Most among us are familiar with the adage, “two Jews, three opinions.” The idea squares with the concept of a Jewish intellectual legacy, so called by Rabbi Joshua Waxman, in which we consistently emphasize the value of posing questions, debate and education. But in a time when there are so many internal (and external) threats to Jewish Peoplehood, how do Jewish institutions and leaders begin to harness diversity of opinion as a collective strength? And in this increasingly fractured world, what is our responsibility to foster the safe spaces in which we can begin to challenge the status quo?
Enter the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF), which has successfully modeled communal leadership development by promoting and empowering the very diversity that is so often shunned as a divisive factor. The fellowship is operated by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC), of which B’nai B’rith International sits on the Board of Trustees. Our organization has been actively involved with the MFJC since its very inception. Two former B’nai B’rith International presidents, Philip M. Klutznick Z"L and Jack J. Spitzer Z"L, went on to serve at the helm of the Memorial Foundation, and our organization currently employs five NGF alumni.
The NGF itself is a pluralistic leadership development program for young Jewish professionals and lay leaders from across the world. The immersive, week-long program convenes expert faculty and eager participants for exploration of Jewish identity and shared learning with a focus on the future of the Jewish people. According to the MFJC, “the initial goal … was to create a space whereby the Fellows could explore their relation to their own Jewish identity and redefine it based on their own particular Jewish journey. It also aimed to help these individuals redefine their roles as young Jewish leaders.” In other words, as later articulated, “the development of the social capital of the Jewish people.”
This August, I had the great privilege of participating in the 3rd cohort of the NGF Network Leadership Seminar prior to and concurrent with the 30th International NGF held in Hanover, Germany. Invited as an alumna of the 28th International NGF that met in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2016, I arrived in Germany enthusiastic about the opportunity, once again, to plug into that “Jewish intellectual legacy” and recharge.
This year’s fellowship was the first held in Germany. In addition to a packed program on the topic “From Generation to Regeneration — Engaging Memory, Culture and Identity,” participants in this year’s NGF met with German officials and visited the Bergen-Belsen memorial site—both firsts in the program’s history — and visited with the local Jewish community in Hanover, whose partnership was indispensible to the hospitable welcome we felt.
This fellowship’s greatest strength lies in the network's diversity, itself a microcosm of Jewish Peoplehood, and each cohort’s willingness to bond in productive discomfort. In this way the NGF endeavors and so powerfully succeeds in transcending denomination, affiliation and politics. Alongside B’nai B’rith Program Officer for U.N. Affairs Oren Drori and fellows from 17 countries, NGF 30 tackled some of the most pressing questions of our time through a lens reflecting the broad scope and depth of values shared across the Jewish world. The result is an unparalleled enthusiasm for Jewish communal engagement and a generation of future leaders better equipped to face tomorrow’s challenges.
At first take, NGF was an important thought exercise in my personal Jewish journey. But upon reflection of the breadth of my NGF experiences, it has evolved into so much more: a vastly important and growing network of mentors and friends all over the world; deep, meaningful and thoughtful scholarly exchange that seek substance and connection; and a highly successful model for leadership development of Jewish professionals and lay leaders.
I return from Germany as I did Mexico; once again inspired by the quality of the fellows, the passion they hold for their work within Jewish communities around the globe, and the unmatched devotion of MFJC staff, its Board and NGF faculty to foster this critical global network.
Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and Director of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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