With the startling results of the Pew survey on American Jewish identity still echoing loudly around the globe, this was a fortuitous moment for an international Jewish summit to convene in Jerusalem and hash out strategies for shoring up the next generation.
In fact the two-day summit, beginning November 6 and involving some 120 community professionals, philanthropists, academics and Israeli politicians, had been in the works for the past year, long before the Pew survey surfaced. The plan was to kick off a new, long-term, heavily funded initiative to combat assimilation. It was dreamed up by officials in the Israeli prime minister’s office, working in partnership with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel. The timing of the kickoff event, seemingly feeding off the anxiety of the Pew survey, was just a lucky coincidence.
Or perhaps unlucky. For anyone familiar with the Pew survey, it was hard not to notice the contrast between the crisis of identity that the summit was supposed to address and the forces convened to tackle the job. On one hand, an emerging generation of young Jews who are overwhelmingly uninterested in traditional forms of Jewish organization, strikingly more liberal than their predecessors, disengaged from Israel and suspicious of its policies and actions.
On the other hand, a task force led by the world’s largest and arguably most hidebound Jewish organization, the Jewish Agency, in partnership with the most conservative government in Israel’s history.
The contradiction wasn’t lost on the participants arriving for the opening session at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Asked what they expected, most of those I questioned replied with shrugs and wry smiles. Several pointed to the published agenda: “to strengthen the younger generation’s Jewish identity and deepen the connection between world Jewry and Israel,” hardly a trailblazing manifesto. “It looks like the same old same-old,” one participant told me.
The conference working paper, sent out in advance to frame the discussions, was even more discouraging. The problems it defined were all about the fraying of Diaspora Jewish identity, but the solutions it proposed were mostly about Israel’s needs: getting young Jews to identify with Israel, defend its policies (or “cultivate a robust pro-Israel environment,” as the document put it) and, ideally, move there.
Compounding the skepticism was the simple fact that most participants — the Americans, at least — knew each other. If they’d been hoping for new faces and new ideas, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.
So what was the point? To begin with, organizers said, there was the fact that the Israeli government was directing its attention — and its resources — to the Jewish Diaspora. The initiative is envisioned as a $300 million per year bundle of programs, with one-third coming from the Israeli taxpayer, one-third from Diaspora donors and one-third from program user fees.