JERUSALEM (JTA) – Some of the Jewish world’s top minds gathered in Jerusalem conference rooms this week to map coherent strategies for the challenges facing the Jewish people.
From confronting radical Islam to keeping young Jews in the fold, the academics, former diplomats and communal leaders talked strategy on the eve of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ ‘Facing Tomorrow’ conference.
The conference and preliminary discussions Tuesday were organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank. The event is drawing global leaders such as President Bush.
“Generating new ideas at a time when the world faces the paradoxes of both opportunity and profound threats” is key, said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East and the founding president of the Planning Institute, which was launched by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
This week’s gala conference is part of Israel’s celebration of its 60th anniversary. Among those at Tuesday’s day of preliminary discussions were former U.S. Cabinet members Henry Kissinger and Stuart Eizenstat, French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and American columnist William Safire.
The discussions were the continuation of a similar effort held last year by the Planning Institute. Ross said the group of some 120 participants would try to pinpoint a few recommendations and would stress implementation to ensure the discussions did not end up merely as talk.
In an interview with JTA, Ross pointed to the Israeli government’s commitment to follow up on the ideas of the Planning Institute’s working groups as a sign of its commitment to practical progress.
At Tuesday’s pre-conference, Ross sat on a panel discussing the implications of international trends on world Jewry and Israel, including a discussion on alternative energy sources, the scope of the Iranian threat and how best to engage emerging powers like China.
“It stimulates thinking on key actors who have the power to take ideas and act on them,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, of the discussions.
The president of Brandeis University, Jehuda Reinharz, who spoke at a session on Diaspora youth and Jewish identity, told JTA in an interview that Jews need to respond–and not just in defensive ways–to debates about Israel on college campuses and elsewhere.
People either respond defensively or “they don’t react because they are not sufficiently confident or knowledgeable,” Reinharz said.
Participants reached consensus on several issues that emerged during the discussions, such as the need to focus on Diaspora Jews 18 to 30 – the age when people often decide whether to embrace their Jewish identity or walk away from it.
Participants lauded the Birthright Israel model of bringing young Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips but suggested that the program focus on expanding the pool of youngest participants: college freshmen and sophomores, rather than older students or recent graduates. This way, they said, Birthright could make more of an impact on Jewish campus life.
The president of Hillel, Wayne Firestone, said universities were the ideal focal points for a Jewish community seeking to retain the next generation. Every year, he said, 400,000 Jews are enrolled in American colleges and universities.
When it comes to focusing on young Jews, he said, “you need to bet on a place you know where they’ll be.”