More than 50 of us had gathered for a full day last Sunday to talk about whatever we wanted. But there was really only one issue on our minds.
Over the past three years, when alumni of The Conversation, an annual conference sponsored by The Jewish Week and CLI (the Center for Leadership Initiative), gathered for a yearly reunion, there was a sense of optimism as the discussions ranged across the spectrum of Jewish interests and concerns, from education to innovation, from mid-term politics to Mideast peace.
But the air in the room at Brandeis House, on the Upper East Side, was heavy with the impact of the economic crisis that has gripped each of us, our community, our country and much of the world.
Each of the topics posed at this year’s reunion was a variation on the theme of how to sustain and expand worthy projects and creative ideas at a time of unprecedented contraction and fear.
Seated in a large circle at the outset of the daylong gathering, the participants — a wide range of Jewish leaders and emerging leaders from around the country and of different ages, professions, backgrounds and interests — spoke of what they hoped to gain from the discussions. One comment suggesting that we “take risks, be bold, speak honestly and be optimistic” seemed to resonate with a number of others.
(By agreement, the sessions are off the record so that the participants feel they can speak freely.)
One woman said she was looking for a sense of “group psychiatry” from this network of colleagues and hoped to come away with “an uplifting feeling.”
A man responded that he was not looking for “psychotherapy” but rather for action at a time when “people are petrified into non-action.”
“We have to resist this siege mentality and look for new opportunities,” another said.
One participant described the day as “a kind of corporate retreat of Judaism Incorporated, and our goal is to figure out how we get through the current crisis and how our community should function afterward.”
Others felt such a task was unrealistic and that the group was less a think tank than a forum for networking, sharing ideas and working toward turning the creative sparks from the discussions into potential future projects.
And so it went. Someone who worked for a Jewish federation said he went to work every day “grappling with a fear, or reality, that the federation model” of collective giving “was irrelevant,” while a rabbi in the group said that Jewish history is replete with heroic leaders willing and able to give up failed models and create new ones. He noted that after the destruction of the Temple, in 70 CE, when Jerusalem was controlled by zealots who would rather die than surrender to the Romans, the young Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had himself smuggled from Jerusalem in a coffin and brought to Yavneh, where he rebuilt and preserved Jewish life through memory, studying and teaching the sacred texts.
Someone else reminded us that David slew Goliath by thinking out of the box, using a stone and a slingshot to defeat the powerful giant.
In the subsequent breakout sessions, where people propose topics of discussion and anyone who wants to can join them, there was much talk of aggregation, partnership, opportunity and mergers among struggling synagogues, day schools, projects and organizations, and allowing some to die while others flourish.
An underlying theme to the talks was, as one person put it, “What is our level of sacrifice in the community — what are we willing to give up and at what price?”
There were spirited disagreements about strategies and tactics, and even about defining which was which, and there was debate about setting priorities, including the place of Israel on our agenda at a time when concerns at home are dominant.
One essential dispute centered on whether to “go back to basics” and concentrate on the immediate and most pressing needs of the community, like providing expanded social services for the newly poor, or continue to nurture the array of innovative cultural and educational startups that have inspired a number of young people to become involved in Jewish life in recent years.
The consensus: we need to do both. But finding the proper balance remains a challenge and is open to ongoing deliberation.
Overall, the conversations at this reunion were particularly deep and raw, reflecting an acute awareness that the old models and ways of thinking about community have changed profoundly, perhaps permanently, and that the very future of Jewish life depends on responding creatively. But at day’s end, when we reconvened as a group in the hour-long closing discussion, many people said they came away heartened, even inspired, by the thoughtfulness, concern and commitment of their fellow participants, individually and collectively. Of course we hadn’t solved the overarching problem of a world economy in shambles and the impact on our community, but we had begun to explore responses through the prism of Jewish values and history.
We took comfort in recognizing how Jewish life has been able to reinvent itself over the centuries through a combination of innovation, dedication and faith.
And we agreed to keep the conversation going.