Starting the 'global conversation'

By Jessica Elgot, May 26, 2011
Participants at the Siach conference in Connecticut were divided into groups according to their area of activism

Participants at the Siach conference in Connecticut were divided into groups according to their area of activism

More than 120 Jewish environmentalists, social justice leaders and activists converged upon a quiet corner of Connecticut for Siach, the first major global conference on Jewish social action.

The UK's Jewish Social Action Forum, headed by David Brown, was the European organiser, bringing 20 per cent of participants from nations also including France, Germany and Hungary, to meet activists from the US and Israel.

The UK's representation was cross-communal, with delegates from the Board of Deputies, the United Synagogue, Noam, Reform Judaism and charities such as Tzedek, Gift and UJIA. Others came from more alternative organisations, such as Moishe House's Joel Stanley, who is setting up social action group Avodah UK and Gabriela Pomeroy from Grassroots Jews. Delegates had to be social action professionals and apply for places. Co-organised with JSAF and US social action group Hazon, the four-day conference at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Centre was the brainchild of Dyonna Ginsberg, director of the Israel's Bema'aglei Tzedek.

Her aim was to establish "a global network of experienced Jewish environment and social justice professionals, as well as highly dedicated lay leaders, to connect and collaborate on a shared passion and commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam".

Staying on the retreat's 450-acres of forest and farmland, delegates ate organic and locally grown kosher food as they swapped ideas for energising their communities. United Synagogue Project Chesed director Candice Woolfson said: "I met some people doing wonderful projects, some of which I'd like to try to incorporate into the US' work.

"I have come back totally re-energised to make a difference. It felt like just the start of the conversation."

We are totally re-energised to make a difference

Discussion topics included international development, refugees and foreign workers and community and synagogue organising. JSAF took the lead in sessions about sustainability and consumerism, explaining projects including The Big Green Jewish and Fairtrade. Rene Cassin's director Simone Abel led some of the sessions on human rights issues. "We are already looking at how we can collaborate with Rabbis for Human Rights on our anti-slavery campaigns," she said.

Tzedek's Libby Burkeman organised some of the international development discussions, coming away "hoping to collaborate with people working in the same countries as us, including India".

Union of Jewish Students' director of education Richard Verber enjoyed "very productive one-on-one conversations and took back lots of ideas, including an invitation from the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, to take Manhigut or Birthright tours to meet her. I also talked to [US social action charity] Hazon about a UJS education seminar on food, which could include demonstrating shechitah with a goat on campus, an innovative way of educating around food issues.

"It was great atmosphere," he added. "Even if there was a hippy, very American feel about the place."

Outside the sessions, there was a talent show, walks around the lake and the chance for delegates to try their hands at sustainable farming and milking goats.

The next Siach conference is planned for Israel next year and the hope is to stage the 2013 event in the UK.

Last updated: 11:11am, May 26 2011