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We have been through a difficult month. November saw a massive storm cause unprecedented damage in many Jewish communities, and Hamas once again targeted Israeli citizens with relentless rocket fire.  During Hanukkah, it was tempting to ask: “Where is the joy when so many of our children live in fear and so many of our fellow Jews have suffered loss to their homes and their livelihoods?”

A deeper look into Hanukah sheds light on the resilience of our ancestors’ whose shared heritage gave them the collective strength needed to survive.  This spirit of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה”” has held us in good stead.  Two thousand years later, when Israeli children slept in bomb shelters, the global Jewish family pulled together. We gave them a break from the wailing sirens and provided immediate cash assistance to their parents to help recover from the attacks.  And when word got out that elderly members of New York’s Russian-speaking community were trapped in high-rise buildings, and floodwaters forced families to evacuate indefinitely, young Russian-speaking Israelis flew to New York. There they worked with Russian-speakers — who had emigrated to the States years earlier — to help distribute hot meals, jugs of water, warm clothing and medicines to those in need.

Difficult days lie ahead. But we know that we are never alone, and that we will face the challenges of our people as one people. For me, that is something to celebrate.

Writer and Jewish activist Jay Michaelson offers his perspective on a range of Jewish issues.  This video podcast is part of The Jewish Agency’s new series, “Can We Talk?”.

The Jewish conversation in the age of “iSpirituality”:

Keeping Jews engaged amidst a sea of choices:

It’s hard out there for a centrist: 

Israel criticism: Where are there red lines?

Love for Israel, from adolescence to maturity:

Seth Cohen, The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Director of Network Initiatives talked to us on Sunday to record this video podcast, part of our new series “Can We Talk”.

The Jew’s role in the world:

Igniting change through innovation:

Yohanan ben Zakai and Jewish social entrepreneurship’s enduring roots:

From start-up to establishment, a continuum of Jewish innovation:

Jewish social entrepreneur and co-founder of the Arava Power Company, Yossef Abramowitz, sat down with us on Sunday to record this video podcast, part of our new series “Can We Talk”. We were double lucky that Yossef brought along Anne Heyman, founder, Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.

Bringing renewable energy to Rwanda - Jewish values in action:

The Jewish spirit, a catalyst for change:

Jewish camping and youth movements as cradles for next generation leadership:

Israel’s solar revolution:

By Benjamin Rutland

During yesterday’s Tikkun Olam mini-conference conference, the organizers – Reut Institute and Alliance for Global Good - proposed that the 14 million Jews in the world could impact the lives of a quarter billion people within a decade. Gidi Grinstein, founder and President of the Reut Institute, emphasized that in order to achieve this goal, philanthropy would not be sufficient. Only a combination of the resources and energy of all the citizens of Israel, the government of Israel and world Jewry could achieve change on a truly global scale. The speakers highlighted three benefits that such a major effort would have. The first and most obvious is to improve the lives of millions around the world. The second is the positive effect that this would have on the volunteers themselves and for global Jewish identity. Finally, several speakers noted that a major Jewish humanitarian effort could dramatically improve Israel’s legitimacy.

Several of the speakers made references to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) search and rescue efforts in Haiti and Japan (amongst other places). In Haiti, the Israeli field hospital was the first to open and was studied by many other countries as a model of speed and efficiency. As an officer in the IDF, I was (very) peripherally involved in the planning of this type of operation. However, these IDF operations were criticized by some anti-Israel activists as mere public relations exercises. A cynic watching the mini –conference from outside could also conclude that this was no more than window dressing intended to enhance Israel’s global image.

From my personal experience I know that all three factors did motivate the IDF: the professional experience gained on such an operation cannot be replicated in an exercise and could be used later to save lives in Israel; and the IDF did also invest considerable effort in publicizing these operations in order to maximize a public relations achievement. However, having met the committed doctors and search and rescue experts who are prepared to jump into action and risk their lives at a moment’s notice, I am certain that the humanitarian impulse is the overriding factor.

In the complicated that world that we live in most decisions are motivated by multiple factors. As with the IDF missions, it is clear to me that the global Tikun Olam project being proposed is motivated primarily out of a desire to improve the world that we live in and not just to reap an advantage for the global Jewish community. The other factors do not diminish the importance of the contribution to others.

Ruth Messenger, President and CEO of American Jewish World service told the story of one Jewish volunteer who was approached by an African who had benefitted from the volunteer’s work. The African told the volunteer that he had decided that he was Jewish. The volunteer cautiously told the man that that was great and asked what he meant. The man responded, “I also want to leave the world a better place than I found it.”

That is what we should all be striving for.

