Seven Ways to Disrupt a Jewish Conference

If you want to enthuse your Jewish conference-goers, your gathering can't only feed off the glories of the past.

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It’s been said that the most important work at conferences happens in the halls in-between sessions, as participants connect in the spaces between carefully plotted panels and the boisterous inspiration of plenaries. But there’s something else you always hear in the halls: Grumbling.

The panels were too long. The plenaries were too generic to leave a lasting imprint. The attendees seemed interesting, but there was never enough time to talk. And the impact? Eh. “It was ok,” people say.

I attend a lot of Jewish conferences. And I hear the above complaints so much that perhaps conference planners are so caught up in the details that they forget the basics. Why have a conference to begin with? If your goal is to bring a diverse group together to engage thoughtfully in discussion, learn new things, meet new people, shake up your thinking, and emerge re-inspired and reinvigorated, you need disruption.

To a conference organizer, disruption may sound like chaos. But with a few calculated risks, conferences can leave a real impression in the creative or cultural memory of the individuals who attend. Here’s how to un-conference your conference.

Step 1: Participants, Presenters, Prosumers and Volunticipants

In today’s conference scene, the role of the volunticipant (Limmudspeak for the volunteer/participant) or the prosumer (producer/consumer) is on the rise. Participants who are also partially responsible for the content feel more invested; they essentially become the content, freed from an organizational agenda and instead committed to authentic interactions that reveal the state of that moment.

Increasingly, Jewish conferences are experimenting with different modes of meeting facilitation: “open-space” sessions to take the thematic pulse of the conference - giant Post-Its and markers help attendees determine topics on-site and in the moment; or a “world café” style - small groups rotate through tables for facilitated discussion of a menu of themes and topics determined by conference organizers. These formats perfectly fit smaller conferences (40-150 people), but with the right framing and facilitation, any conference that has breakout sessions can use these styles and mobilize the energy and intelligence of the room to create memorable conference moments.

Step 2: Network the Jewish networks

Conferences are a great opportunity to activate “Jewish geography” – to link the inner circles to the outer edges of the social graph, providing a much richer perspective of the community as it exists and as it could be. In addition, networking can carry an organizational message to and attract a wider variety of people.

South by Southwest (called SXSW or just “South-by”) hosts numerous panels, presentations and parties, but the excitement over content begins months in advance, with a “Panel Picker.” This RFP-meets-fan-voting technique requests session proposals and asks prospective presenters to activate their networks to garner support. Participants feel more invested, as do their networks, and generate topics that conference organizers might never have suggested.

But bringing people from different networks to a room is only a half-step. That room should be an intentionally constructed space – perhaps even staff-moderated and with content that stimulates connection and conversation. Whether it’s a gathering about doing social good or about skills development, these should be spaces where people can find each other, hear each other, look each other in the eye and find points of intersection, common professional interest and social compatibility.

An application process effectively, thoughtfully and strategically pulls people from different networks, but also sets up a barrier: Participation won’t be open or accessible to everyone. But in our world there is a “next best thing to being there.” Many sessions can and probably will be reported on, effectively bringing the content to people who couldn’t be there in person. Strategically incorporating live-tweeting and simulcasting into the communications plan for the conference engages people in outside networks and sends the message that their voices are still valuable.

Step 3: Toss the clichés

There’s a comfort in familiarity and repetition, but an omnipresent topic can be perceived as tired, immutable or insoluble; today’s organizations should be responsive to the contemporary and projecting a vision for a dynamic future. Much like music, today’s creativity is built on its traditions, and a history of inventive thinking. But what works in one era may not work in the next. It’s not that you’re not grateful that the older style exists; it does continue to influence you and you appreciate it. But you can’t be dynamic and future-oriented if you keep living in the past. Which is to say, if you’ve been using the same title for a session at every conference for the last ten years (paging “Is [TOPIC] Good for the Jews?”), retire it.

Step 4: Import inspiration; export enthusiasm.

Whether it’s an article about creativity, statistics about shifts in philanthropy, or a song lyric that’s stuck in your head, bring those inspirations, fascinations and earworms into your conference. Events can organize their own “Big Ideas” TED-style talks like The AVI CHAI Foundation does with ELI Talks.

A Sundance Channel TV show, “Iconoclasts,” presents another format idea: have two luminaries, maybe even from slightly different fields but of similar levels of success, interview each other. Ignite, a style of presentation using timed, auto-advancing slides that limit presenters to a certain number of minutes, was incorporated with great success into sessions I organized at the last two JFNA General Assemblies, alongside networking and drinks.) When people experience something different, they’ll leave talking about it, what they learned and how it made them think. They’ll be enthusiastic ambassadors –a conference takeaway more valuable than an organizationally branded pen.

Step 5: Make your conference accessible

Beyond the assumed points of hosting a conference that’s physically accessible to all, think about linguistic and financial accessibility as well. If your conference is geared at a specific population, feel free to use the technospeak (or Hebrew or Yiddish) that defines you all as a group. But if you’re looking to attract a more diverse crowd than the regular insiders, you’ll have to use language that creates accessibility by leveling the playing field of comprehension.

Financial accessibility isn’t easy to wave away – conferences cost money, and so people should expect to pay to participate. But if you hold a conference in Israel, for example, don’t expect a lot of teenagers and “NextGen” professionals who do not live in Israel to be able to afford the experience (even if they might need the inspiration most). So when you envision your target conference audience, also think in advance about partnerships, subsidies, scholarships, comps for presenters, exchanging volunteer hours for discounted fees, anything to make the otherwise-financially-impossible more affordable for the attendees you want at your conference.

Step 6: Build a watering hole

It sounds simple, but a central, comfortable, designated snack area fuels conversations and brings together people who might never have otherwise met. The refreshments don’t have to be alcoholic (although an after-hours open bar sometimes does help), but should be available, ideally, any time during the conference. People appreciate that conference organizers have anticipated their needs and you’ll cut down on food-related exoduses from the conference site.

Step 7: Embrace the modular

If there’s one symbol for modular creativity, it’s the Post-It. Impermanent, but sticky. Inexpensive, but invaluable. Accessible to everyone; no special training required. You can put Post-Its in order, and then rearrange them. It’s like a magical, supportive editing companion that says, “I understand. You’re a creative person and your ideas are ever-changing. Let’s work this thing together.” Big, small, in-between, off-size…that no one size fits all means that each person can find their own idea and method to adhere to. So literally, use Post-Its whenever you can. And metaphorically, be the Post-It you want to see at your conference.

For some organizations, conferences are as much an institution as the sponsoring organizations themselves. There is history, and many, often-conflicting expectations to balance. But throughout the planning process, it’s important to keep the end user in mind. In the case of Jewish conferences, the end users are the overworked, underpaid, emotionally drained Jewish professionals, looking for inspiration and reinvigoration.

The English major in me keeps returning to a Shakespearean device called “symbolic geography” - the designation of one space (the metropolis or Rome) as the place of reason and logic, and a second location (the forest or Egypt) as a place where reality is suspended, and fantasy and magic reign. In this construct, Jewish organizations are firmly planted in the land of logic; but if there is a symbolic geography for the Jewish world, Jewish conferences are the magical, mysterious forest. Or at least, with a little reimagination and disruption, they could be.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is probably attending a conference, either virtually or in person, right now. She writes in many places, including at and on Twitter at @EstherK.

General Assembly participants noshing in JerusalemCredit: Amnon Gutman for JFNA
Participants networking at GA in Jerusalem, November 11, 2013.Credit: Haaretz

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