Mixed Reviews on the Israeli Presidential Conference

It was May 2008 in Jerusalem; and in celebration of Israel’s 60th, the inaugural Israeli Presidential Conference, Facing Tomorrow, opened to much acclaim at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. The Conference was, by far, not only the hottest ticket in town, but the hottest ticket in the global Jewish world.

Imagine, 15 sitting presidents, along with leaders from 27 additional countries and 3500 guests; participants came from all countries with which Israel enjoyed diplomatic relations, as well as from several whose relations had not yet been formalized.

The U.S. President came. Every significant Jewish leader from around the world flew in. Some were upset to be left off the guest list and tried pulling strings wherever they could. If you were anybody, you wanted to be seen at Binyanei Hauma that week. The reviews were glowing; deservedly so.

Fast forward three years to last week’s 3rd Israeli Presidential Conference. Sitting presidents: only the host, Shimon Peres. Foreign dignitaries? Britain’s former Prime Minister showed up; but that was it. As for the attendance? We’re not sure as no official number has been released; but it was certainly no longer the hottest ticket in town; at least not as far as the Jewish world is concerned. Significant Diaspora leaders were absent; even key players who live in Israel chose not to attend. From dozens of conversations with attendees and invitees, eJP received clearly mixed reviews, reinforced by following conference happenings on Twitter.

The most positive impact, as is often the case, the cafe and hall-way networking – especially those conversations that pulled in the under 35 demographic. But a program filled with distinguished presenters, and star entertainers, needs much more, including the organizing committee selecting moderators who have enough savy to actually moderate, and not turn sessions into an embarrassment, or engage in shameless self-promotion. And this same younger demographic, the future leaders of our Jewish world, were – in large numbers – clearly turned off by panelists who “blew them off” and the general “talking at them” instead of “talking with them”.

eJP‘s focus last week was on the Jewish world. And here, once again, it was obvious the typical Israeli just does not understand Diaspora Jewry. You could see it not only in the composition of the various panels, but in comments by Israeli moderators.

Let’s look at one panel, as it is symbolic of how the Jewish world is understood by conference planners. The Future of European Jewry: Thriving or in Decline? featured a most distinguished group of participants including two Chief Rabbis (the U.K. and Rome) and a senior lay leader representing France, the largest Jewish community in Europe. But, in a conversation focusing on the future, where was the younger demographic who will inherit it? Not invited. Besides, the panel was completely misnamed – it should have been titled The Future of Orthodox European Jewry – for if you listened to what was said, you would assume the entire European Jewish community is not only observant, but inter-marriage simply doesn’t exist. And Germany, since it didn’t even rate recognition, well Jewish life there must be simply non-existent, despite its size.

There is good news, according to Lord Sacks,”Jewish life in Europe is enjoying a renaissance.” British Jewry has stopped its decline; in fact he informed us some 60% of Jewish children attend Jewish schools; almost double the number in 1993. This increase has helped spur a growth in Jewish activism in art and film festivals, educational conferences (meaning Limmud) and the establishment of a new London community center and museums.

Sacks continued, “French Jewry has enjoyed a transformation – brought on by the influx of Jews from North Africa”; and in Rome, despite the small size of the community, Rabbi Shmuel Riccardo Di Segni told us “small communities can achieve miracles.”

But all was not upbeat. All the participants felt that Jewish education and identity is not where it should be. In fact, Dr. Prasquier said, “the only way we can survive is with education” which he felt is lacking. Perhaps the most downbeat assessment came from Anton Nossik of Russia, who pretty much said Jewish life is dieing in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Besides considering the revival of Jewish life superficial, his measurement, “not one organization has been able to hold an event that brings in 3000 participants.” eJP wonders if Di Segni’s optimism on small communities will register on Nossik.

Toward the end, Ambassador Daniel Shek, the panel moderator, said, “If Israel aspires to be the leader of the Jewish world today, Israel needs to start behaving as a leader. If we [Israel] don’t invest in Europe today, there won’t be any aliyah tomorrow.” While we basically agree with his premise, he lost us with his strong suggestion that Jewish identity worldwide needs to be “brought under the responsibility of the government.” Remember, that’s the same government who has allowed the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to make decisions that ignores the reality of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

As an aside, at a press conference earlier in the day, Chief Rabbi Sacks stated that following his tenure as chief rabbi, he will attend the next Limmud Conference event in the U.K. While behind the scenes, Sacks has been a strong supporter of Limmud, in public – due to the narrow-mindness of the British Beit Din he needs to keep in his favor – he has found it necessary to refrain from open endorsement as Limmud is – – – pluralistic! We know the entire Limmud community will welcome him with open arms whenever he comes.

So where does the 4th Israeli Presidential Conference go? It’s been a downward slide from 1 to 3 and therefore a difficult question. If the organizers don’t begin to understand the importance of a conference speaking with participants, instead of at them, and having appropriate and relevant presenters to the younger demographic, well, they may continue to get some Israeli billionaires (at least two were seen) but they’ll loose the future leadership of our community.