Hundreds attend Yeshiva University’s Sixth Annual ChampionsGate National Leadership Conference Presented by the Center for the Jewish Future
In Orthodox shuls in more than 90 communities across North and South America, Israel, and the United Kingdom this past Shabbat, seats normally occupied by key people were empty. Rabbis, presidents, board members and others—many of those who do the heavy lifting of communal life in their towns and neighborhoods—gathered in Orlando, Florida at Yeshiva University’s National Leadership Conference at the ChampionsGate resort.
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The invitation-only event presented by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) from July 7-10 gave hundreds of Orthodox lay leaders and communal professionals—or, “lay and klei kodesh” [volunteers and professionals engaged in holy work], in the words of YU President Richard M. Joel—a chance to meet, network, compare notes and to consult one another on the challenges they face in their towns and neighborhoods.
“ChampionsGate for us is a recharging station, providing the ideas and fuel for us to return home energized to play the leadership roles our small town requires of us,” said Pace Cooper, a philanthropist from Memphis, Tennessee. “Memphis, a town with only 9,000 Jews, is a strong Orthodox community relative to its numbers. YU spending time strengthening these smaller communities around the country is of extreme value to us.”
The theme of the sixth annual conference was “Community Re-Imagined: Building New Horizons.”
At seminars and panel discussions on topics ranging from the financial sustainability of day schools, to fundraising advice and practical tips for operating not-for-profit organizations, from the challenges of dating and early marriage in modern society, to how to keep families connected to schools and shuls in an increasingly stratified world, presenters sought to provide new strategies for building and strengthening communities. Experts from North Carolina’s world-renowned Center for Creative Leadership facilitated a number of breakout sessions, and YU experts in various disciplines provided confidential consultations to discuss challenges facing individual communities.
University Trustee Ira Mitzner ’81Y, who also chairs the CJF advisory council, first thought to convene Jewish leaders from around the country together in one room in 2006. He and his wife, Mindy, offered YU the use of their new ChampionsGate resort. There were 40 attendees that year. Since then, the ChampionsGate leadership conference has grown into a highly anticipated annual event. With more than 400 participants, this year’s was the largest yet.
“ChampionsGate is an opportunity for community leaders from around the world to discuss critical community issues, meet others with similar opportunities and challenges and come away inspired,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, The David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “It represents one of the ways that Yeshiva University convenes its resources to foster and inspire community, as well as how community helps to calibrate Yeshiva’s vision to empower its students.”
Perspectives at the leadership conference were rich and varied. Featured speakers including University deans, faculty and administrators including Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the CJF; Dr. David Pelcovitz, Straus Professor of Psychology and Education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration; Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik of the new Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought; and Mrs. Shira Yoshor, partner at Baker Botts LLP, a University trustee and chair of the Stern College for Women Board.
The conference also drew on the expertise and experience of its attendees, with discussions held by figures such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; Rabbi David Stav, founder of the Israeli rabbinical group Tzohar, Rabbi Binny Freedman, director of Isralight; and Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of the NCSY.
The gathering began Thursday afternoon with a brief comedic video by Uri Westrich, Yeshiva College graduate and director of the Maccabeats’ music videos, in which young children portrayed a “typical” shul board meeting.
During a live broadcast from the hotel on Friday morning, radio personality Nachum Segal ’84 YC introduced his international audience to the ChampionsGate Conference during his JM in the AM program. At Friday’s lunch, President Joel announced that an anonymous donor would make a $1 million gift to support YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) where rabbis are trained, tuition-free.
“The overarching power of ChampionsGate is that it models and advances a hopeful vision of community based in Torah U’madda,” said President Joel. “Communities gather to celebrate their successes, share their challenges and resolve to continue their commitment to advancing the values and story of the Jewish people.”
Shabbat was a highlight of the conference. Chazzan Shimon Craimer led the tefilot [prayers], Rabbi Kenneth Brander delivered a passionate sermon (to a congregation that included no fewer than 25-30 congregational rabbis) and conference participants were offered “A Taste of YU Torah,” the option to attend shiurim [lectures] on a breadth of subjects. They included community law of the Dead Sea Scroll sect with renowned expert and YU Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education Dr. Lawrence Schiffman; or how rabbinic authorities are dealing with the agunah challenge ten years after September 11, presented by Rabbi Yonah Reiss, The Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS. Many conference participants were enthused to have their first chance to learn Torah at YU from Rabbi Soloveichik. His presentation on the halachic subject of levirate marriage was entitled, “The Talmudic Marriage of Henry the VIII.”
“I didn’t realize how much I needed to reconnect with YU,” said Miriam Wallach ’96S of Woodmere, New York. She attended the conference with her husband Stephen ’92 SB, ’95C and found herself moved to tears during President Joel’s remarks at seudat shlishit [the third Sabbath meal]. “It was a wonderful weekend.”
“Yeshiva University represents a broad tent of Orthodoxy,” said Rabbi Elliot Lasson of Baltimore, Maryland, who had been looking forward to ChampionsGate “because it offered the chance to learn from great personalities and network with leaders from other communities, celebrating successes and learning from challenges.
“There is diversity and openness in the YU world, but at the core is commitment to Torah values and the future of the Orthodox world,” added Lasson. “ChampionsGate has had much thought and planning put into it—I know action items and initiatives will emanate from the conference.”