We sat down, Monday morning, with David Cygielman - founder and chief executive officer of Moishe House - to discuss millennial Jews and what it takes to keep them engaged in Jewish life.  This video podcast is the second episode of our new “Can We Talk” series.

Jewish living and living with Jews. Is there a difference?

Channeling the establishments, wisdom, and resources:

The challenge of keeping current:

It began with an Israel experience:

We had the chance to sit down with noted historian, Zionist activist and Open Zion’s agent provcateur, Professor Gil Troy, who recorded an interview for our new “Can We Talk” video podcast series. Some of the clips are below.

Gil Troy on “bageling”:

Jewish nationalism is not a dirty word:

The Jewish Agency and the ‘identity revolution’:

The importance of Senator Moynihan’s support for Israel:

Still making sense of it all, after 3,500 years of talking: 

By Josh Berkman

Along the lines of the hugely successful TED talks - where charismatic leaders of industry, science, the academy and culture, share their wisdom – the Avi Chai Foundation has unveiled its own thought leadership platform: ELI Talks (Engagement, Literacy, Identity). One of the common threads that emerged in today’s session of five speakers, was the need for risk-taking in the Jewish community, the idea that sometimes the game-changing ideas are not products of long consensus-building projects to tackle a large problem. Rather they often come from the gut.

Sam Glassenberg, the chief executive officer of video game company Funtactix, served up J-Date as an example of a Jewish entity that has flipped the script. In 1997, when the company began, Jewish leaders of nearly every stripe were wringing their hands over the question of Jewish continuity. Millions were poured into programs designed to engage Generation X.  But J-date wasn’t really concerned with Jewish continuity. The founders just wanted to turn a profit and grow. And they had an idea: make it really easy for young Jews to find dates with other young Jews. The rest is history. While large organizations were busy conducting studies and strategizing, J-Date had a simple idea and ran with it.

A few speakers after Glassenberg, Jewish Agency International Develop CEO, Dr. Misha Galperin, sounded a similar chord. He said he was originally inspired by Levi jeans. This was a reference to the packages of various western goods that North American Jews used to arrange to be smuggled into the former Soviet Union, where Galperin grew up. Along with jeans, cassette tapes and magazines, packages also included Hebrew books and Shabbat candles. The goal was not necessarily to re-invigorate Soviet Jewry, but rather to send Jewish brethren items of practical importance - to act from the heart.  And, like Jdate, everything else took care of itself.  Galperin recalled that young people like him felt deeply connected to the “global Jewish family”, as a result of the North American gestures,  and were forever motivated to learn about their heritageand engage with the Jewish peoplehood. 

Galperin lamented that he hates playing chess, despite being a Russian-speaking former math prodigy. Chess, he feels, lends itself to long deliberations that require a player to game out many scenarios, without ever being able to accurately predict outcome. It doesn’t reward the decisive risk taker. For fear of failure, we don’t sufficiently embrace ideas born of the heart and gut - we are too often confronted with an inertia that discourages action unless they have been cooked in crowded kitchens.

Galperin and, it would seem, Glassenberg prefer blitz chess. No time to think and analyze. If an idea is inspired, you’ll know it.

By Benjamin Rutland

Twelve years have passed since I attended my last (and only) General Assembly. As I sat in my seat during the opening plenary of the 2012 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, I thought about some of the changes apparent in the organized Jewish world’s agenda.

In 2000, The North American Jewish community had only recently discovered the extent to which young Jews were disconnected from their Jewish roots. If memory serves me well, the focus of that GA was on Jewish renewal. Fast forward 12 years and two themes emerged from Opening Plenary session of the 2012 GA. 

The first theme was outlined by several speakers who described a federation system which was poised to go into action whenever and wherever Jews were in trouble around the world. Kathy Manning described the Federations role in providing assistance to Jews in Israel during the Second Lebanon War. Jerry Levin, president of UJA-Federation NY, lauded the Federation system’s quick response to Hurricane Sandy.

Levin emphasized that the Federations provided aid to both Jews and non-Jews, which brings me to the second theme. GA Scholar in Residence Rabbi Rick Jacobs emphasized that for a majority of young Jews the notion of universal social activism or Tikun Olam was a stronger guiding principle in their connection to Judaism than either Israel or traditional worship. Jacqueline Levine was an audience favorite when she described her participation in the civil rights movement. With young North American Jews increasingly motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, this GA is devoting a mini-conference to the topic of Tikun Olam.

Both of these themes are essential components of ensuring that young Jews remain connected to the notion of Jewish people-hood. Tikun Olam programming allows young Jews to connect to thousands of years of tradition while expressing the “hunger for righteousness” that Rick Jacobs spoke about. And by successfully connecting young to Jews to Jewish tradition they are more likely continue to care about the fate of other Jews around the world.