Last month, I joined 150 educators from 31 countries for the first-ever Global Jewish Education Summit. The five-day seminar sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, took place in Jerusalem July 8 - 12. Although contemporary Diaspora Jewry is currently confronted with many serious religious, political, and cultural issues, this seminar was entirely devoted to next-generation Jewish identity and Jewish education in the Diaspora. I participated in the seminar on behalf of SOS International, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching next-generation Jewish identity and values.
Israel has come to the realization that maintaining strong Jewish communities is not only the moral thing to do, but it is also a strategic investment for Israel. When one religiously, culturally, and educationally disengages from Judaism, one tends to disengage from Israel. For Israel, the challenge is how to respond to and engage with the masses of Jews distancing themselves from Judaism and Israel, when the Diaspora is far from homogenous.
Both Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora Affairs, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin candidly stated that after 70 years of Diaspora Jews helping Israel, it is time for Israel to help Diaspora Jews. Unlike in 1948, Israel is now a strong country and must take a leadership role in providing educational support and assistance, because without Jewish education, the Jewish people will cease to exist.
That said, Israel does not know what is needed. The dignitaries asked the multinational participants in the seminar for specific ideas, suggestions, and recommendations for how Israel can help and support Jewish education in the Diaspora. Because the Diaspora is so heterogeneous, the responses were as diverse and varied as the 150 attendees themselves.
In multiple roundtable discussions, interactive lectures, and assorted presentations, concerted collective efforts were made to better understand one another. It was clear that one size does not fit all, and meaningful and impactful educational responses must be personalized and customized. There is no singular magic educational bullet, and even a Jewish day school education does not guarantee next-generation Jewish identity and values.
There was a consensus about four needs: help recruiting and training teachers and organization professionals; creation of a global Jewish education communication network to share resources and best practices; innovative and creative ways to teach Hebrew and about Israel (thereby strengthening next-generation Jewish identity); and funding for new cutting-edge programs and activities.
The seminar’s organizers did not provide a governmental menu of options to address these four needs, but in fairness, they never promised to deliver such an option list. They did walk away with a better understanding of and awareness about Diaspora Jewish education and next-generation Jewish identity.
Rather, the most significant seminar takeaways were the Israeli government’s interest in learning more about Jewish education challenges in the Diaspora community from Diaspora professionals in the field. While this may seem like a rather low-level outcome and a somewhat empty response to urgent needs, it is truly monumental. Israel’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Diaspora Affairs have never before expressed such interest in Diaspora Jewish education and next-generation Jewish identity.
Now that a concerted philosophical and conceptual change seems to be taking place, going forward, Israel and all those involved in Diaspora Jewish education might become better partners in our shared efforts to deepen and strengthen next-generation Jewish identity. Will there be a follow-up seminar whereby the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs provides more than a forum for networking and sharing concerns? Only time will tell, so stay tuned!
By Alan Reinitz
Alan Reinitz is CEO of SOS International, a nonprofit organization based in Rockville, Maryland. To learn more about SOS International’s programs to enrich next-generation Jewish identity and values, visit http://sosintl.org.