Reaching Out To World Jewry


Jerusalem: There are at least two ways to report on a unique consultation that was convened here last week at Beit Hanassi, the Presidential Residence, by Israeli President Moshe Katzav: that it established a bold method of dealing with vital concerns of world Jewry, or it was a pro forma meeting with few meaningful results.The outcome is not yet known but either way, the meeting shed much light on the troubled relationship between Israeli and diaspora Jewry, and the very different ways they operate, and it marked a new effort to narrow the widening gap.

First, the outcome: After intense deliberations, the 50 invited participants, primarily leaders of Israel and Jewish organizations in the United States, and the balance from the diaspora, agreed to establish a conference that would meet at least once a year in Jerusalem. To be called “Beit Yisrael: World Jewish Forum,” it will be held under the auspices of the president to “advise the State of Israel on manners of response regarding matters of concern to the entire Jewish people,” according to a concluding statement.

The forum will seek to bring together Jewish lay and professional leaders, innovative thinkers, philanthropists and educators from all age groups to discuss how most effectively to meet the serious challenges facing the future of world Jewry at a time when assimilation is growing, the birthrate is shrinking, 70 percent of Jewish people are unaffiliated and uninvolved with the Jewish community, and only 25 percent of its children receive a Jewish education — a condition Katzav, in his opening charge to the group, called “a state of crisis” that continues to deteriorate and requires “urgent action.”

The president will appoint a steering committee of 21 people — himself, seven Israelis, seven Americans and six others from the rest of the world — to determine who will be invited to the first forum next year and what the topic or topics for discussion will be.Now the background: About two years ago, amid much fanfare, President Katzav proposed creating a Bayit Sheni, or Second House (of Israel) — the first being the Knesset — as a means of giving world Jewry a role in the important decisions made in and by Israel that affect all Jews, from religious laws concerning who is a Jew, conversion, marriage and divorce, to Zionist education, countering anti-Semitism and promoting aliyah.Some praised the proposal as a brave, meaningful way of strengthening the ties between Israel and the diaspora. But politically, the plan was a disaster, viewed as a threat to the powers of the Knesset, The Jewish Agency for Israel, which is charged with these responsibilities, and Jewish organizations across the U.S. and the diaspora. Who needs yet another Jewish body, critics asked, suggesting that Katzav’s proposal was based more on an attempt to establish a personal stamp on his legacy than as a practical solution to the needs of world Jewry.So the proposal went nowhere. But Katzav, a mild-mannered but self-described “perfectionist” who spent many years in the Knesset — and is now in the fifth year of his seven-year, one-time term in the largely ceremonial post — wanted to resurrect his concept in some way that would be acceptable.

He was willing to make practical concessions, mainly by assuring that this new entity would not be a permanent body competing for power or funds with any existing group, and that it would be deliberative rather than legislative in nature.So in recent weeks, invitations went out from the president to various Jewish leaders, asking them to come to Jerusalem for two days of consultations, with the goal of seeking their approval to create a revised, scaled-down form of his House of Israel proposal.Like others who were invited, I felt drawn to respond positively to a request from the president of Israel. I also felt the tug of journalistic curiosity.

But like many others, I suspected that little of substance would come of the deliberations, either because the conclusion was preordained — with the participants the required pawns to sanction the outcome — or because the president would try to revive the more controversial aspects of his former proposal and it would be defeated.Would this conference, then, lead to the creation of a new House of Israel, or would it turn out to be Katzav’s house of cards?

Open SkepticismAs the participants gathered on the lawn of the beautiful grounds of the Presidential Residence for coffee and croissants on the morning of June 22, prior to the opening session, the mood ranged from bemusement to open skepticism, with virtually no one optimistic about the prospects of a substantive meeting. Leaders acknowledged they were there because, as one said, “you don’t turn down an invitation from the president of Israel.” Many had planned to be in Israel for The Jewish Agency meetings starting June 26 and had decided to come a few days early, no doubt a scheduling plan of the organizers of the consultation to increase attendance.What was different about this conference, participants said as they surveyed the gathering crowd, was that it was called by the president, and as a result, the representation from Jewish organizations around the world was unusually broad. Leaders of the Jewish communities of France, Russia and Australia were there, as well as those from about 20 American Jewish organizations, in addition to two dozen Israeli government officials.

Only seven women were present, an imbalance widely noted, and there appeared to be only one participant, a student leader, under the age of 45.In the opening session, after Katzav’s strong charge to us to reverse the course of the Jewish future of the diaspora, Israel’s leading demographer, Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University, was the first of six speakers asked to present brief reports on the condition of world Jewry. He showed how diaspora Jewish numbers continue to decline, noting that there are fewer Jews in the world today than in 1940.In my report on the future of American Jewry, I noted that despite innovative pockets of renaissance in education, synagogue life and philanthropy, the overall outlook in terms of Jewish population and affiliation remains grim, with younger Jews feeling increasingly distant from ritual, education and community.

