This past November, I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (fondly referred to as the GA) in Washington, D.C. As someone not very religious, I found myself reflecting on what drove me to take three days away from my family and work to attend an event about which I knew very little.
Was it memories of my grand-father, Joseph Garter, whose voice filled our house while davening the Kiddush with perfect pitch? Was it memories of lighting a menorah with my family while every other house in the neighborhood was encased in Christmas lights? Was it memories of Hebrew school or 12 summers of Jewish overnight camp? Maybe it was because I had become a father and developed a desire to ensure my children have similar Jewish memories of their own. Without being too profound, there is something practical there. Those memories didn’t happen on their own; they were given to me by my grandfather, my parents, my friends and family and the Jewish community in Howard County in which I grew up. I realized it was up to me and my wife to help provide those memories to our children — no pressure! Maybe attending the GA would help.
I attended alongside staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Federation of Howard County (JFHC), and I was immediately surprised to learn we were one of the smallest delegations in all of North America. How strange, I thought, that the wealthiest county in Maryland is home to a Jewish Federation with a $600,000 annual campaign; Baltimore County’s is more than 50 times larger, bringing in around $32 million each year. A recent report analyzed charitable giving across America and noted that Howard County has the second-highest median income in the U.S. but ranks in the bottom 25 percent for charitable giving. Are the 18,000 Jews in Howard County truly that much of a paradox? Maybe I would learn how to change that at the GA.
To my surprise, I walked away significantly more motivated by my fellow attendees than by the illustrious GA presenters. I met Jews from all over North America, from Ottawa to San Francisco: college students seeking out their life’s calling; newlyweds searching for inspiration to create their first Jewish home; young adults like me considering ways to create engaging Jewish experiences for their children; and older adults urgently cultivating the next generation of young Jewish leaders. The sense of community among the 3,000 attendees was awe inspiring.
I realized that I shouldn’t focus on transforming the philanthropic culture of Howard County or burden myself with creating Jewish memories for my children. I should focus on building that incredible sense of community I felt at the GA among the Jews in Howard County, and everything else would follow. It’s not something I could or should do alone; but if each Jewish person in Howard County contributed one brick, we could build a wall 20 football fields wide and twice the height of the Empire State building. And what if those bricks were quarters? If each Jew in Howard County donated 25 cents per day, the JFHC’s annual campaign would more than double to over $1.5 million.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said during the GA, “You want to start a movement? Get people to build something together.”