On Friday, I was honored to speak virtually with Hilah BBG chapter. The girls ran a beautiful virtual Friday night Shabbat service and after, we talked about Jewish leadership, Israel, anti-Semitism and more. They asked great questions!
I talked about my first trip to Israel, in 1998, where I attended a B’nai B’rith Convention in Jerusalem. I was 15 at the time and saw the impact of bringing B’nai B’rith members from all over the world together. I was able to participate as a BBYO delegate in elections and especially enjoyed the installation dinner. I also listened to my first Israeli singer, who was a guest performer. And I had the privilege of meeting Benjamin Netanyahu at a dinner on top of King David’s citadel. The experience definitely brought me closer to Israel and solidified my involvement in B'nai B'rith.
The girls asked about my volunteer work and I noted that my experience in BBYO and now volunteering in a Jewish organization such as B’nai B’rith International impacts my views of the world and the value I have learned—and continue to learn—about being a global citizen.
Israel advocacy and anti-Semitism were big topics of the night. We talked about the most common lies I hear about Israel—that it’s an “apartheid state”—and how to identify and respond to inaccurate allegations about Israel, as well as the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel belief: anti-Israel is indeed the new anti-Semitism.
The girls asked me what I find most difficult about being a Jewish woman and advocate for Israel in the workforce. I told them that dealing with misinformation and ignorance of others is challenging but I am passionate about speaking openly to those who are willing to learn and as a result, I have had great conversations with people.
The girls were interested in how they can get involved in Israel advocacy. B’nai B’rith International is active at the United Nations in New York and its agencies around the world, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva. B’nai B’rith leaders regularly meet with ambassadors and government leaders and our international connection gives us a voice to advocate for Israel and the Jewish people in the diaspora.
They also wanted to know about my global travels on behalf of B’nai B’rith. When they asked about the favorite place I have visited on behalf of B’nai B’rith my answer included two spots: Japan and Prague.
Perhaps the most memorable experience I have had as an advocate for Israel was meeting with Gilad Shalit in London after his release (the Israeli soldier was a Hamas hostage for more than five years). We got to dance, go out into the town and have stayed in touch via Facebook. I’ve also met with the Deputy prime minister of Japan and spoke in depth about Israel’s history and right to exist peacefully in the middle east. Japan and Israel’s positive relationship has grown in the past few years. Finally, I noted that serving as a B’nai B’rith delegate to WZO has also been an amazing experience.
And we talked about takeaways for the girls: what to keep near their hearts and minds as they move up in the world, through high school and college and beyond. I concluded by telling them that going forward in their lives, they need to question and challenge anyone who supports the BDS movement and uses anti-Israel rhetoric. They must, as Jewish leaders, know the facts and have intelligent conversation with people they encounter. I told them that many anti-Israel statements are misinformation used to promote anti-Semitism. Lastly, I told them to visit Israel, learn the history, and experience it for themselves. I promised them that after such a visit, they would leave with a piece of Israel in their hearts that will inspire their future leadership goals and endeavors and make them better advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.
We had an inspirational and motivating conversation and I am very excited about their enthusiastic participation and interest in Israel advocacy, combating anti-Semitism, leadership and B’nai B’rith’s global work. I look forward to more opportunities to speak to Jewish youth about important topics facing Jews and leadership.
Rebecca Anne Saltzman serves as a senior vice president at B'nai B'rith International and as chair of the Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee. Saltzman also sits on the Executive Board of Directors, has served as the marketing chair and is past chair of the Young Leadership Network (now called B’nai B’rith Connect). In 2012, Saltzman earned the Label A. Katz award, an honor for individuals under 45 who have demonstrated outstanding service to the totality of B’nai B’rith and have worked to achieve the goals of the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership program.
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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