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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News January 2012

January 3, 2012

Mini-Israel Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

The first mini-Israel Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that took place in Israel on December 15-17 was one of the most successful programs in the Foundation's twenty-four year history of the Fellowship. In the view of the members of the faculty who have participated in the fellowship since its inception and the alumni of previous programs, the Israelis we recruited were a most impressive group in their backgrounds, past achievements, and the quality and intensity of their participation. Attached, for your review, are the profiles of the fellows who came from all segments of Israeli society.

The program, which was conducted in Hebrew, another first for the Foundation, took place over three days, beginning Thursday night and concluding Saturday night. This enabled the maximum number of participants to attend without absenting themselves from their jobs. Unlike our international fellowships, the program consisted of only one keynote lecture at the opening session by Prof. Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University. The rest of the program involved back-to-back workshops and discussion groups, lead by the fellows themselves, dealing with Jewish Identity and Peoplehood in Israel. With the exception of the Sabbath prayers and meals, the discussions were non-stop and intense, with the enthusiastic participation of all the fellows. The only break in the program was a Friday night "tisch," where the fellows met informally and schmoozed late into the night.

The Evolution of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

To fully appreciate the nature of the success achieved at the mini-Israel program, one needs to understand the evolution of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship over the last two decades. The Foundation has developed two models for the program, an international program which we have organized twenty-three times all around the globe — in Europe, East and West, South America, Australia, Southeast Asia, South Africa and Israel. The objective of the international fellowships is to enable the fellows to re-define themselves as Jews and hopefully as future leaders of their communities. The five mini fellowships, which we organized in the past decade in Iran, Australia and South Africa, fuses a new dynamic element into the program beyond the re-definition of the fellows. The aim of the mini-fellowships is to assist and motivate the fellows to re-define their communities. The last three held in South Africa have been especially effective in introducing fresh perspectives and paradigms for their community that are beginning to impact on it. Most importantly, they have been developed by the South African fellows themselves, lead by David Jacobson, the executive of the Cape Town Jewish community, and a small group of South African alumni.

North America and Israel

The last two minis the Foundation has organized in North America in 2010 and now in Israel, the two largest and most important Jewish communities in the world, have been remarkably similar in effecting a different kind of impact not fully anticipated by us, but crucial in a very special way for the future of these two communities. In both minis, the programmatic emphasis was less on academic lectures by outstanding scholars and intellectuals about the challenges that their communities face internally and externally. Although the lectures were an integral part of the programs, the major emphasis was on the fellows talking with one another about those issues and their personal and communal concerns as Jews.

In the last session of the mini in North America, we were surprised to learn that the major result of the mini was not related to the fellows' discussion of the substantive issues. For them, instead, it was a rare opportunity to express themselves in a safe and comfortable setting about their personal feelings as Jews. The fellows, almost all young professional or lay leaders of major Jewish organizations in their communities, large and small in North America, reported they felt very constrained to express their views in their own communities. No less important, they had the opportunity at the fellowship to hear from their peers from different religious, ideological and political sectors of North American Jewry, oft times with views very different than their own, sometimes sharply so. Nonetheless, they were still able to engage in a civil and respectful dialogue with them. For most of the fellows it was a new and very refreshing experience.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the mini-Israel fellowship, with a somewhat different nuance. As I indicated above, the Israeli participants were a very impressive, but a highly diverse group, representing nearly the full range of communities in Israel — from the religious Zionists to the Reform movement, from representatives from the settlements to the political left, some of whom declared they could, if necessary, live in Palestine without a Jewish state. In the last session, they related that they came to the fellowship with organizational affiliations, but ended up talking as individuals with their counterparts from the other communities who were doing the same. There were, of course, as expected, differences in the group, some very substantial, but the talk, both personal and within the discussion groups, was always civil and respectful. All emphasized how different the ambiance at the fellowship was from that which characterizes public spaces in Israeli society.

A major difference, in my view, between the North American and Israeli mini-fellowships was the constraints. Those the North American young leaders expressed were external, linked to the Jewish institutions in which they worked or with which they were associated. In Israel, it was more internal. One young Russian articulated it at the beginning of the very first workshop on Thursday. He said he can sometimes speak about "what is in his mind, but not always what is in his heart."

What appeared to be the most intense issue for the Israeli fellows was not the serious internal and external challenges and problems confronting Israel. They had much, very much, to relate to their peers about those concerns, mostly the challenge of building a Jewish and democratic state in Israel. One sensed, however, that a number of the fellows were more concerned about their Jewish identity in Israel. Some appeared less certain, less comfortable, less meaningfully fulfilled or less integrated into the Jewish identity to which they aspire.

Next Steps

The mini-fellowship, however brief, became both a vehicle and a very useful personal experience for them in both motivating and inspiring them to deal with that issue. If they could clear that hurdle, it appeared that they would and could move more comfortably and forcefully to enlarge, and even intensify, their role in both the organizations with which they are affiliated, and even the public space in Israel, that in their view required repair. Much of this was expressed or implied by the fellows in the last session, "Where Do We Go From Here?"

Three things were very clear at the close of the mini-fellowship:

1. There exists a young generation of exceedingly impressive young men and women in Israel ready to grapple with the herculean challenges currently facing Israeli society and in the foreseeable future. The founders of Israel successfully established a viable, strong and progressive society and state. In our view, these young leaders, more than the current established leadership, reside in the existential reality of Israeli society today, and have, if given the appropriate tools, the capacity and determination, if not yet the opportunity, to make significant and positive changes in Israeli society.

2. These young leaders are not seriously conversant yet with the life and challenges of Diaspora Jewish life. It is clear they can both impact and benefit enormously from a "fellowship" experience with a similar dynamic that characterized the Israeli mini-fellowship with their peers from the Diaspora.

3. Finally, the fundamental challenge in the Jewish identity of the next generation of leadership in Israel that emerged in the intense deliberations at the mini-Israel fellowship is not linked generically to the current herculean challenges that Israelis confront today. For them, the issue of Jewish identity will continue to be relevant, perhaps even more so, even if all the security, economic and political issues in Israel are ultimately resolved, even the most acute ones dealing with our relationship with the Arab world.

Our plan is to continue working with the Israeli fellows. We have already organized a planning committee which will continue to meet to plan the next steps for the group.

We also believe we can successfully assimilate the Israeli fellows into the global mini-Klal Yisrael that the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is fostering around the globe. We hope to address that challenge at the international Nahum Goldmann Fellowships we plan to organize in Europe and Israel as well as minis in other parts of the world in the near future.

Meeting the incredibly impressive group of young men and women who participated in the mini-Israel fellowship inspires a renewed feeling of hope and optimism for Israel, direly missing in some sectors of Jewish life today.

With warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President