off and excluding anyone from the outside. We need to build bridges, form friendships and alliances with, not just the non-Jewish world generally, but specifically with other targeted groups, such as African Americans (and), Muslim Americans,” she said. “And here in Akron, we already do that, but it’s good to hear that that’s exactly the (kind) of things that work.”
Todd Polikoff, CEO of Jewish Community Board of Akron, also attended. He chose a different track, the one on Jewish engagement.
Polikoff said the concept of Jewish engagement has shifted over the years to less institutional affiliations.
“We’re all dealing with that,” he said. “There’s always that appreciation when you hear from other people that they’re dealing with it as well. On the flip side, it’s like, oy vey we’re all dealing with this.”
Both Schwartz and Polikoff said they found the exercises worthwhile but would have appreciated some less structured time, which the General Assembly format offers, in order to do some informal networking.