Will leaders’ talk lead to action?

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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 missing.

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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