Alan Hoffmann wants to have a conversation about the future of the Jewish people. And he’s willing to go to great lengths to have it.
“One of the reasons I was willing to get on a plane and fly 13 hours to come here this evening is because this is a community that said it wanted to have a conversation about self-actualization, about the Jewish future,” said Hoffmann. “I know that this is a community that takes the issue of a Jewish future very seriously.”
Hoffmann is the director general of the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization whose mission is to serve as a link between Israel and Jews throughout the rest of the world, strengthen the ties between the two and inspire young Jews to develop stronger Jewish identities.
Last Thursday, Oct. 18, Hoffmann brought the conversation to town for “Yinzers and the Yiddin: Our Community’s Relationship with World Jewry in the Future,” the latest installment of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Conversations for a Jewish Future Speaker Series at the Jewish Community Center.
Between brief remarks and audience questions, with the knowledge of a tenured professor and a cool South African lilt, Hoffmann addressed the crowd of about 70 for over an hour on the future of the Jewish people, international Jews’ relationships with Israel, and Israelis’ relationships with their kin abroad.
“The Jewish world today is essentially two main poles: about 6 million Jews living in North America and 6 million Jews living in the State of Israel. I want to suggest to you that that is a revolution. It’s an earthquake in Jewish life,” said Hoffmann, characterizing the push out of Europe and the pull into Israel as colliding tectonic plates.
Traditionally, he said, Jews created their own communities and their own institutions, but that’s not what happened in North America and not in the Jewish world in the latter part of the last century. Assimilation has made the process of connecting young Jews to their heritage and to Israel more difficult.
Hoffmann also opined that in the foreseeable future, Jews must begin making serious decisions about the sorts of programs and initiatives they would support if they were serious about transmitting Jewish culture across generations and securing a Jewish future.
“If you put a pot on a gas fire and you don’t turn the fire up hot enough, the pot will never boil,” said Hoffmann. “My sense is that too much of what we often do in Jewish life and for the Jewish future is beneath the threshold of intensity that is going to make the difference.
“I think that too much of the resources of the Jewish people are being wasted in things that don’t have any chance of getting to a boil. They’re under the threshold of intensity. And if I knew exactly how to define that threshold of intensity, I think we would be able to see that hundreds of millions of dollars of Jewish people’s energy that’s intended for the future is not ultimately going to be directed to the transmission of culture from across generations. And I think policymakers have got some tough decisions to make in terms of the resources. Not how to spread it evenly and not how to make sure that everybody feels good. There are, in my opinion, institutions under the threshold of intensity, and I don’t see them surviving in 20 years’ time.”
Asked what sorts of initiatives he thought met the “threshold of intensity,” Hoffmann didn’t hesitate.
“The easiest one is Israel experience. It makes no sense to me that only 12,000 kids go to Israel every year during their high school years,” he said, adding that in North America, where young people leave home at 18 years old and sometimes don’t return, Israel experiences at younger ages should be more accessible.
“I want to make sure that when that young person leaves their home,” said Hoffmann, “I have given them enough content that can sustain them after they have gone through this radical disjunction that didn’t exist before in Jewish life.”
He added that we can learn valuable lessons about other such initiatives from the social institutions Jews throughout the rest of the world created to help maintain their communities, such as youth organizations, informal peer-led Jewish education and day schools, noting that the rates of Jewish children attending day schools is well above 50 percent in places such as Mexico, Great Britain, Australia, South America and his native South Africa.
Hoffmann closed by speaking directly to the young people in the room, urging them to demand a greater Jewish experience.
“You have to pound on the doors of the people who are in this room,” he said. “Make sure Jewish communities are delivering the kinds of experiences, learning and content that are above the threshold of intensity. That’s about Jewish learning, that’s about serious Jewish literacy, it’s about taking Hebrew seriously, it’s about thinking about tikkun olam in a serious way, and it’s about challenging the Jewish community and your peers to join you. If there was more demand from underneath, there’d be more response from above.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)