Posts Tagged ‘History’


August (1929) and Everything After: The Jewish Agency at the Crossroads of History

March 1, 2010

The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life. –  excerpt from “A Call to the Educated Jew” by Louis Brandeis


History teaches everything, including the future.   – Alphonese de Lamartine



What was it like to be part of the leadership the Jewish Agency in August, 1929 in Zurich?  Less than a month earlier, the 16th Zionist Congress established an expanded Jewish Agency after a seven year long debate about how Zionist efforts would incorporate a wide array of Jewish groups in the Diaspora, and the meetings that August were the first gathering of the expanded organization. Around the table were giants of the Jewish people, including Chaim Weizmann, Louis Marshall, Joseph Sprinzak and others representing both the WZO and Diaspora Jewry and who were invested in the efforts to create a Jewish state. As they planned their joint endeavor toward the realization the “establishment of the Jewish National Home… in Palestine” (as called for by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922), this group had the daunting task of prioritizing the initial work of the Agency. Their deliberations resulted in the emphasis on immigration, settlement and land purchase as key endeavors, with efforts also to be undertaken regarding the greater establishment of language and culture of the new nation. Decisions were made and the rest, as they say, is history.

But again, I wonder, what was it like to sit at that table and make those decisions?

This question weighed on my mind as I attended the meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency last week in Jerusalem. Now, like then, the Jewish Agency is at a pivot moment in Jewish history – a moment where, at the end of many years of debate, priorities must be set and decisions must be made. What direction will this historic organization take at this crossroads in the history of the Jewish state and the Jewish people?  Yes, there certainly are differences between then and now – then the very existence of the State of Israel was an aspiration, now it is a reality. Then only a small fraction of world Jewry lived in the land that would become the modern state of Israel, now half the world’s Jewish population calls Israel home. But many of the challenges are the same – how can the Jewish Agency best help make sure that Israel is more than a state, but also a people? How can the organization best ensure that the future of the Jewish nation is secured and enriched by the reinforcement of the national characteristics of the Jewish people?

Those challenges and others face the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 and, like 1929, both the weight of history and the promise of the future cannot be ignored. Then, like now, the Zionist dream was the shared dream of many diverse stakeholders, often sharing common cause but possessing diverse perspectives about how to pursue that cause.  We know the history since 1929, but what we don’t know is this: Like those individuals around the table in 1929 that came together to prioritize approaches to ensuring the creation and sustainability of a Jewish nation, can today’s diverse leadership of the Jewish Agency define its priorities to properly ensure the strengthening and sustainability of the Jewish people?

The answer must be ‘yes’ – history, and the Jewish future, demand nothing less.

In his book Community and Polity, Professor Daniel Elazar postulated that in the postmodern Jewish world there needs to be reassertion of Jewish polity – a transition from fragmentation to reintegration. More than ever before, the Jewish Agency can and should play a substantial role in developing that greater sense of Klal Yisrael, integrating the fragments of Jewish life into a shared sense of identity. While its role since 1929 has been reconstituting a Jewish state, the Jewish Agency must now transition to a role of reconnecting a Jewish people. Yes, there can be no question that Israel is and must remain a center of the Jewish people, but a center unconnected from its broader sphere becomes the center of nothing.  And just like the efforts of the Jewish Agency have long been to weave the multicolored threads of olim into the fabric of the Jewish State, the Agency must continue to serve as a seamstress in the next phase of Jewish history. But rather than only help bring the threads together as the cloth of a nation, it must now serve a new role in stitching together the quilt of Jewish people, sewing together the unique squares of Jewish life and experience that occur in Israel, North America and throughout the Jewish world.  To do so, it must use the expression of individual Jewish identity as the thread that binds the quilt of the Jewish people together.

Of course any prioritization, any design of its future endeavors, must take into account that the Jewish Agency cannot in the abandon some of its key responsibilities in that it is uniquely able to address. But as time changes, and the needs of the Jewish people change, the Jewish Agency cannot remain static. It too must change, and change in the ways the future demands, not the past. Certainly the coming weeks and months will require hard questions to be asked and certain answers to be accepted. But we should not lose site of one question that will be asked, we hope will be asked, one day far in the future –

What was it like to be part of the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 in Jerusalem and what did they decide?

The history books of the Jewish people are waiting for the answer.


Jewish Builders. Not Jewish Fixers.

July 20, 2008

In many of my recent discussions with Jewish peers, volunteers and Jewish community professionals I have noted a consistent theme of concern for the state of the ‘organized’ Jewish community. Nevermind that many of these individuals operate firmly within the organizations that make up the so-called organized community (federations, foundations, agencies, etc.); they nonetheless lament what seems like a steady ossification of institutions and bureaucratization of leadership. These conversations sound more like a refrain of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” with each individual having their own prescriptive remedies for the health of Jewish communal organizations or the Jewish community as a whole.

