Forum ALEF – an Opportunity for Professional Growth and Leadership Exchange

Photo courtesy @JAFI

By Natalie Shnaiderman

If there is one distressing aspect of the professional life of anyone who made Jewish education and identity their calling, it’s a persistent lack of unity. Jewish organizations, large and small, are failing time and again to pool their resources in pursuit of a common goal, sometimes over slight differences in policy, indistinguishable to the untrained eye.

This is why it was so uplifting for me to take part in Forum ALEF in Jerusalem – an annual leadership exchange forum of directors of Jewish camps in the countries of the former Soviet Union. For four days this forum brought together 50 leaders of the field – directors, educators, lecturers and funders – with more than 160 Russian-speaking Israeli camp madrichim, who are leading the critically important work of Jewish engagement with the new generation of Russian-speaking Jews. Providing children with Jewish experiences during summer, when they are on break from their formal education, means helping them connect their Jewish identity with fun, camaraderie and nature, while at the same time exposing them to Jewish knowledge and practice. For many unaffiliated Jewish families, the camp is the first and sometimes the only opportunity to acquaint their children with the option of doing things “in a Jewish way.”

ALEF’s participants represented 35 different camp initiatives, from large organizations such as Netzer (World Union for Progressive Judaism) and EnerJew (Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS), to creative projects like J-Hogwarts and Mezuza. Together, ALEF participants are running about 200 camp sessions for 8,200 young Jews each year. While the concept of establishing this network of Jewish informal education in the former Soviet Union belongs to the Jewish Agency, to its credit, JAFI encouraged and welcomed many partners, large and small, to create as much diversity of opportunities as possible. After 25 years, those efforts are bearing fruit.

So when the Jewish Agency invited Genesis Philanthropy Group to be part of ALEF forum, we naturally accepted. We are committed to building partnerships with those who share our mission of developing and enhancing a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. We believed that such a gathering of professionals will help to make Jewish camps in the former Soviet Union even better in pursuit of this goal, that it will give camp and educational directors new tools and knowledge, and allow them to exchange ideas and experiences.

ALEF was all those things and more. It showed, vividly and clearly, how the differences between various organizations and philosophies can be easily overcome when two things happen: one, when there is a common goal that is sufficiently important; and two, when those who lead understand the necessity of unity and impart this understanding on those who follow. Participants in ALEF worked together on topics that varied from management to fundraising, and from finding the right ways to engage participants’ parents to better uses of information technology. Just how diverse was this forum? Well, it took five different Kabalot Shabbat to allow for all streams and movements to present themselves.

As Dmitry Fainerman of Adain Lo camp, which serves the Saint Petersburg Jewish community, told me, “ALEF is the only place where I can see leaders of almost all other Jewish camps that work in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and it is the one and only such space for camp directors. We need this professional community for somber discussions of our work, to stay abreast of new trends and to consider toward which goals we want to lead our teams and our participants. I am excited that there is complete pluralism here, there are no subjects closed for debate, and that we can ask the hard questions and try to answer them for the benefit of all. It is great to see how international Jewish organizations invest together – energy, time and money – to give us such an opportunity for professional association and growth.”

This overwhelming sense of mission, and this understanding that there is no controversy between unity and diversity, is what made ALEF such a success. Now the organizers are hoping to expand the forum and to open it for the higher-level camp professionals and directors of day and family camps. For me, ALEF is an example of the strength and creativity of Jewish world when we combine our efforts for the common good.

Natalie Shnaiderman is Genesis Philanthropy Group Director of Global Grantmaking.

Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG) is a global foundation, co-founded by Mikhail Fridman, an international businessman, investor and philanthropist, and his business partners. GPG primarily, but not exclusively, focuses its philanthropic support on developing and enhancing Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. To learn more, visit www.gpg.org.