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Summoned by Israeli President, Jewish Leaders Consider New Forum

June 28, 2005
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Under the light of Chagall windows, dozens of senior Diaspora and Israeli leaders took their seats in the main hall of the Israeli president’s official residence to discuss the creation of a forum for the Jewish people. It was decided at the June 22-23 meeting that an annual gathering — to be called Beit Yisrael: World Jewish Forum — will be convened for the first time next year as an advisory body helping the Jewish world coordinate responses to the challenges of contemporary Jewish life.

The forum is envisioned as a central meeting place for the top echelon of leadership in the Jewish world, modeled after the World Economic Forum at Davos. All sectors of the Jewish world, from across religious and political lines, could meet there for an intensive gathering to discuss and establish action plans on issues ranging from battling assimilation and anti-Semitism to forging stronger Israel-Diaspora ties.

This would be the first unified body for the Jewish people at large that would develop long-term strategies for dealing with the most pressing issues on the day.

Those who attended the two-day session in Jerusalem said no such forum currently exists for a cross-section of the Jewish people to gather and address the issues of the day.

Last week’s meeting follows a conference of Jewish intellectuals from outside the organizational world late last month in Washington. At that gathering, Powerhouses like Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, U.S. philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz met to discuss how to stem the tide of declining Jewish affiliation in the Diaspora.

Aides to President Moshe Katsav, who initiated the forum idea, stress that it is not intended as a new Jewish organization. The idea is to have a forum for discussion and planning, where the most critical problems facing the Jews as a people can be grappled with.

The Davos model was chosen because it brings top leaders together in a closed, impartial setting where they candidly try to tackle current challenges.

On Wednesday, for example, those invited by Katsav heard from experts about assimilation and intermarriage, Jewish education in the Diaspora and anti-Semitism worldwide.

The president wants “high-caliber” leadership at the forum to deal with real substance, spokesman Akiva Tor said. “He feels there is a need for coordination at the highest levels, with fresh voices focusing on major issues.”

Participant Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the forum responds to the need for a more pragmatic and pro-active approach to key issues.

“We will target how we will make a difference,” he said.

Colette Avital, a Labor member of Knesset and former Israeli consul in New York, said the idea of the forum reflects the changing times.

With globalization, she told JTA, many Jews feel less of a need to associate as a group.

“You want them to be part of the new world, but we have to give them new reasons to be part of the family,” she said.

Bobby Brown, the World Jewish Congress’ director in Israel, said globalization is one thing that makes such a forum important.

“There is no table of the Jewish people, and as we get more into globalization and as the Jewish community, especially the smaller Jewish communities, become more bereft of basic needs to maintain themselves. . .there is no U.N., no neutral ground where issues can be discussed,” he said. “The problems have been global. Now the funding has to be.”

Brown and others also cited the forum as a way to keep the next generation of Diaspora and Israeli Jews united and connected.

“We’re becoming two different peoples, both called Jews, and we need a common forum to work together,” he said.

In his comments to the group, Yahad-Meretz politician Yossi Beilin said he found it disturbing that since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, there had been no such forum.

Addressing concerns that such a gathering would only be a meeting of talking heads, he said, “My big question is: Will it succeed or not?”

Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, suggested that prominent Jews such as computer mogul Michael Dell, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and film director Steven Spielberg should be included.

“Everyone has to buy into the fact that it’s important to come,” he said.

“The Jewish world,” he said, is in “a crisis.”

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