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A panel discussion held Tuesday afternoon at a conference in Jerusalem intended to bolster interaction among Taglit-birthright israel alumni and generate new ideas for Jewish activism ended up engendering passionate debate about the structure of the forum itself.
The four-day "ROI120" conference at the capital's Mishkenot Sha'ananim started on Monday and was organized by Taglit-birthright israel, the Israel Democracy Institute and made possible by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Marcus Foundation. It brings together 120 birthright graduates who were nominated by their local communities.
"The initial idea was about creating a network of people who are outstanding alumni of Talglit-birthright israel as well as others. They would meet in order to conceive a plan in which people would be able to explore, develop and implement new ideas and projects in their home communities and worldwide," said Gidi Mark, director of marketing for birthright.
The conference's structure was intentionally left vague in hopes that the activists would dictate its direction.
"They [the participants] define the vision and mission." said Miri Eisen, scholar-in-residence at the conference and mediator of the discussion.
The activists expressed surprise at the nebulous structure of the forum Tuesday. Six birthright graduates presented ideas for potential projects to their peers and a panel of five experts from a range of fields.
After the panel's remarks on the first two presentations, Rabbi Avi Poupko from Harvard University's Hillel voiced frustration with the structure of the session, saying he had been "existentially insulted" by the forum.
"I have a problem with a situation where a hierarchy is created between the foundations and the people in the field. There should be utmost respect between both the foundations and the people, and this specific forum didn't represent that," he said.
Some attendees said activists and panelists seemed to have been given contradictory information about the goal of the session.
"Learning the skills of pitching an idea to sponsors was what the panelists had thought was going to happen, whereas for us, it was much more about the idea." said Dean Rabinowitz, one of the presenters.
The presentations ranged from AIDS prevention and research advocacy to establishing an Ethiopian culture center in Israel, to podcasts teaching Torah.
Despite the confusion over the forum's direction, audience members and panelists alike were pleased with the presentations. "We didn't expect this, but the ideas that were presented by the other ROI members were fantastic," said Noel Joseph, a member of the audience from India.
Organizers were pleased with the presentations as well.
"I thought all the presentations were strong and showed great passion and interest, and tied directly into important Jewish values," said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Schusterman Family Foundation.