NEW ORLEANS - The annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America got going Saturday night (after Shabbat, of course) in the heart of New Orleans, under the moniker “The Big Embrace in the Big Easy.”

Some 4,000 people from more than 150 organizations, NGOs and charities have flocked to the city for the conference and the biannual Lion of Judah gathering which runs almost concurrently. The conferences coincide with a massive real estate convention also taking place in New Orleans over the weekend, and the streets are packed with out-of-towners carrying paraphernalia from their respective gatherings, but almost all wearing Mardi Gras beads in gold, purple and green.

“We are thrilled and proud to be gathering here in New Orleans for the 2010 General Assembly and International Lion of Judah Conference,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.

“More than 4,100 Jewish Federations and communal leaders of all ages are coming together to meet the challenges we face, from advocating for Israel to engaging young people in meaningful opportunities like Jewish service, to raising funds for meeting global Jewish needs. New Orleans, where Jewish Federations helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, provides an especially fitting and powerful backdrop for our work together. We are honored to be here and look forward to memorable events.”

The GA traditionally tackles hot topics within the American Jewish communities - last year’s gathering dwelt on the challenges faced by the twin blows financial crisis and Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. This year, the themes include Israel’s image, with workshops bearing titles such as “Confronting Israel's Delegitimizers: The Jewish Community Responds” and “U.S.-Israel Relations in a Changing World.”

Speakers include the usual smattering of Jewish luminaries and Israeli officials. But the biggest names at GA 2010 are U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, whether either man will say anything game-changing is yet to be seen.