SA contingent was felt at NGF

  • Madiba UJW
History is neither always just nor kind. Among the great Jewish leaders of the 20th century, the name of Dr Nahum Goldmann should loom large alongside greats like Ben-Gurion, Brandeis and Wiesel. Yet his name means precious little to most Jews today.A remarkable visionary & extraordinary leader, it is fitting that the one Jewish space that carries his name is the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF) - the flagship programme of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (which he founded).
by DAVID JACOBSON | Jul 22, 2015

Goldmann was a major figure in the Zionist and Jewish world in the latter half of the 20th century. He was the chief architect of the pact pledging West Germany to pay reparations to Israel and to individual Jews for acts committed during the Nazi years; he was the founder of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations; and for many years president of the World Jewish Congress, which he helped to found in 1936.

He was a remarkable visionary and an extraordinary leader, and it is fitting that the one Jewish space that carries his name is the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF) - the flagship programme of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (which Goldmann founded).

Palestinian hit HOME

RIGHT: The South African contingent at the 27th International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship: Dovi Brom; Gilad Friedman; Ramon Widmonte; David Jacobson; Heidi-Jane Esakov-Jacobson; and Kim Nates

It is arguably the only global Jewish project aimed solely at promoting ‘Jewish peoplehood’. Forty five fellows, 18 countries, six days, one people, no agenda. Its aim is not Zionist, religious or political. It has no overt agenda other than encouraging individuals to find their own Jewish path through life.

To achieve this the NGF brings together a diverse group of young Jewish leaders from around the world, which include Haredi, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, left-wing, right-wing, Zionist and non-Zionist alike.

Between June 15 and 22, six South Africans attended the Fellowship and they represented perfectly the broad spectrum of diversity that was present on the shores of Lake Kinneret.

Seventh time attending

As an adviser to the International NGF, I have attended seven successive Fellowships. Together with me in Israel were Dovi Brom, Gilad Friedman, Heidi-Jane Esakov-Jacobson, Kim Nates and Rabbi Ramon Widmonte.

This was the largest contingent of South Africans to have attended this Fellowship in many years and our presence there was powerfully felt. If you add the three Australian SA expats into the mix, the impact of South Africa was even greater.

The NGF has a very simple recipe: Mix together a diverse group of young Jews, add liberal amounts of serious Jewish scholarship and learning, sprinkle it with peer-led group discussions and allow to simmer until minds are blown and prejudices popped.

The level of Jewish scholarship represented by the faculty is a Jewish academic brocha buffet that would be the envy of any international programme.

This year, the faculty included:

  • Dr Moti Zeira, one of Israel’s leading experts on Jewish and Israeli identity and emerging Jewish communities in Israel.
  • Rabbi Professor Ismar Schorsch, president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, who is chancellor emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and a professor of Jewish history.
  • Rabbi Dr Jacob J Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Centre for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, New York.
  • Rabbi Dr Saul Berman, associate professor of Jewish studies at Stern College, and adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Law.
  • Prof Daniel Fainstein, dean and professor of Jewish studies and education at the Hebrew University in Mexico.
  • Dr Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and of the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations

Each of these faculty members delivered courses and lectures that brought a challenging level of Jewish thinking to the Fellows. Lectures covered topics such as “Klal Yisrael: Restoring an endangered Jewish value” and “Shaping sustainable diasporas”.

It is not by coincidence, that over the years the faculty of the NGF has included senior representatives from the colleges of the three major streams of Judaism: Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. It also incorporates faculty from the major secular Jewish universities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Brandeis in the US.

When the magic weaves its spell

This ability to pull together the often disparate forces in the Jewish world under one umbrella, makes the NGF, in my opinion, possibly the most important Jewish programme in the world. It achieves its goal by encouraging what new Executive Vice-President Rabbi Jeni Friedman terms “productive discomfort”. And indeed there’s much of that.

Despite the incredible formal programme of the NGF, it is really during the informal gatherings over meals, or after programmes on the balcony overlooking the Kinneret, that the magic of the NGF begins to weave its spell.

Almost without fail, year after year, as if orchestrated by some masterful Divine puppet master, the “productive discomfort” that accompanies the Fellows the first few days, seems to miraculously morph as Shabbat ends, into a deep, respectful and powerful connection.

No topic is taboo, and you would have seen a fervent Zionist engaging for hours with a committed non-Zionist, Orthodox Jew with staunch secularist and a Reform Jew, and as the connection grows, so a miraculous transformation occurs and the common thread of Klal Yisrael begins to bind everyone.

It is this magic thread of “unity in diversity” that the returning six South Africans bring back with them. My hope is that we will continue to nurture this fragile Jewish thread despite the tensions that exist within our Jewish community.

 If we can transform our mistrust of each other into deep, committed and eternal Rav Kook “Ahavat Yisrael” (love for our fellow Jew), then we can begin to truly transform our community, our society and our country.

Though the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship and its transformative “Klal Yisrael Project” which has produced some 1 000 alumni over 27 years, history may yet restore the name of Nahum Goldmann to its rightful place among the Jewish greats.

  • David Jacobson is the former executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies, is an adviser to the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship and has pioneered the “Mini Fellowships” in South Africa.

Madiba UJW
The group engaging in an exercise aimed at evaluating the strength of their particular community. Pictured are Heidi-Jane Esakov-Jacobson; Dovi Brom; Kim Nates; and Rabbi Ramon Widmonte


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