By Andrés Spokoiny
and Tracie Olcha
There are three parallel lines drawn on the wall. They seem to be timelines because of numbers alongside them. The text on the lines appears to describe historical events. Two of those lines start around 5,000 years ago, and the other is mostly empty, showing only sporadic activity until around 2,000 years ago. We can’t read the text because it is written in Mandarin Chinese. We ask somebody to translate. “This is us, the history of the Chinese People,” he said, pointing to one of the long lines. Touching the other long line he says, “This is the Youtairen and this one, that starts 3,000 years later, is the rest of the world.” “What’s Youtairen?” we ask “What is the English translation?” “You know,” he says, “Israel … the people of Einstein.”
He went on to explain the affinities between the Youtairen and the Chinese: two ancient peoples with the longest continuous history; two peoples obsessed with learning and knowledge; two people blessed and cursed with an overachiever’s drive.
This scene took place in 2014 at the Asia Society Museum in Hong Kong, during the first of what have become annual gatherings on Asia and the Jewish World, convened by Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and Australian Jewish Funders (AJF). That scene encapsulates just one facet of the enormous promise that lies in deeper Jewish engagement with Asia.
We don’t have to bore you with figures to show how central Asia has become to the world’s economic and political power; it’s already a truism. But the Jewish world is curiously slow in reacting to this consensus. Most Jews live in the “Western world” and our conceptual and philosophical frameworks are European. In fact, we are an “Atlantic-centric” people in a world that is becoming “Pacific-centric.” These shifts of economic and political power will have enormous consequences for Israel and world Jewry. Israel’s trade with Asia now represents a staggering 22% percent of the country’s exports, and its relations with the Far East are vital for its strategic interests. And these tectonic shifts are not only economic but also cultural and social.
Jews are the first global tribe. Yet we can be surprisingly parochial and ignore the potential of our global reach. Three years ago, with the visionary leadership of the Pratt Foundation, our two organizations (JFN and AJF) decided to take on the challenge – and the opportunity – of connecting an emerging cadre of Jewish philanthropists and business leaders living in Asia to the global Jewish conversation.
Our first gathering was held in Hong Kong in 2014, followed by a second in Singapore in 2015. This year, a third convening will take place October 30 and November 1 in Shanghai, China.
The events have been an eye-opener for us. We are inspired by the vibrancy of the local Jewish communities in these cities. These communities have just several thousand people, but, despite their relatively small size, they serve as an indispensable bridge between two worlds. These funders and other leaders understand the need for global Jewish connections. It was also intriguing to see young Israeli businesspeople developing high-tech ventures in Asia, and the enormous interest that East Asians have in partnering with the Jewish State. The potential of leveraging those business connections for Israel advocacy is amply evident.
When Asian Jewish leaders met with their counterparts from Israel, Australia, the United States, and Europe, it became clear that as a people we face global challenges: assimilation and disaffiliation; BDS and antisemitism; youth engagement and Jewish renewal; and the need to offer affordable and sustainable Jewish education. These gatherings provide the opportunity to explore such challenges in a truly global dimensions and find paths for synergy and cross-pollination. While the realities of the different countries vary, the challenges are the same, and creating a global community of philanthropic learning is key to facing them.
These gatherings also send a clear message to Jewish communities in Asia: they are not alone, they are an integral part of the Jewish family, and we are willing and eager to work with them for our shared benefit. The task of linking the Jewish world to Asia can’t rest only on the shoulders of Hong Kong’s or Singapore’s five thousand Jews. It needs to be a global task, involving Israel and the entire Jewish world.
For us at JFN and AJF, our Asian events highlight the importance of international networking for Jewish funders. It strikes at the center of our mission: connecting funders around shared goals and common challenges. The power of intentional networking has already shown concrete results in the form of joint ventures among funders from different regions, building stronger Jewish communities and strengthening relations with Israel.
As we gear up for our third Asian gathering, we invite Jewish funders, business leaders, and communal lay leaders from around the world to join us and take part in this fascinating journey strengthening global Jewish peoplehood. Register by October 1 at jfunders.org/shanghai-register.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network (JFN). Learn more at jfunders.org.
Tracie Olcha is CEO of Australian Jewish Funders (AJF). Learn more at ajf.org.au.