So you want to run a conference
So you want to run a conference…
(Written for cases where there is not an existing Jewish student union or perhaps when you wish to start one!)
First the basics: Pick a theme
What’s the one topic you want your seminar to focus on? You should be able to state your theme succinctly in a few words or less. Possible themes might include Jewish identity, Jewish perspectives on sexuality, Hispanic Jewry, the Jewish mandate for Social Justice, the role of women in Jewish life, Jewish community building, Jewish spirituality, and endless others. Make sure that your theme is one that others will find interesting and that you are knowledgeable enough about the issues you have chosen to plan compelling and substantive programs, or you might be spending the weekend of your conference alone…
Pick a Date
Choose a weekend for your conference. Be aware of exam schedules, major campus events, Jewish holidays and other calendar obstacles. Also, check with all the Jewish organisations on or off campus, as well as other relevant campus groups, to ensure that your date does not conflict with other events that would draw a similar crowd. An inconvenient date can kill an otherwise excellent conference.
Get Help (if you haven’t already)
Form a committee. Find fellow students who are interested in planning a conference on your selected theme and invest them in the planning process. Divide responsibilities in a fair way. Keep everyone aware of what is going through regular communication (emails, phone calls, and/or meetings). Some students may not want to or may not have time to be on the planning committee but might like to get involved in other, more limited ways. Don’t forget to involve these students without overwhelming them.
Notify anyone who might be interested about your conference. If, for example, you were sponsoring a conference on Jewish women’s issues, you might want to contact the Jewish student union (if there is one), the women’s group on campus, the women’s studies department, women Jewish studies professors, your local chapter of Hadassah/WIZO, and others. These organization and individuals may be able to provide ideas, funding, publicity assistance, logistical help and more. Even if they cannot offer assistance, they may just be interested in what you are doing. You also want to ensure that they know the dates of your conference so that they do not schedule conflicting events.
Instead, begin with the basics. Hold a brainstorming session with your committee to come up with the most interesting and provocative aspects of your theme. Narrow down your list into a manageable number of sub themes. For example, if your theme were Hispanic Jewry, your sub themes might be history, ritual, identity and community.
The next step is to brainstorm ways of addressing your sub themes, Think about which program formats would best address each sub theme. Each program should be both engaging and substantive. One you have a general sense of what the programming should look like, divide up the planning for each program. Program planners may want to contact a local Rabbi, Jewish organization, or go to a library to find Jewish texts or concepts that would shed light on the chosen issue. Set a deadline by which all the programs must be planned.
Shortly before the conference, have each program planner do a run through of their program so that they can get feedback on how to improve the program. Each program planner should run their program as if the committee was the real audience. Committee members should act as participants so they get a real feel for how the program runs. This process of rehearsal and feedback is your way of making sure that each program is as good as it can be.
Logistics - Budgeting.
With your committee, brainstorm sources of possible funding. These may include your Jewish organization on campus, student government, other student organisations, academic departments, your local Jewish Federation, local synagogues or other off campus Jewish organization, private donors and/or foundations. You may also be able to generate income by charging students a fee for attending. You can try to decrease your expenses by having organisations and businesses provide in kind donations such as donations of food, supplies, paper goods etc. you never know what you can get for free until you ask. Begin asking for money and donations as soon as possible.
Early in the planning process you will need to consider where your conference will be held. Issues to consider include: cost, convenience and facilities. You may choose to hold your conference on campus or at an off-campus site, such as a retreat centre or camp. The latter tends to be much more expensive, but can often be more convenient if the site will organize food as well. You may find that fewer students are willing to leave campus for the whole weekend but that those who do come will be more likely to stay for all of the programming rather than drifting in and out throughout the weekend. Make sure that wherever you choose to hold your conference is easy to get to by public transportation, or that you arrange cars or vans to transport students to the site.
If you choose to hold the conference on-campus, be sure to choose a neutral site. You wouldn’t want certain students to choose not to come to the conference just because it was held at a site where they did not feel comfortable. You should consider how students on your campus will perceive the chosen locations. Space reservations should be made as early as possible to eliminate unnecessary worry late in the planning process.
If students from other schools/universities/campuses will be coming to your conference, you will need to organize somewhere for them to stay. Often home hospitality, in which each visiting student is matched up with a student who lives locally works best. Your school might also have affordable guest housing or a nearby youth hostel where participants could stay. If you choose to use home hospitality make sure to form a housing committee to recruit hosts. This should not be left to the last minute… also, be sure to have back up hosts lined up in case any of your hosts get sick!!
You will need to purchase any necessary materials for the conference ahead of time. Each program planner should prepare what materials they need for their program. You should consider developing a sourcebook of materials from the conference to distribute to each participant. This is a way of giving each person something tangible from the conference to take home with them. The sourcebook could include any materials participants will need for the weekend, articles and other information about the conference theme, and resources for further investigation and any further events you would like to run.
Tell everyone you know about the conference and make sure they tell everyone they know too. Charging a registration fee is a way of not only recovering some of the costs of the conference, but also a way to ensure that those who register actually attend. If someone pays even a nominal charge of $5 or $10 when they register, they are more likely to feel obliged to attend. You could encourage people to bring their friends to the conference by offering a small discount off the registration fee for every friend that a registrant brings along.