Are we giving up on British Jewish leadership?

It is vital for our future that we engage more with world Jewry

By Alexander Bodin Saphir, August 20, 2009

Earlier this year, I spent 10 days on the shores of Lake Kinneret as a Nahum Goldmann Fellowship participant. The fellowship — which this year celebrates its 21st anniversary — is world renowned for nurturing the next generation of Jewish global communal leadership by bringing together diaspora community leaders between the ages of 25 and 40 to learn, live and share their diverse experiences.

Of the 42 participants from 24 countries, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and the USA all sent four representatives, with France and Germany each sending three. Britain sent only one — me — and, technically, with only a Danish passport to my name, I am not even British!

Since the opening session at Carmel College in 1987, more than 700 men and women have participated in the fellowships all over the world. Last year’s was held in Montevideo and next year’s is to be held on the island of Pag, in Croatia, from March 8- 16.

Participants are exposed to lectures and discussion groups led by some of the most prominent Jewish thinkers in their field. This year speakers included Nobel laureate, Professor Robert Aumann; Professor Saul Berman (who, in 1965, was imprisoned for marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama); Professor Ruth Gavison (the Haim Cohn Chair of Human Rights at Hebrew University); and Professor Yehezkel Dror (founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a recipient of the Israel Prize).

Morning lectures were followed by smaller interactive workshops on Jewish texts, Jewish identity and community building, with the evenings spent in peer-led discussion groups. Although the participants held a wide spectrum of religious and political beliefs, antithetical positions were argued (often passionately) with tolerance and respect. At no point were ideas or political agendas forced upon the fellows. Rather, it became apparent that the fellowship’s task is not to dictate how future leaders might shape their communities, but instead to foster an environment of independent critical thinking.

So, is the lack of adequate British representation merely an aberration or is it an illustration of British Jewry’s reticence to engage meaningfully with the rest of the world? If it is the latter, then the British Jewish community may be in danger of becoming irrelevant on the European and world stage.

By the end of the 10 days at Lake Kinneret, it was concluded that greater cross-border co-operation was needed to strengthen and enhance community building, particularly in Europe. Holland was seen as a potential meeting place for a pan-European community-building workshop in the near future.

So where does that leave Britain and our future leadership? In an age when decisions made far from our shores impact on our lives directly, it is vitally important for the continued growth and development of our community that we foster a new generation of intelligent, open-minded and cosmopolitan leaders willing and able to embrace co-operation on a global scale.

If we do not engage more actively with European and world Jewry, we run the risk of finding ourselves standing on the sidelines, as the important decisions are made without us. I hope to see a larger British representation at next year’s Nahum Goldmann Fellowship to initiate just such an engagement. Maybe then I can go back to being what it says in my passport — Danish!

Alexander Bodin Saphir is a filmmaker and writer. For information on the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship:

Last updated: 4:24pm, August 20 2009