As it stands now, the Jewish Federations of North America’s Global Planning Table is a work of fiction. Maybe it’s just that my relatively new Israeliness has made me more aware of the management guff that masquerades as real work in Jewish organized life, but it seems like the GPT so far, over half a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars after its long-heralded launch, hasn’t done much beyond sending around paper after paper about the process of how Jewish leaders are all going to talk about the issues.
Why not cut to the chase? For example, with a phone call led by someone who is respected, brave enough to dive into the questions of the day without a year-long discussion of the process, and influential enough not to be wasting everybody’s time?
This thought occurred to me this week as I listened to one of the most hard-hitting and informative discussions of one of the most intractable and painful Jewish issues of our day – haredim and the Orthodox monopoly in Israel. Quietly but effectively, one major Jewish organization has held real conversations between vastly different kinds of Jews on real issues that scare and worry us – and without pandering to the lowest common denominator or obsessing about process.
Last June, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors met in Jerusalem for a daylong discussion about the legitimate boundaries of discussion on Israel, the old “Who’s inside the tent?” question. Right-wing Jews sparred openly with left-wing, major federation presidents complained about being caught between conservative donors and progressive young program participants, and all sorts of Jews from all over the world took some wisdom back home with them.
The program was so successful that JFNA itself asked the Jewish Agency to hold the identical discussion at the GA in Denver in November.
A week after that GA, the agency took its 120-member board to Argentina – at the participants’ expense, it should be noted – into the field to see and participate in the real lives of Jews these leaders had never met. If you’re on the Jewish Agency board, Argentinian Jewry isn’t just an agenda item in a drab hotel conference room meeting. You’ve been to their schools, spoken to their mayor, heard about their fears of antisemitism and their gratitude to the Jewish world that rescued their schools and synagogues after the country’s financial collapse ten years ago.
And you thought about the actual real-life experience of meeting them when you promised a million dollars to keep the Greek community afloat this week.
Finally, this week back in Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency did something that to my knowledge is unprecedented for a major umbrella organization. It held an academic lecture, roundtable discussions and many hours of thoughtful contemplation of the problem of haredi integration into Israeli and world Jewish society. Among the presenters (some of whom spoke by video) were the haredi mayor of a haredi city (Beitar Illit), the Labor Party-appointed head of education and welfare for the Bet Shemesh municipality, an Israeli-born Reform rabbi, a haredi woman educator and college president, a former Shas MK (not Rabbi Amsalem for once) and at least two researchers who gave long talks about haredi society and demographics.
So much was learned at this daylong seminar that for once, the agency’s Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People didn’t just publish a call for pluralism. “I want to know what I can actually do with everything I learned,” more than one board member told me, including a major federation executive.
The committee decided it would research potential “candidates for actions” by the next board meeting in June, where instead of yet another banal call for pluralism and unity, the committee would choose and approve a course of action and a budget for diaspora Jews to step in and affect the situation.
I could go on about stopping the Rotem Bill, the clarity and stubbornness with which the agency has faced its many critics of late, and more. Bottom line: this is an organization led by courageous and straight-talking leaders who are really getting to the business of solving the Jewish people’s problems.
Over the past year, the place for content and brave discussions of the hottest topics on the Jewish agenda – I’m as surprised as you – has been the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Meanwhile, the GPT is searching desperately for an identity. It’s tried everything except actually having a straightforward discussion about the Jewish people’s challenges. Why is JFNA spending millions in reinventing the idea that Jews should be talking about the really important issues, when the Jewish Agency, simply by getting to the actual conversation, has tackled the most uncomfortable issues as if they were simply part of the Jewish people’s daily business?
Which, of course, they are.
The author was a participant at the recent Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting. He/she has requested their name be withheld.
The Global Jewish Forum: Haredim and the Jewish Collective was presented by Makom.