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As Conferences Abound, Some Ask if Organized Community is off the Mark

July 13, 2005
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A Jewish conference focused on a looming crisis might strike some as more of the same. But a wave of recent gatherings has tackled the existential questions facing world Jewry, and many are aimed at or driven by new actors.

The slew of new forums focusing on the future of the Jewish people reveals a certain angst about today’s challenges and raises questions about how much faith Jews have in existing institutions to address those challenges.

The conferences reflect a “recognition that the Jewish world is in decline, particularly the non-Orthodox Diaspora, and the organizations are incapable of dealing with that decline” — and may even be partially responsible for it, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt told JTA.

“They have not been able to anticipate the needs of the Jewish people, and, you know, it’s happened under their watch,” he said.

Dan Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai Brith International, said the conferences were spurred by a “kind of a convergence of issues all coming together at one time,” such as the spread of anti-Semitism and a dwindling U.S. Jewish population.

Mariaschin attended a June 22-23 conference in Israel hosted by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Heads of major Israeli and Diaspora groups who came together decided to establish a World Jewish Forum — based on the model of the World Economic Forum — to tackle the challenges facing world Jewry.

A key question at the meeting was how to attract a cross section of influential Jews beyond the ranks of Jewish organizations.

In May, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel, took a similar approach at the Wye River Conference Center, in Maryland.

The meeting drew luminaries such as Steinhardt, Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz to address issues such as Diaspora Jews’ decreasing affiliation.

Other conferences are focused on distilling Jewish identity. KolDor, a new Israel-based group that serves as a think tank of prominent young Jews around the world, met June 23-27 in Israel.

The group is “seeking to articulate a positive, inclusive platform for the Jewish people,” from defining Jewish values and “peoplehood” to the role of Diaspora Jewry vis-a-vis Israel.

This fall, New York City’s Jewish Week newspaper will host “The Conversation: Jewish in America,” in Aspen, Colo. The conference will draw 75 American Jews “who are leaders or potential leaders in their respective fields to talk about the future of Jewish life in this country and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century,” according to the conference’s Web site.

Despite the number of annual conferences already held by Jewish organizations, some say the new conferences are filling a void.

According to Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, the gatherings are motivated partly by what is lacking at the General Assembly, the annual conference of the North American Jewish federation system.

“I think there was once the hope that the G.A. would serve as that meeting ground for Jewish leadership to discuss the larger issues of Jewish life, and I think there was a point in the history of the G.A. when that was the case, and I think a lot of people are disappointed that it’s no longer the case,” Charendoff said. People are seeing that “all of the organized Jewish community is missing the boat.”

At Katsav’s meeting, “it was pointed out that the collective efforts of organized Jewish life are reaching about 30 percent of the American Jewish community,” said Charendoff, who attended the meeting and expressed his hope that a World Jewish Forum would attract the most talented Jews — from the business world to Hollywood.

Gail Hyman, senior vice president of communications for the United Jewish Communities, the federation system’s umbrella organization, said Charendoff was “correct that there certainly was a feeling that something had to be injected into G.A. thinking and planning to bring it back to a place of excitement and energy and purpose.”

But, she said, UJC has been doing just that — moving to make its annual assembly more relevant, interactive and provocative — and instituting changes designed to attract younger Jews.

“We want very much for the G.A. to be the place to be for Jewish community leaders across the United States and Canada,” she said.

The G.A. is a “unique place on the calendar and a unique event,” she said, one that tries “to marry those big global discussions” — on issues such as anti-Semitism, the Gaza-withdrawal plan or Jewish ethics — “with the very real needs of local federations” and other UJC constituents.

According to Yosef Abramowitz, a KolDor member and CEO of the Newton, Mass.-based Jewish Family and Life, a publisher of Jewish content online, the recent conferences reflect distress over the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which revealed a lack of progress toward meeting challenges identified in a prior study a decade earlier.

The 2000-2001 survey found an estimated 5.2 million Jews living in America, down from 5.5 million in 1990. Forty-seven percent of Jews who had married in the prior five years had wed non-Jews, up from 43 percent in 1990.

“The community is beginning to realize that there isn’t a deficit of resources, but a deficit of vision. That’s where new voices and visions come in, and mixing up the many leadership groupings in new ways in search of answers,” Abramowitz said.

The community’s new agenda will focus on “peoplehood” above religion, a renewed Jewish mission and developing new leaders, Abramowitz said.

Several have found the conferences invigorating.

“While many of the people invited to the president’s meeting started off skeptical, my sense was that by the end they felt that something significant could be accomplished and were pleased to be part of the effort,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who participated in the Katsav conference in June.

But Yoffie warned against conferences that focus on crises while ignoring the vibrancy of modern Jewish life.

“These conferences have become somewhat of a joke among many younger Jews who wonder aloud why they should be part of a people whose major activity is seminars on survival,” he said. “Do we really need one more conference to tell us that we need to do a better job in Jewish education? As if nobody had thought of that before.

“That fact is that we pretty much know what we need. And there are times when we require less talk and more action, more mitzvot, more focusing on the joys, the satisfactions and the holiness of Jewish life and less on the sword of extinction that hangs over our head.”

According to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who attended the Wye conference, the new discussions may help overhaul a hierarchy of Jewish leadership that seems to reward wealth over aptitude.

“All these conferences reflect a deep feeling that the time has come to broaden the base of Jewish leadership beyond the ‘gelt-givers,’ ” he said, adding that donors should remain leaders, but not the exclusive shareholders, of Jewish organizations.

“We are too mature a community to have our leadership based entirely on wealth,” he said.

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