Where the Jewish World Convenes: Some Reflections on the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF) may represent the single most important global Jewish network that exists today. Conceived and operated by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC), the NGF, since its inception in 1987, has brought together more than 1000 young and emerging Jewish leaders from nearly 70 nations. Over the course of the past 30 years, the MFJC has organized 38 leadership gatherings, twenty-nine international Nahum Goldmann Fellowships and nine regional Fellowships in Eastern and Western Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and Israel.
I am a relative “newbie” to the NGF; my role on the faculty has permitted me to experience only the past three seminars, the latest one convening in Israel just this past month. As I reflect on my own experiences with the Fellowship, it is striking to observe the quality of the participants, their passion for Jewish engagement, and the scope and depth of learning that the Foundation offers to these leaders of tomorrow. At a time when disengagement and disconnect among Jews has ceased to be the exception, NGF offers a unique, yet essential avenue for a global Jewish connectivity and discourse. In analyzing the impact of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowships, one can identify six core outcomes:
- Building Global Networks of Relationships
- Exploring Pathways to Jewish Identity
- Advancing Jewish Knowledge and Scholarship
- Preparing the Next Generation of Jewish Leaders
- Modeling Constructive Conversations Focusing on the Jewish Future
- Promoting Reflective Thinking and Collective Engagement
Few Jewish initiatives have set and achieved such a sweeping set of goals, as the NGF has been able to produce.
In the development and formation of these global gatherings, Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, then the Executive Vice President of the Memorial Foundation, drew from one of Dr. Goldmann’s most cherished goals—“to enhance the Jewish cultural background of the community’s most talented and intellectually-gifted young leaders and to train them for leadership roles in the Jewish community.” Its creation emanated from the Foundation’s strategy to grow the social capital of the Jewish people by strengthening the tapestry of Jewish cultural life globally, thereby growing the concept of Klal Yisrael.
From the outset, the NGF was designed to create a space where the Fellows could explore their own Jewish identity, provide support to participants by strengthening their roles as leaders within their communities, and promote the advancement of Jewish learning. The NGF has achieved these goals – as well as generating life-long friendships, marriages, and work-related partnerships.
Indeed, one can identify alumni of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship who today hold prominent positions within their respective Jewish communities, as well as in the broader societies of which they are a part. Over the course of these intensive one-week seminars, young Jewish activists explore common concerns through the lens of Jewish peoplehood, reflected in the shared cultural and social challenges that define the Jewish world; just as the Fellowship affords its participants the opportunity to unpack those issues that are unique to particular Diaspora communities.
Sitting in a leadership seminar with a cross section of educators, writers, policy analysts, nonprofit professionals, business and hedge fund executives from a panoply of Jewish communities, one observes the breadth and dynamism of such global connections. In such a setting, it is possible for a South African Orthodox rabbi to engage and learn from a South African self-identifying non-Zionist. Similarly, one can observe ultra-Orthodox students from Mexico City studying Talmud with an Israeli feminist scholar.
Rabbi Jeni S. Friedman, the MFJC’s current Executive Vice President, provided the following comments following her 2002 experience as a Fellow:
“Not only am I able to think about what Jewish identity means from a more global perspective, but I am also able to think about this identity and education in a way that transcends denomination, political perspective, and national identity. The diversity of voices that the Fellowship brings together, and the safe space it provides for meaningful dialogue is seen too rarely in the rest of the Jewish world where, more often than not, personal or political agendas become more important than the fostering of communal conversation and growth. The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship has given me a better understanding of the way that different Jewish communities work and more importantly, has opened my understanding of how different individual Jews understand and create their own Jewish identity.”
At a moment in time when there is little that binds together our community, the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship has successfully established a model for promoting constructive Jewish engagement and shared learning. Where others seem intent on pulling apart the connecting points that would permit Jews to establish common ground, NGF has for the past generation seeded the playing field for such essential conversations and connections. In an age of global anti-Semitism and in an environment in which Israel is encountering international rejection, the essential features of the NGF program are designed to educate and energize the next generation of Jewish leaders. It represents a model of Jewish practice that deserves further study, just as it requires our collective support.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.