It was an exciting, challenging and moving summer conference this year for Israeli Wexner Alumni and program participants, one in which we examined current problems and future opportunities for change in Israeli society. The underlying conference theme, “Directions Towards a New Israeli Cultural Identity,” elicited much curiosity, discussion, heated argument, engagement and especially a sense of responsibility among our WIF Alumni. What are the implications of our current national challenges on the work we each do in a broad variety of leadership positions in Israeli government and the third sector?
As a potent background to the conference theme, we read and listened to President Reuven Rivlin’s powerful and moving words (his “4 Tribes” address from the 15th Annual Herzilya Conference) regarding the far-reaching transformation Israeli society is undergoing. A reality that demands a total restructuring of what reality Israelis identify and the way we understand and view our society and national home.
We can no longer speak of a clear Zionist majority alongside various minority groups in Israel. President Rivlin challenges us with the imminent need for radical rethinking of our society in terms of a new Israeli order. Demographic trends based on forecasted data for first-grade children in 2018 identify four thriving tribes that have clearly emerged as strong and formative elements in our society: Nationalist-“Secular” (Mamlachti, 38%), Arab (25%), Ultra-Orthodox (Charedi, 22%) and Nationalist-Orthodox (Mamlachti Dati, 15%). Many view this reality — children who are educated with different values, cultures and outlooks — as a threat to the secular-liberal character of Israel, a threat which elicits tension, fear, hostility and competitiveness.
The call underlying the demographics is powerful and urgent. It is a call to move toward a new concept of partnership and joint responsibility among the sectors in our society; a partnership of cultural identity and shared responsibility for the future of Israel. Given that we, alumni, work and shape the public sector, it is incumbent upon us to implement changes in education, employment, housing and defense, changes which will hopefully seize on opportunities offered by this new Israeli order.
At our institute, we heard three professionals and leaders in their fields who moved and impressed us deeply with their personal and professional challenges, difficulties, accomplishments and leadership experience in this emerging, complex Israeli society. Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom described how she established the first Charedi college in Israel. Shirin Natur-Chafi, Principal at the Ort Arab High School for Science and Engineering, described her pioneering and successful work with underprivileged Arab youth in the city of Lod. Dr. Efrat Baron-Harlev, WIF Alum (Class 18) and Deputy Director of Schneider Children’s Hospital, described how she deals with the intricacies of providing care to a broad multi-cultural population.
Our guest speaker, Professor Dean Williams from the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke about the challenges of leadership in a fractured society, more generally how to overcome tribal boundaries and multi-dimensional problems by building bridges between divided groups; he gave us insight into how to approach the difficult challenges facing us in Israel today.
On the second day of our institute, economist Dr. Ben-David outlined the social and economic challenges facing Israel and Michal Tsuk, Wexner Senior Leader (2015) described innovative programs that are expanding much needed employment opportunities for the various cultural groups in Israel.
Much of the work at our alumni institute was done in working group sessions where we had the opportunity to discuss the manifestations and implications of these trends in Israeli society in the context of our own experience in the civil service and how we can turn these challenges into accomplishments in our changing multi-cultural society. As social change agents and thought leaders in Israeli society, we shared a sense of being called to a tall order and we will do our best to meet it.
Brenda Morginstin, WIF Alum (Class 4) is a private consultant for social service development and management, especially for the elderly and disabled. Previously, she was Director of the Division for Service Development at Israel’s National Insurance Institute, where she was responsible for developing programs for promoting social integration, employment and rehabilitation services aimed at expanding opportunities for populations at risk. She holds a Master’s in Social Work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Brooklyn College and a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow. Brenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.