Conference of Champions

Hundreds of Community Leaders Gather to Address Challenges Facing Orthodoxy

For four days in August, Orlando, FL, was the epicenter of a series of nationwide conversations in Orthodox communities across North America. The Seventh Annual ChampionsGate National Leadership Conference convened more than 450 rabbinic, educational and lay leaders from 92 locales across North America to address their most pressing communal challenges. The theme of the conference was “Shmitta: Reflection, Celebration, Renewal.”

“ChampionsGate 2012 was a profound celebration of a vision of Jewish values and community,” said Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel. “Together with community leaders we demonstrated how we partner together and create a tremendous resource to help build and advance community.”

Presented by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), ChampionsGate has grown from a gathering of 40 lay leaders in 2005 into a major event involving dozens of prominent leaders from the Orthodox world. Its creation and growth were made possible by the vision and support of Mindy and Ira Mitzner ’81YC, University Trustee and chair of the CJF advisory council who offered his Hilton Orlando resort as the venue for this year’s conference.

“At ChampionsGate, we convene as a community of community leaders,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “Our intention is to inspire and provoke substantive dialogue, collaborate on the issues that we can really do something about and create working plans that will enable lay leaders and professionals to enrich Jewish life and accomplish great things for the wellbeing and future of our people.”

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard-educated lecturer and writer on positive psychology and leadership, delivered the keynote address titled, “A Strengths-Based Approach to Community Leadership,” and a later session, “Empowering Ourselves to Ensure Lasting Change,” addressing the stress of communal responsibility.

Other speakers included Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America; Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; Rabbi Steven Burg, executive director of the Orthodox Union, and international director of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY); Rabbi Dovid Stav, chair of Tzohar Rabbis in Israel; and radio host Nachum Segal, who broadcast his JM in the AM program to an international audience live from the hotel.

The conference brought to the fore the expertise of YU staff and faculty and highlighted the University’s ‘Nowhere But Here’ mix of Torah and academic scholarship in sessions like “Confronting Abuse in the Jewish Community: a Halachik and Psychological Analysis,” presented by Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Professor of Jewish Education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education; and Rabbi Yona Reiss, Max and Marion Grill Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).

Other sessions included “Leadership and Governance: Reshaping Your Non-Profit for a Stronger Future,” led by YU Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Andrew Lauer; a panel on “Ethical Dilemmas in Crisis Management” led by Lauer that included Washington, D.C. attorney David Butler; Chai Lifeline’s Associate Director of Crisis Intervention and Bereavement Zahava Farbman; YU Senior Director of Media Relations Mayer Fertig; and Houston attorney Shira Yoshor, chair of Stern College for Women and a YU Trustee.

“Every person who spoke was more impressive than the next… every session was more eye-opening and more enlightening,” said attorney Ed Stelzer ’90YC of Teaneck, NJ. “After Shabbos I just wanted to open up my ear and pour out everything that I took in over the last 25 hours and sit with it and process it and think about it.”

The ChampionsGate Conference marked the beginning of the program year for the University’s leadership incubator, the Presidential Fellowship in University and Community Leadership, led by Rabbi Josh Joseph, YU vice president and chief of staff to the president. New Fellows also had the opportunity for the first time to meet their new mentors—lay leaders from across North America participating in a program conceived and underwritten by Rick Guttman, a Houston businessman and member of the CJF advisory board.

“I feel a sense of community [at ChampionsGate],” said Elly Lasson, an organizational psychologist who coaches YU undergraduates and RIETS semicha students with their interview skills, and is now a Presidential Fellowship mentor. “Where I live in Baltimore, the centrist community does not have large numbers. Coming here I get the sense that there are other communities struggling with the same challenges and it’s an opportunity to learn best practices from the ChampionsGate community.”

“It’s an incredible inspiration for a place like Kansas City to meet with leaders of shuls and schools that are larger and smaller, and exchange ideas, make friendships and work together toward realizing our goals,” said Rabbi Dani Rockoff ’01YC, ’03R, ’04A, spiritual leader of Congregation BIAV in Overland Park, KS.

Oncologist Brad Somer ’92YC, ’96E, of Memphis, TN, just completed a term as president of the Margolin Hebrew Academy. He came back to ChampionsGate for a second year hoping to recharge. “After the intensity of being on the job as president for the last few years you feel like you want to be in recovery mode,” he said. “I think it allows you to get inspired to re-engage. It’s good to recover but you need to get re-immersed, so to speak.”

“To be part of the YU community one does not necessarily have to have attended YU,” said Rabbi Jonathan Gross ’01YC, ’04R, a Teaneck, NJ native who leads Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, NE. “In fact, there were quite a few participants at the conference who did not. But each is inspired by the values, the vision, the students and the alumni of YU who have made a deep impact on our lives.”

“Yeshiva University has become the incubator for so much that is exciting and innovative in the Jewish world today,” said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, spiritual leader of Congregation K.I.N.S. of West Rogers Park, IL and dean of Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy. “To have the opportunity to enter that incubator, even if it’s only for a Shabbat, is an extraordinary opportunity.”

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