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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News November 2009

November 5, 2009

The South African Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

A very important step in the continuing evolution of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program took place at the South African Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship held in Cape Town, South Africa on October 22-23. A number of components were responsible for the success of this mini-fellowship — the planners and participants, the programmatic goals with a major new focus in the program and the latent strength of the community's cultural heritage.

Rael Kaimowitz, an alumnus of previous Fellowships, who assisted me in organizing the South African Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program in 2006 and David Jacobson, an alumnus of the Israeli Nahum Goldmann Fellowship last year, were responsible for its planning and organization. During the years he participated in earlier fellowships, Rael began a gradual ascent into leadership roles in the Cape Town community. Indeed, at the conclusion of Cape Town's Board of Deputies meeting following the Mini-fellowship, he was reelected as the vice chairman of the Cape Town Board of Deputies. The joint effort by an emerging community lay leader, Rael, and David, the executive director of the Cape Town Board of Deputies and a highly dedicated and innovative professional, helped create the exceedingly constructive ambiance of the mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowship both for the participants and the members of the community.

Thirty-two fellows participated — fifteen who attended either the earlier South African Fellowship or prior Fellowships, and fifteen new members recruited by Rael, David, and the South African alumni. This doubling of the number of participants through the efforts of the South African alumni is remarkable testimony to their positive experience at previous Nahum Goldmann Fellowships.

Prof. J. J. Schachter, University Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and a member of the faculty at a number of previous Nahum Goldmann Fellowships, was the resident scholar at the program. His numerous presentations that weekend at the mini-fellowship, the meeting of the Cape Town Board of Deputies and in the community were very warmly received. It reflected one of our major emphases in our fellowship program, exposing the fellows to the highest level of serious Jewish learning as a catalyst for motivating them towards assuming leadership roles in their community. In the South African Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, we expanded that programmatic goal to include the community as well.

The Programmatic Goals

The mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in South Africa was based on the same model, principles and programmatic objectives of the international Nahum Goldmann Fellowships, which over two decades has demonstrated its effectiveness as a program to inspire a new generation of communal and cultural leaders in Jewish communities around the world. The programmatic goals, developed in collaboration with the fellows who participated in the twenty-one fellowships the Foundation organized in Europe, West and East, South America, Australia, Southeast Asia, South Africa and Israel were compressed into the one-day plus program in South Africa. I will focus in this report on only three of these goals that are especially relevant to the South African program.

A. Jewish Connectedness and Klal Yisrael

Our first objective has been the bonding of the individual Fellows. It was not surprising that during the formal sessions of previous Fellowships there were passionate and very intense discussions about the future of their communities, the State of Israel, Jewish culture, and Judaism, with real differences, political, ideological and religious, passionately — very passionately — argued by the Fellows. Most remarkably, these intense discussions never impeded the growing solidarity of the group, one of the most striking and most encouraging aspects of our success.

The most extraordinary accomplishment at our past international fellowships was that the solidarity that emerged among the fellows has become transmuted into a mini Klal Yisrael. At the Nahum Goldmann Fellowships, we have demonstrated that the concept of Klal Yisrael, according to Prof. Jonathan Sarna, an endangered Jewish value, can indeed be made operative, and still has both validity, vitality, and profound significance for young Jews, despite the polarization and divisiveness that characterizes so many sectors of Jewish life. Fellows from the most diverse educational, religious and communal backgrounds, with very sharply divergent and deeply held beliefs, were able to intensely discuss and debate those views, respectfully and civilly, while simultaneously being able to acknowledge the deep bonds that emerged between them during the Fellowship. At the same time, they recognized too that these bonds have no less transcendental meaning and value than the issues about which they differed. The Nahum Goldman Fellowship for most of the Fellows has remarkably become an authentic expression and microcosm of the concept of Klal Yisrael.

The major component of the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program in South Africa was the daylong discussion group and workshops about the issues facing their community. Although the new fellows never participated in the Fellowship process before, the quality of their comments, the depth of their passions and the intensity of their interchanges was almost a facsimile of what occurred at earlier fellowships. For the fellowship veterans, that replication of their earlier Fellowship experience in their community was almost magical. Although that part of the program lasted for only one day, they could have easily continued their discussion for three to four more days. Most importantly, as in past international fellowships, the fellows — old and new - also argued, sometimes passionately about their differences — political and religious — but always with civility and respect. One could detect even in this one day the incipient bonding of the fellows that characterized our previous fellowships.

