Widening The Conversation

Widening The Conversation

Associate Editor

CLAL, the Jewish organization that perhaps more than any other has put pluralism on the communal agenda, is now widening the conversation, and perhaps its base, by seeking to bring together “insiders” and “outsiders.”In an effort to generate new ideas and identify fresh voices, CLAL — the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — last week launched the Jewish Public Forum, a series of roundtables, retreats and publications designed to encourage a more intimate conversation between those working within the Jewish community and leading Jewish academics, artists, businessmen and public policy professionals who are not communally involved.The first sessions, held at Manhattan’s Harmonie Club, brought together eight academics — from all points on the spectrum of Jewish commitment — to meet with a team from CLAL, discussing the development of leadership at a time of global transformations in politics, economics and civic life, as well as probing issues relating to decentralization, privatization, media and the waning of civic involvement.Jonathan Sarna, chairman of Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic studies department and a professor of American Jewish history there — an “insider” — said afterwards, “I found it exciting, really, to be able to come to this group, which had specialists in the general study of leadership, people who’ve thought more than I ever had about globalization, but to bring to them my sense of the American Jewish community.”Sarna told the group, “this was a turning point, a moment of change in American Jewish life. … The great issues of the 20th century (Zionism, fighting anti-Semitism, saving world Jewry) are not the issues that are going to motivate Jews in the 21st century…. In many respects the Jewish community is searching for a new mission, and this kind of forum, engaging outsiders, is precisely the way this new mission is going to be created.”Steven Weber was among the “outsiders,” a consultant for global firms, as well as NATO, in the areas of international trade, monetary and exchange-rate politics, and political-economic forecasting. He admits a disconnection from the Jewish community for some 20 years.But in this forum, Weber said, “We did actually talk to each other. I take away from this a very interesting overlap,” between his globalization work fostering social and economic responsibility, and “a phrase I haven’t heard in years, tikkun olam, which translates roughly as ‘repairing the world.’ I wonder if it’s not really the same mission. So for me this was a great day.”Weber added that his Jewish disconnection was more organizational than cultural or intellectual.“To the extent that the Jewish community wants to make use of skills and expertise that I have, I’m more than happy to contribute,” he said. “I would contribute to the Jewish community more than I would to anyone else. And I think I have a lot to learn, too. One of the reasons that I wanted to come [to CLAL’s forum] was that religion is such a powerful force in the world and I understand so little about it. If I can spend a day with people who know a whole heck of a lot more than I do, I’ll learn something, for sure.”Indeed, as CLAL participant Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard pointed out, “This was a meeting aimed at expanding leadership resources — people, ideas, knowledge — for a Jewish community that has that as a concern.” He characterized the program as “more about expanding the acts of leadership than the conventional notion of who is a Jewish leader.”David Elcott, CLAL’s academic vice president, said, “although most of these people never imagine themselves as potential Jewish leaders, or even linked to the Jewish community, perhaps they would find, through this process of being heard, an opening for themselves.”Elcott pointed out that “It’s become increasingly clear to us, for a number of years, that the people at the table imagining the possibilities, the potential, is a very narrow grouping. At the same time, there are more Jews in more areas,” be it the arts or sciences, “thinking about more things, in interesting and unpredictable ways. It seemed an extraordinary deprivation to the Jewish community that we did not hear these voices.”Elcott admitted, “The first session was incredibly hard.” The participants could answer a wide variety of questions, “but if you asked them how could they best participate in reimagining the Jewish future, many of them were just plain silent; no one ever asked them to think about that before.”CLAL’s president, Rabbi Irwin Kula, emphasized that “This is not an outreach program. … This program does not presume that the outsider is an empty vessel,” a problem or a statistic.” He described the effort as “an open conversation,” with “no definitive outcome.“If it works well, we will be as changed — through the relationship and conversation — as will be the other people in the room.”Future meetings of the Jewish Public Forum, with an expanded roster of participants, are slated to take place in the next several months in Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.

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