However, just as much as there is a steady outpouring of energy by Jews to remediate the challanges and opportunities of Jewish life through groups, organizations and initiatives, oftentimes the consistent response of the “organized” community to the lamentations of these young Jewish activists is to develop a ‘strategic plan’ or a ‘new agenda’ – each developed with the requisite number of volunteer stakeholders and professional strategists. The substance of these efforts is the development of organizational approaches to reengineering or refocusing of the organization to meet the needs, challenges or ‘strategic opportunities’ facing the organization. The desired result being to engage the young leadership of the organized Jewish community to become ‘fixers’ of that which needs fixing.

I believe the orientation of these organizational activities is wrong. We don’t need fixers, we need builders. And critically, the Jewish activists of today don’t want to be fixers either – the essence of their desire is to be builders of Jewish community in their own distinctive ways and focused on their own distinctive interests.

This is nothing new. At the now legendary 1969 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, a group of students (enabled by their own self-organization and coordination through the North American Jewish Students NETWORK, an outgrowth of the World Union of Jewish Students) were exceptionally effective in disrupting not only the proceedings, but also the staid tenor of the GA. The tone and approach of the students was not destructive, but constructive – appealing to the need to build more vibrant and responsive Jewish institutions in response to what the students perceived as a stagnant and unresponsive system. As a representative of the students chosen to speak at the GA by his peers Rabbi Hillel Levine expressed the sentiment of the students in a manner that still resonates today, stating (with respect to how the students viewed themselves):

“…we see ourselves as more than children of our times; we see ourselves as children of timelessness. We see ourselves as your children, the children of Jews who with great dedication concern themselves with the needs of the community, the children of those who bring comfort to the afflicted, give aid to the poor, who have built mammoth philanthropic organizations, who have aided the remnants of the Holocaust, who have given unfalteringly to the building of Israel… We are your children, and I affirm this, but we want to be not only your children, but also builders. We want to participate with you in building the vision of a great Jewish community.”

Builders. Not fixers.

And this is the state of affairs today as well – almost 40 years later. Engaged Jewish young adults (and within that category I include anyone who considers themselves young) want to build the vision of their community in the distinctive way that resonates with their individual perceptions, needs and talents. They may want to work in partnership with the ‘organized’ Jewish community, and they may even want to work within it. But the idea of simply ‘fixing’ it is uninspiring at best and disengaging at worst.

They want to build. Not fix.

And while it is partially semantics, the ‘organized’ community must be sensitive to the subtleties within the voices of Jewish innovation that can be found working outside the ‘organized’ community today. Rather than demanding to be builders (they have taken that role on themselves), they are asking the organized community to build with them. To not cleave to closely to what clearly must be fixed, but to also believe that certain institutions must be reimagined, reinvented – rebuilt.

In 1969, the students at the GA bypassed the option of woeful ambivalence and, rather, took the option to present an impassioned appeal to the ‘organized’ Jewish community to think differently about the vision of building a stronger Jewish future. Almost 40 years later, students and young adults are facing a similar option.

What will they choose? And how will we respond? Will we ask them to be fixers? Or will we embrace and support them as builders?

Builders or fixers. We should choose like our future depends on it. Because it does.


What a difference a year makes

July 10, 2008

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year I was in Israel with my wife Marci and the Atlanta Wexner ‘07 group for the culmination of our participation in the two-year Wexner Heritage program. To be more exact, we were in Jerusalem with our friends Jon and Elizabeth Barkan, celebrating Jon’s 39th birthday. We spent the evening in Jerusalem at dinner speculating on the due date of the Barkans’ new baby, whether Marci and I would have another child to join our two daughters, and what the coming months held in store for us.

Little did we know.

It has been 10 months since we celebrated the birth of Benjamin Barkan. And now it has been 8 months since we mourned the death of Jon Barkan. It has been 5 weeks since the birth of Jordan Cohen, our third child. And it has been exactly one year since Jon’s 39th birthday. One year since that evening in Jerusalem.

What a difference a year makes.

Jon maintained a blog about his life, his passions, his friends and most importantly, his family. In December, Jon stopped writing in his blog – far before the time when his story should have been finished.

Today, on what would have been his 40th birthday, I am going to begin writing mine. It will not be as funny, nor as colorful as Jon’s, and I am hoping that it will be more of a conversation rather than a blog. A conversation about Jewish questions, Jewish people and Jewish futures. But more about that later.

In looking back at the past 12 months – a year – I have seen joy, and sorrow, and joy again. I have seen highs and lows, feelings of tremendous audacity and tremendous humility. And I have seen everything in-between. I have learned some lessons, but I have also learned some of the questions that are revealed to you only when you are faced with the boundless drama of creation that unfolds through our lives.

But mostly I have learned that a year does make a difference.