As the work of UJA-Federation of New York continues to evolve, connecting young Jews to feeling part of the Jewish people and close to Israel has become increasingly important. Surprisingly, though, we discovered that there is a chasm between deeply involved and engaged Jewish social activists here in North America and Israeli counterparts who are engaged in very similar work. There has been little or no relationship between these parallel communities. So we are bringing them together.
We all recognize that attenuated Jewish identity is the single largest threat to the future of the Jewish people. The weakening of the bonds among Jews and the lack of a shared sense of destiny and responsibility for one another threatens our Jewish future. Thus, UJA-Federation is devoting much energy to confronting the significant challenges of strengthening Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood, even while continuing to provide essential funding for a network of agencies, domestic and overseas. This network, continuing the important work of the past century, supports over 100,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, makes it possible for thousands of Russian Jews to attend Jewish summer camps, and is involved in the rescue of the Falash Mura of Ethiopia and integrating them into Israeli society and far more.
It is not news that North American Jews who are disconnected from their Jewish identities are growing more distant from Israel. What is more surprising to many of us who actively work in the Jewish community is the fact that those involved in social action in the U.S. and in Israel knew little of each other’s efforts.
In the past decade, UJA-Federation has supported a range of important North American organizations whose mission is to engage young Jews through environmentalism and social responsibility. These include Hazon, Avodah, the Teva Learning Center and many other groups. Perhaps less well known to New Yorkers, a similar phenomenon in Israel has spawned a range of organizations (many of which UJA-Federation also supports, including Bina, Tevel B’Tzedek, Bema’agalei Tzedek). Young Israelis seek to draw from Jewish sources, values, and culture to address contemporary challenges of social justice and environmental stewardship. They seek to explore their Jewish identity through hands-on social action.
Imagine our surprise when we realized that despite similar mission statements from many of these organizations, there were no connections between these groups in Israel and those in North America. We were encountering a powerful and growing field of young Jewish activists seeking to use a Jewish idiom to address universal values of social and environmental responsibility, but they were not communicating or collaborating with their overseas counterparts. To cite just one example, the mission statements of Avodah established here in New York in 1998, and Bema’aglei Tzedek, established in Israel in 2004, are strikingly similar, with both emphasizing their goal of helping young people to become agents of social change, inspired by Jewish values.
The similar language and concerns reflected in these mission statements struck us as an opportunity to establish common ground between North American organizations and their counterparts in Israel. Thus, UJA-Federation has embarked on quest to bring 200 young Jewish activists together for a week of conversation. More than 60 organizations in North America, Israel, and Europe have been invited to participate in Siach, a conference that will take place this week at Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center. A central purpose is to help participants learn about one another and to deepen their sense of Klal Yisrael so they will identify with and take responsibility for Jews throughout the world.
The Hebrew word “siach” refers to “discourse” and is used in the Bible to describe conversations of intimacy, anger and heartfelt praise. By engaging in honest discussion and through the exchange of ideas, resources, and best practices with colleagues from around the globe, we believe that all participants will discover new and surprising ways to approach familiar issues in their respective backyards while seeing themselves as part of a global Jewish conversation.
This conference will not only highlight similarities, but will facilitate the difficult conversations in which we so desperately need to engage as a Jewish community. We hope to inspire and forge meaningful connections among Jewish social and environmental activists around the world, so that they create a conversation that can chart a shared agenda about the future of the Jewish people.
We are eager for the Jewish community to hear from participants on both sides of the ocean after Siach is over. We hope that this will be a continuing conversation, that the conference will be a model for fruitful cross-cultural exchange and learning and that dialogue will replace the silence that has kept us apart.
Alisa Kurshan is senior vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources at UJA-Federation of New York.