Missing Dialogue

It’s sleeting (here) in Jerusalem; the Winograd Committee is set to deliver their final report later this afternoon and I would like to share some thoughts on a session I attended last week at the Herzliya Conference.

The session was billed as, Rethinking Jewish Philanthropy Interrelations between Israel and the Diaspora’. A more apt title would have been, ‘An Infomercial from JAFI and the N.Y. Federation’.

I really should not complain. For the first time ever the subject of Jewish Philanthropy has reached the table at the Herzliya Conference. And however brief (only 45 minutes) and the only session I attended that did not allow follow-up questions, or comments, at least there was a presence.

For four long days Israel’s security was addressed; as was the upcoming Winograd Report and a nuclear Iran. What John Bolton had to say and Ehud Barak didn’t made the front page of every Israeli paper. The participants came from multiple continents and most sides of the Israeli political and academic worlds. The worldwide Jewish press was in attendance. But unlike 2003 when then Prime Minister Sharon announced his ‘Disengagement Plan’, there was no new news.

Still, the very fact that the topic of Jewish Philanthropy was on the agenda for such a high level gathering marks a notable achievement; one that I hope continues in the future.

However, given the opportunity to discuss the challenges and opportunities the session title suggested, what did we get? Did anyone rise to the challenge?
I, for one, think not; and was definitely disappointed.

From Zeev Bielsky, we received a pep talk on JAFI. Now don’t get me wrong; I like Zeevik and enjoy listening to him. More important, he has built upon what Sallai Meridor started and has made JAFI both more responsive and transparent. This is good and long overdue. He does recognize the connection between Israel and the Diaspora is undergoing dramatic change. And he definitely recognizes that here in Israel, Israelis are taking responsibility for what is happening. How much of this is the cause, and how much the effect of the changes taking place between our communities is open to question, but this is not what is important. What counts is how JAFI leverages this knowledge.

And with the largest single visible change in years having recently played out (the new strategic partnership between JAFI and The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews) why was nary a word said on this current topic? Avoidance will not make the naysayers go away.

Then we come to John Ruskay. Over the years I have been to the G.A. and quite a few B.O.G. meetings of the Jewish Agency. This is where one expects to hear an infomercial; in Herzliya, we needed more. John’s presentation was so PR oriented that even Gary Rosenblatt, sitting at a diagonal to me, couldn’t think of one word of John’s to include in his column on the conference. And this, from the Editor of a major publication, in the Federation’s own ‘backyard’ and a city that calls itself home to so many Jewish organizations.

In fairness, I will say that in the last 90 seconds or so of his 14 minute presentation, almost as an afterthought, John did bring up three points worthy of mention to consider:

  • “Birthright” (Taglit) and “Masaa”
  • Curriculum, formal and informal, to enrich a shared collective Jewish identity
  • Should we develop a “Jewish service corps” including Israeli and Diaspora participants to strengthen the Jewish world

The third speaker, Avi Noar, a successful Israeli entrepreneur and philanthropist, was the only speaker to not stray from the session’s objective. By equating the philanthropy of his family foundation with social investment, he may be taking a page from the corporate world, but he is certainly bringing a new perspective to the forefront in our world of Jewish philanthropy and responsibility.

According to Avi, “…There is no justification for investment that does not have a measurable and provable return…”. Straight from an undergraduate textbook, but a guiding principal missing in so many of our organizations.

Perhaps the most engaging comment of Avi’s was his question, “should Israelis invest in world Jewry?”
If this was not laying the groundwork for ‘rethinking’, at least here in Israel, nothing was.

So, where do we travel from here? As I indicated earlier, the fact this session made an appearance is a very good thing. Perhaps the Conference organizers will give it a stronger voice next year. Perhaps the independent Van Leer Institute, or some other academic institution, will pick up the ball and run with it (that being a serious academic conference on Jewish philanthropy). It is overdue and needed.

During the session immediately preceding this, titled, ‘Trends in the Connection of the Diaspora’s Young Generation to Israel’, Professor Lenoard Saxe of Brandeis, in speaking about the challenges and opportunities for our Jewish community with Birthright Alumni, said “Institutions Must Adapt or Be Replaced”. All of the speakers at the Rethinking Jewish Philanthropy session were in the room;

I hope they were paying attention.


photo source: The Jerusalem Post
note: I tried for a Conference follow-up with both John Ruskay and Zeev Bielsky. John is M.I.A., he did not respond to requests. As for Zeev, JAFI’s press officer responded, “will do my best”. I’m still waiting.

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