B. Collective Wisdom

We deeply believe that there inheres in the body of the Fellowship the collective wisdom of the next generation of young Jewish leaders regarding how they can, and should, relate to the various disparate sectors of the Jewish community, as well as the larger social context that encompasses our communities and Jewish life globally. We think that it is possible, as we have begun, to successfully tap and distill the collective wisdom that inheres in the Fellowship and make that collective wisdom available through the international and mini-Fellowships to the Fellows themselves, their peers, and the leadership of their communities. This has been done in a manner that enables the Fellows, individually and collectively, to evaluate the best way that collective wisdom can serve both their dreams and aspirations as Jews, as well as help restructure and intensify Jewish life in their communities.

A special feature of the South African Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship was that it was followed, by design, by a meeting of the Board of the Cape Town Board of Deputies, in which the leadership of both the Cape Town community and the top leaders of the South African Board of Deputies participated. The participants of the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship also attended that meeting, some making formal presentations, others speaking from the floor, in some instances reflecting the discussion about the very same issues that were raised at the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. At the community's meeting, the fellows were also able to begin to share and sensitize the community and its leaders, formally and informally, about their perceptions, ambitions and vision for their community. They also did so at the workshops of the mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, in which selected leaders of the South African community also participated.

C. Individual Redefinition and Growth

The two programs — the international and local min-fellowships — differ in two major respects. Naturally, the local mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowships are of shorter duration, at best, extended over a long weekend, instead of the 8-10 days of the regular Nahum Goldmann Fellowships.

But there is another more fundamental difference between the international Nahum Goldmann Fellowship and the South African Mini Fellowship. From its earliest beginnings, the international Nahum Goldmann Fellowship emphasized the individual redefinition and growth of the Fellows. We have been extraordinarily successful in this aspect of our work. In an evaluation survey of alumni several years ago, 72% of the alumni declared that they have, as a result of the program, redefined themselves as Jews and leaders.

The South African Mini-Fellowship fused a new, more dynamic component into the program, focusing beyond the re-definition and growth of the individual fellows. It was aimed at helping the fellows re-define their community. The fellows at the local Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, unlike those participating in the international fellowship, are operating within the actual context and framework of their communities, not the Jewish community in abstract. Those fellows are intimately familiar with their community's history, its strengths and weaknesses, its special needs and challenges. Their perspectives of the fellows are vital for the future of their community because their perceptions of the social world in which they reside will, in the future, shape, or already have, reshaped the structure of their community.

The Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Cape Town, organized in a safe and secure format for the fellows, independent from the formal community structure, enabled the fellows to begin to formulate and articulate those perceptions.

The South African Mini-Fellowship As A Model

This was my third visit to South Africa in connection with the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. What I became more fully cognizant of during this visit, which I had only intuited during my earlier trips to South Africa, and which was largely responsible for seeking to expand our efforts there, was the great Jewish Lithuanian heritage and civilization that has nourished this community, and upon which it has continued to do draw. That rich cultural heritage, more than the work of any individual, has been responsible for the community's excellent network of cultural, educational and welfare agencies, its deep commitment to Zionism and its rich religious life. But that heritage has been deeply wounded by the community's experience during apartheid and other tensions connected to that part of their history. As a result, that cultural heritage of South African Jewry has been frayed somewhat in recent decades. Although frayed, the community is not yet ready to
abandon it.

That perception has been confirmed by two actions taken after the South African Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. At the conclusion of the mini-fellowship, the fellows unanimously and enthusiastically decided to continue to meet in the future as an independent body, utilizing the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship format, where they could express their views and concerns without connection to whatever formal positions they hold in the community. Furthermore, the major leaders of the Cape Town's community who were present at the workshops of the Mini- Nahum Goldmann Fellowship were deeply impressed by this remarkable event in their community and are prepared to support future activities of the Mini- Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in South Africa.

The Mini-South African Nahum Goldmann Fellowship marks a giant step forward for the Foundation and the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. If we succeed in this endeavor, as the leadership of the South African community believes we can, what emerges there can serve as a model for Jewish communities around the world.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President