Other reports focused on the increasing external threat to Jews, primarily from radical Muslim terrorists; more blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric in Europe, where Jews are openly described as unwelcome citizens with excessive financial and political power; and the risk to the Jewish future posed by increasing assimilation and decreasing enrollment in Jewish education, which is voluntary and sporadic.The one upbeat report of the day was from Len Saxe, a professor of sociology and management at Brandeis University who offered statistics showing the success of birthright israel, the program offering free 10-day trips to Israel to 18- to 26-year-olds around the world. Not only is the program oversubscribed, but evaluations show that the experience has a lasting, positive impact in terms of Jewish identity and future affiliation.

Talk Or Action?

The balance of the 12 hours of conversation over the next day and a half did not focus on the need to address the grim predictions of the future decline of the diaspora, which were readily accepted and well known. (The only debate on that score was over whether to describe the situation as a crisis or an opportunity; the concluding statement used both words.)Rather, the group discussed the structure, power and impact of a forum that would tackle problems facing world Jewry, trying to balance the need for action with the political reality that the new body could only have a chance if it served in a consultative capacity.Along the way, important issues were raised, among them:Religion’s role and impact: Several participants noted the absence at the conference of the Orthodox leadership of Israel, which controls matters of conversion, marriage and divorce that affect Jews everywhere. (Haredi leaders were invited but declined, we were told.) It was noted that liberalizing laws regarding conversion and “Who is a Jew” could improve world Jewish demographics, and Tommy Lapid, a Knesset member and chairman of the Shinui party, insisted that Conservative and Reform rabbis be given equal rights in Israel.“Catholic priests in Israel have more rights than Reform rabbis,” Lapid asserted.The Israel-diaspora gulf: Several Israeli speakers spoke passionately about how little the government of Israel is interested in diaspora Jewry, especially when it comes to funding educational programs.

Nimrod Barkan, who heads the Diaspora Affairs Division of the Israel Foreign Ministry, said Israelis and American Jews each think they are saving the other. Israelis feel they have created a refuge for Jews everywhere, while American Jews think they are rescuing Israelis from extinction. There was consensus that the two communities are moving further apart.Lack of Jewish education: A minority of American Jewish children receive any kind of Jewish education, and most get only one day of supplemental study a week. Of the 290,000 children in Jewish day schools in North America, only 50,000 are from the non-Orthodox community, which makes up 93 percent of North American Jewry.

In addition, Israeli youngsters are getting less Jewish education in their curriculum than ever.Some participants emphasized that the gathered representatives did not speak to or for the vast majority of Jews, and that attention should focus on how to persuade Jews who don’t care about being Jewish why it should matter to them. Or, as one American Jewish leader put it privately: “This isn’t just about ‘Who is a Jew,’ it’s about who still wants to be a Jew.”One leader wondered how the same organized Jewish community that acknowledges its failure over the years to reach the majority of world Jewry would be more successful in its efforts this time. And after hearing Katzav stress the need for urgent action, another leader wondered how the Israeli leader could be satisfied with the decision to create an annual forum to deliberate on these matters.As one journalist mused: “It’s like saying our house is on fire, let’s get together a year from now and discuss what to do about it.”Katzav On PointAt the heart of the meeting, literally and figuratively, was Katzav himself, who sat through the entire proceedings while other Israeli officials came and went. The president stayed on message, interrupting speakers at times to question or respond to a point. He stressed that he did not care which plan was put into effect, as long as it was effective, and he impressed his guests with his earnest tenacity.

Indeed, his stature and involvement is what gives any future forum hope for traction.In the end everyone seemed satisfied, if not enthusiastic, about the draft statement calling for an annual forum starting next summer.“It’s the best we could have hoped for,” one European leader told me, while an American shrugged, “It’s vanilla, but I can live with it.” Most participants seemed to feel the conference was more positive than they had anticipated, primarily because of Katzav’s motivation, presence and position.Much depends on the composition and boldness of the steering committee he and 20 others will help select in the coming months, which in turn will choose the invitees. But there’s an unspoken Catch-22 at play here: If the president follows the advice of last week’s participants in going “outside the box,” inviting oft-mentioned people like Sen. Joe Lieberman, director Steven Spielberg and computer entrepreneur Michael Dell to attend a high-profile conference that would emulate the Davos World Economic Forum, that’s all to the good — unless he leaves out the very Jewish leaders in the room calling for innovation. And if he just invites the “usual suspect” Jewish leaders, they will say the invitee list shows little imagination.What’s more, one wonders if the forum will tackle tough issues that will capture the imagination of unaffiliated young people, or will it result in high-level rhetoric but no change in policy or approach?Tune in next year.