Not so bad, but much more to do

That 120 leaders that showed up for JPPI’s 2012 Conference on the Future of the Jewish People understand that in the modern world, a systematic approach, strategic thinking and action-oriented policy planning are indispensable.

November 11, 2012 22:43
4 minute read.
Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Birthright participants 311. (photo credit: Ofer Shimoni)


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The current period is critical for the Jewish people, with Israel facing its greatest existential challenges since independence. Today, the largest Jewish community in the world is under threat from the advancing Iranian nuclear program, placing an enormous burden first on Israeli leadership but also on Diaspora Jewry.

The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) has recently developed a systematic set of indicators to measure and track key trends among the Jewish people. This tool, in the form of a “dashboard,” gauges Jewish well-being over time. Besides the geopolitical developments, which have shown a very problematic dynamic in the past year mainly because of the Iranian nuclear program and the turmoil throughout the Arab world, in other dimensions, the dashboard indicates that the Jewish people are actually performing better this year than in previous years.

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Global Jewish demography shows a recent boost, mainly due to Israel’s robust birth rate, though in the Diaspora the demographic challenge is much more problematic. The bonds between Jews and Jewish communities are also in better shape than in the past; new initiatives, more trips to Israel by Diaspora Jews, Birthright and Massa, more visits to Jewish sites and a significant increase in attendance at Jewish gatherings, especially at AIPAC’s annual policy conference.

In Jewish identity and identification, we are seeing numerous new ventures, particularly among the younger generation.

While these sometimes give voice to criticism of certain Israeli policies and of the Jewish establishment, the interest they show in Jewish civilization and their common roots is beginning to strengthen.

Even the economic dimension is improving. Jewish philanthropy is showing signs of recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and the new natural gas fields discovered in Israel’s territorial waters promise the Jewish people enhanced resources globally.

We Jews often prefer to see the half-empty glass. What I would like to suggest is that we take a longer perspective and be proud of what has been achieved in the last 70 years, by the past two or three generations.

Take just as one example the intermarriage rates in the West. Fifty percent in-marriages in North America is a huge achievement – it could easily be much worse considering that only 2 percent of the North American population is Jewish.

There is no other ethnic group that maintains these rates of in-marriage beyond the first immigrant generation.

IF THINGS are getting better, though, why did 120 of the Jewish world’s leaders, professionals and academics deem it necessary to devote two days to discussion in Jerusalem on the future of the Jewish people? The faithful could have skipped the conference and trusted in God and prayer.

The others could have ignored it.

Some of the improvement we have seen is due to the Diaspora’s committed lay and professional leaders, especially in North America. It is, therefore, essential to understand the need to prepare for the transitions of leadership many major Jewish organizations will undergo in the next few years. This important challenge is not limited to organizational and communal leadership. The effort should address the next generation of Jewish elites in politics, civil service, business and academia.

The distancing discourse, encouraged by greater individualism in the new digitally connected virtual world, opened the door to a tense discussion about the necessity of bonds among the various Jewish communities.

This was accompanied by a deepened approach to questions of Jewish identity and identification. These serious issues shouldn’t be left to an open-ended conversation that goes nowhere. They do not only represent red lights. They also open opportunities that should be structured to create new paved avenues to peoplehood and mutual responsibility in the 21st century.

The comeback of Jewish wealth and philanthropy in the past couple of years in the Diaspora, and the promising Israeli economic picture, requires a reevaluation of the efforts that succeeded in the past as well as innovative ideas for the future. We need to find a way to direct Jewish investment toward the Jewish future. Memorials and current pressures should not be ignored, but the vibrancy and vitality of the next generations are crucial to the continuity of the Jewish civilization.

Today much of the responsibility rests, and rightly so, on the shoulders of the Israeli government, which represents the largest Jewish community in the world.

Diaspora Jews are an asset to Israel just as Israel is an asset to them. This mutuality needs better coordination and unified planning.

The Jewish people in its totality has limited sway over the geopolitical situation – the shift of power from West to East, the turmoil in the Arab world, and the continuing Iranian nuclear threat. Having said that, this problematic picture needs to have its complexities and nuances better understood to encourage an ongoing treatment and avoid crisis flare-ups. Here, Jewish elites may have an impact.

That 120 leaders showed up for JPPI’s 2012 Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, in spite of American elections, Israeli elections and a major hurricane, demonstrates not only that they care, but that they understand that in the modern world, a systematic approach, strategic thinking and action-oriented policy planning are indispensable.

The writer is president and founding director of the Jewish People Policy Institute.

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