Last month I was privileged to attend a gathering in Israel — the Planning Summit of the Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative.
Of special note, it was the first time in my experience that the discussion between Israel and representatives of world Jewry was truly conducted among equals.
Two days in a room with 100 people — a diverse cross-section of world Jewish leadership including educators, sociologists, philanthropists and federation executives as well as representatives of the Israeli government and nonprofit sector. And perhaps that’s where this article could end. The fact that this expertly facilitated group could remain focused and engaged for two full days, talking with one another, on about as level a playing field as one could imagine, shows the commitment of everyone present to securing a vibrant Jewish future. That might be the real significance of this story.
But beyond that fact is the importance of the many issues discussed. I will limit myself here to reflect on three topics that resonated for me.
The genesis of this summit is important. At its core was the fact that the Israeli government put out a challenge grant to world Jewry that would lead to an additional $300 million to be spent annually on initiatives to nurture Jewish identity. This proposal, between Israel and the diaspora, is a clear inversion of the “old” relationship of the rich diaspora cousin supporting the poor inhabitants of the Jewish homeland. But it is also different from, for example, the economic origins of Birthright Israel, where American philanthropists approached the Israeli government to support their grand plan. This new model calls on not just an equal economic agreement between Israel and world Jewry, but also on the co-construction of the design of whatever it is that will be implemented.
The financial arrangement symbolizes the dawn of a new phase of Israel-diaspora relations — a theme that permeated all discussions throughout the summit. As much as it was the call for Israel to contribute to the development of Jewish identity in the diaspora, there was an equal understanding of the value that diaspora Jews can have in the development of Jewish identity of Israelis.
It was both meaningful and symbolic that the gathering was convened by the Jewish Agency, an organization that displayed its ability to not only relinquish control over the conversation, but to empower a new dialogue. As I know from my current vantage point at The Jewish Education Project, when a so-called legacy organization is able to transform both its thinking and practice to allow others to join in the process, true creative ideas can begin to emerge.
Everyone at the gathering recognized the tremendous impact Birthright Israel has had on the identity of hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world, as well its impact on the thousands of Israeli who “join the buses” for the mifgash (encounter) experience. But this conference pushed the conversation to that which could and should exist beyond Birthright. The talk soon turned to the relationship among funders, federations and the Israeli government, and about providing Israel experiences to other age cohorts (e.g. teenagers, young adults with children, baby boomers) or specific demographics (e.g. interfaith couples).
The conversation extended to the development of a reverse Birthright, exposing Israeli youth and young adults to world Jewry and the impact that this could have on the Jewish identity of Israelis and ultimately on the character and very fabric of the Jewish state. None of these ideas were agreed upon, but it was acknowledged that many demand further serious exploration. Throughout there was the sense that these conversations should include Jews from around the world, not just Israel and the U.S., to enhance a greater sense of Jewish Peoplehood.
One final note: anyone present at the meeting would admit that the conversations were at times frustrating and confusing, with no single direction clearly emerging. But I did want to make more public some of the details of the conversations that transpired during these days. Although I can’t be assured that when the history of Israeli-diaspora relations is told that this gathering will warrant a mention, what I do know is that this summit, symbolically at least, served as a major inflection point when the Israeli government and world Jewry came together as equal partners to address the issues of world Jewry — and that is a major and significant change.
David Bryfman is the chief learning officer at The Jewish Education Project in New York.