Gloom and Doom, Yet We Bloom

By Leonard Fein

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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The highest temperature ever recorded anywhere was at Tirat Tzvi, in Israel, on June 12, 1942, when the thermometer reached 129 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, the 100-plus temperatures recorded this week at the Kissufim crossing — the way from Israel proper to Gush Katif, in Gaza — though higher than usual, are not all that impressive.

However, if you add the tension of the disengagement to the temperature, the result is sweat without precedent. Only the siege of Jerusalem in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the fearful weeks leading up the Six-Day War and the early Israeli defeats in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 come anywhere close.

But rather than speculate here on what the day after disengagement may bring, let’s instead downshift and, mixing metaphor, wipe our brows with a cloth dipped in the refreshing waters of silliness.

I have in mind in particular a conference held early this summer under the patronage of the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav. The conference was convened to ponder the current woes of the Jews — to wit, the alleged decline in the American Jewish population, the alleged spread of antisemitism, the alleged inadequacy of Jewish institutions to deal with these and related problems. All in all, a reminder of the continuing validity of the definition of a Jewish telegram: A Jewish telegram is one that reads, “Start worrying; letter follows.”

Now, suppose all our alleged infirmities are actually so. Here we have a conference of “heads of major Israeli and Diaspora groups,” so it is initially hard to know whether they are meant to illustrate the problem or to solve it. But once you see their proposed solution — or, more accurately, their proposed approach to finding a solution — you can figure that out quite easily.

What they want to do in order to confront the sources of Jewish angst is to establish a “World Jewish Forum” modeled after the World Economic Forum held at Davos, Switzerland — that famous annual meeting of important people, prime ministers, actresses, foreign ministers, celebrities and corporate executives (representing “the world’s 1,000 leading companies”). And others.

At Davos, innovative ideas are presented at more than 100 sessions. So, for example, had you been there in January, you might have heard Senator Orrin Hatch inform the audience that he believes “Western nations better work together” to combat terrorism. The World Economic Forum has been around for more than 30 years now, and it is “committed to improving the state of the world.” (You surely will have noticed how vastly the state of the world has improved over the last 30 years.)

So that is what we are now advised to create for the Jewish world. Honest. The idea is to attract the kinds of people that are by and large absent from Jewish symposia and conferences — people such as Steven Spielberg, and Michael Dell of the eponymous computer company, important people who might be flattered to be invited by the president of Israel and who can help guide our crippled community through the squalls and storms of the modern (or post-modern, or whatever) era.

Dear me: Have we really not yet reached the stage where we do not need folks who have been approved by the world out there to jet into the middle of an ongoing conversation about what ails us — a conversation in which they have until now played no discernable part — listen for a few minutes, speak for another few, have a drink and leave?

Yes, there was a time when the only folks the Jewish community truly respected were those who’d first made it “out there,” outside the Jewish world. “Out there” was the playing field that counted. Now, with all due respect to Spielberg and Dell for what they have managed to accomplish in their chosen fields of endeavor, and with all due respect for their creative intelligence, I do not believe that the problems we confront are either very esoteric or especially amenable to drop-in interlocutors.

Moreover, there is a whole and growing cohort of people whose names will almost surely not make the “A” list, who have quite a bit to say about where we are, where we are headed, where we need to be headed and what course adjustments are required to get us there. There are folks who in the past five to 10 years have built new Jewish organizations — organizations in some cases with real members — who have reformed the programs of local Jewish community centers; who have bailed local Hebrew colleges out of their traditional doldrums; who have taken on responsibility for Jewish summer camps, for Jewish healing centers, for Jewish film production, for Jewish museums, for Jewish archives, for Jewish music, for Jewish scholarship and for Jewish social justice.

There is stuff, good stuff, important and even exciting stuff, on the table. We can do quite easily with less talk and more action, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, rightly observed after he returned from Davos. Moreover, no conference, no matter how carefully its participants are chosen, can expect to generate a useable agenda for the Jewish people. We are and ever will remain radically decentralized. We have neither a pope nor a CEO.

That can be and often is frustrating, even infuriating. It is also our great good fortune. For though we likely will never do away with conferences on today’s gloom and tomorrow’s doom, and though our garden never will be neatly manicured, if you bother to look you will notice there are a hundred flowers blooming. Honest.

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