By Natalie Matus / Vice President of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and President of Congregation Beth Israel
I had the honor of joining Dara Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Chicago on October 31 to November 1, 2023. This was my first time attending the General Assembly, and it was an inspiring and amazing three days.
The GA brought together 1,800 professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community from across North America, from large and small communities. It also featured appearances from President Isaac Herzog of Israel, US ambassador to Israel Amy Gutmann, president and CEO of JFNA Eric Fingerhut, and many other luminaries. Topics of keynote speeches and panels included some of the major issues facing Jewish communities, including growing antisemitism, how we can strengthen Jewish life, the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the importance of strong leadership across Jewish organizations, the impact of increased diversity in the Jewish community, and the need to bring young Jews to the table.
There was a lot of discussion about the new Jewish family and how they will redefine the Jewish future. These issues impact us here in the Berkshires in the work of Federation and our local synagogues. Workshop participants talked about the increasing number of marriages between Jews and non-Jews over the past 10 years (according to the most recent Pew study) and the reluctance of many younger families to affiliate in the way the previous generations did. They concluded that if we don’t understand who these parents are and what they are looking for – when and how they want to bring Judaism to their lives – we will create a growing divide in the Jewish community. We need to understand them and develop programs to meet them where they are. Families are seeking community and we need to figure out how to work with them to provide what they are looking for.
As president of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, I found that many of these issues resonated deeply with me. These are all questions I think about every day - how can we engage young families in a meaningful way to them? How can we connect in an authentic way so that families see themselves as truly belonging to our organizations? We also need to think about new ways to measure engagement and success – not necessarily by whether or not they choose to become members of synagogues.
Finally, I was deeply moved by a briefing by JDC – a leading Jewish humanitarian organization that many Federations, including ours, support. We were briefed on the lifesaving work JDC is doing in Ukraine. Of the 200,000 Jews in Ukraine when the Russian invasion started, roughly 50,000 have left. But 90 percent of the elderly remain, and their situation is dire. Winter relief will be critical for these Jews’ survival. JDC is providing generators, gas tanks, wood, food, medicine, blankets, and warm sleeping bags to keep people alive. Hesed Centers and JCCs are being turned into warming centers.
This briefing became the focus of a meaningful conversation at our Federation’s executive committee meeting later that month. Our community had already raised over $100,000 earlier in the year to support the Ukrainian Jewish community fleeing the war, but after discussing the severity of this situation and our responsibility as Jews to help one another, the executive committee decided to allocate an additional $20,000 to help our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, who have already lost so much, survive the bitter winter ahead.
I returned home from the General Assembly feeling inspired and grateful to be part of Federation and this amazing community. To see the strength of Jewish communities working together and putting our values into action to improve and save lives has filled me with renewed energy for the work ahead.
Photo: Natalie Matus (right) with Federation Executive Director Dara Kaufman at last fall's JFNA General Assembly.
The next General Assembly is in Israel this April 23-26. For more info on joining us, click here.