Bay Area think tank ponders future of American Jews

What role should Israel play in building American Jewish identity? Has American Jewry been overly occupied with the Holocaust to the detriment of other pressing concerns? What does it mean to be a Jew today?

A small group of Jewish intellectuals has been meeting in the Bay Area over the past year to answer such questions — in hopes of using the answers to shape the future of American Jewry.

Known as the Koret Institute, the group will gather for the fourth and final time in February. The members will then write a book laying out their specific ideas for enhancing Jewish life over the next decade.

"I've thought for a long time that there ought to be a forum in American Jewry that drew together a wide range of people — that started with questions and not answers," said Professor Steven Zipperstein, the institute's director.

Zipperstein, who is currently on sabbatical from his job as director of Stanford's Jewish studies program, describes the institute as "a think tank devoted to the examination of contemporary Jewish life…The goal is to think seriously about the future."

The institute, funded with a $387,000 grant from the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, has six fellows who range from right to left on the religious and political spectrums.

Koret, which usually finances specific programs like synagogue outreach and teen trips to Israel, is taking a chance by backing such a conceptual enterprise.

"This is an investment we're making. It is new and it is an experiment," said Michael Papo, executive director of the Koret Foundation.

But he sees the project as worthwhile.

"I think it's fair to say the Jewish community is not as stable even as it was 10 years ago," said Papo. "Major Jewish institutions just aren't as clear anymore about what their goals should be and how to reach out to the community."

The institute comprises six senior fellows: Paul Berman, a New Yorker staff writer; Susannah Heschel, a feminist and theologian; Earl Raab, ex-director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council; Anita Shapira, a Tel Aviv University professor; David Singer, research director of the American Jewish Committee; and Gordon Wasserman, an adviser to New York City's police commissioner.

The group has met for three extended weekends since last January, once in San Francisco and twice in Napa Valley.

The senior fellows write papers, which are distributed in advance. They then gather for three days to discuss the ideas and hear from visiting fellows. The senior fellows then draft follow-up remarks.

The first meeting focused on Jewish identity, the second on the Holocaust and the third on Israel.

Among the dozens of questions the fellows have pondered are these:

*Should money be poured into reaching out to the unaffiliated or strengthening the identity of those who are already "insiders"?

*Is too much money being spent on Holocaust memorials when there is such a great need for spending on general Jewish education?

*Should there be a set of standards for someone to be considered a literate Jew?

Tad Taube, board president of the Koret Foundation, asserts the institute differs from other bodies of Jewish thinkers because it is free of religious or ideological assumptions that weigh down others.

"It could be said that Jewish intellectual dialogue leaves a lot to be desired," he said. "What Koret is doing is providing a point of view that is not politicized, that isn't being promoted because an agency wants to raise money or continue its power base."

Heschel, who is currently on sabbatical at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, agreed.

"It's not often that discussions like these take place with such diverse points of view," she said.

Wasserman, who once directed a British think tank, has witnessed deeper thinking on Jewish issues at the institute than he has elsewhere.

"You are putting more concentrated effort on these issues than one ever would over dinner with friends," he said.

The fellows aren't sure yet if their musings will make a difference.

"It's an experiment," Raab said. "We won't know whether it succeeds until it comes to a head."

Zipperstein also wants to withhold judgment for now.

"Some problems are without answers," he said. "And there are other problems that, no matter how smart you may be, you may come up with the same answers or a slight modification."

But he's pleased that someone is trying.

"It's worth the risk."