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Thursday 26 July 2007

Will leaders' talk lead to action?

Will leaders' talk lead to action?
Uriel Heilman
More than 100 Jewish communal leaders assembled in Jerusalem for a
three-day conference on the future of the Jewish people. Will their
recommendations be implemented?
Published: 07/12/2007
JERUSALEM (JTA) – When more than 100 Jewish communal leaders assemble
for a conference whose stated goal is no less ambitious than to plan the
future of the Jewish people, one of two things can happen.
Either the summit falls victim to its overly ambitious goal, or
something productive actually comes out of discussions on curbing
assimilation in the Jewish Diaspora, containing Iran's nuclear weapons
program and engaging young Jewish minds and hearts.
After three days of meetings in Jerusalem, it's not yet clear which will
be the legacy of the 2007 Conference on the Future of the Jewish People,
sponsored by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.
"I want to challenge all of us that this will not just be talk because
talk is cheap," Shalom Saar, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy
School of Government, said Thursday, the final day of the summit.
Speaking after the parley's working groups had delivered their policy
recommendations, Saar quoted Albert Einstein, saying: "Implementation is
the vehicle of genius."
"If we implement some of these recommendations, we will win," Saar said.
The question now is what the Jewish leaders who came to the conference
will do about what they discussed.
Among the group's policy recommendations, which would fill several
pages, were the creation of a "baby birthright" program to offer
universal, free Jewish preschool; the easing of conversion procedures in
Israel to make it easier to become a Jew; the adoption of a more
inclusive attitude toward Israelis living overseas, including the
extension of absentee voting rights; and the promotion of knowledge of
Hebrew among Jewish organizational leaders.
The working groups also made several declarative conclusions without
specific recommendations about how to achieve them. The how, they said,
will be formulated in the coming months.
The declarations ranged from the frightfully obvious to the controversial.
The former: "We identified Iran as the existential threat to Israel and
the dominant threat to the West," Anti-Defamation League National
Chairman Glen Lewy said.
And the latter: "A state monopoly on religion in Israel is emerging as a
major impediment for Diaspora-Israel relations, the Jewish identity of
Israelis and aliyah," said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish
Community Federation of Cleveland.
As the conference came to a close, Barry Shrage, the president of
Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, observed, "We need some
concrete outcomes."
The challenges confronting the Jewish people are hardly new, nor were
the discussions about them alien to anyone who came.
Rather the uniqueness of this summit was the breadth of those
participating and the opportunity such a gathering theoretically
presents to effectively address those challenges.
Participants included Israeli government ministers past and present,
leaders of major American Jewish organizations, philanthropists,
academicians, newspaper editors and foundation heads. Israel's prime
minister, opposition leader and president-elect dropped by, too.
As one participant noted, "The people who can effect the changes are in
the room."
The question is whether this summit will spark real solutions to address
what are perceived as the central ills of the Jewish people: declining
Jewish identification by Israeli and American Jews, the demonization of
Israel worldwide, Islamic extremism, the growing gap between Israel and
Diaspora Jewry, assimilation, low Jewish population growth and
ineffective Jewish leadership.
There was no shortage of debate on how best to address these issues.
Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University said Jewish
leaders need to formulate policies to boost Jewish birthrates to combat
the demise of the U.S. Jewish population through assimilation, and to
change the demographic tide in Israel, where Arab population growth far
outpaces the Jewish birthrate.
J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the Forward newspaper, argued that Jewish
leaders instead need to consider the Jewish community more expansively
and not ignore the tremendous growth in American households containing
Jews – or the people in them who seek to be part of the Jewish
community, whether they are considered Jewish by Jewish law or not.
Saul Singer, editorial page editor of The Jerusalem Post, advocated more
open conversion policies to bolster the ranks of worldwide Jewry.
Ha'aretz editor David Landau beat the drum of Orthodox triumphalism,
noting that the Orthodox population in Israel and the Diaspora do not
suffer from the most significant ills plaguing the wider Jewish
community: negative population growth, lack of Jewish identity and
indifference toward Israel.
Participants from Canada, Europe and Israel suggested that the high
attrition rate in the largest Diaspora Jewish community, the United
States, suggests it has much to learn from non-American communities
where the Jewish retention rate is significantly higher, such as
Montreal or Johannesburg.
Yisrael Harel of the Israel Democracy Institute noted that the sad state
of the Jewish people is reflected in the decision of conference
organizers to hold the discussions in English.
"Hebrew is the mother tongue of the Jewish people," Harel said.
Other participants found the conference flawed for what, or who, was
France's former chief rabbi, Rene Shmuel Sirat, said he was
flabbergasted by the lack of discussion about peacemaking and the need
to build bridges between Jews and Muslims. Several participants
complained that women were underrepresented. Countless gray-haired
Jewish professionals took turns at the microphone to bemoan the dearth
of young people.
Inbal Freund, 28, responded sharply to that absence.
"I feel that as young people we are learning in a different language, in
a different territory, in a different place," said Freund, the director
of Mavoi Satum, a group for women tied to recalcitrant husbands refusing
to grant gets, or official Jewish divorces. "We have to be represented
and not just spoken about."
Of course, one need not be invited to a conference to effect change.
Some of the more effective Jewish initiatives in recent years have
started outside the organized Jewish community, such as birthright
israel. That program, which in bringing more than 100,000 young Diaspora
Jews to Israel has helped bolster Jewish identity as well as ties to
Israel and among fellow Jews, was adopted by the organized Jewish
community only after much resistance, Hoffman noted.
Perhaps the follow-up to this conference – some sort of task force is
planned – will determine whether or not the next great idea will emanate
from the people who came to Jerusalem this week.
"There are enough Jews now in this room to change the Jewish world,"
said Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, "if we would only
behave differently."


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