newsJewish Diaspora

Tikkun olam in turbulent times

OLAM conference unites Jewish humanitarians

Despite the focus on Israel, “we still have a part to play in our Jewish narrative around the globe,” says World Jewish Relief CEO.

Attendees at OLAM's Focal Point 2024 conference in New York City, May 2024. Photo by Jesse Kornbluth/OLAM.
Attendees at OLAM's Focal Point 2024 conference in New York City, May 2024. Photo by Jesse Kornbluth/OLAM.

In a world grappling with unprecedented challenges, from global conflicts to humanitarian crises, the Jewish community’s commitment to tikkun olam—repairing the world—remains steadfast.

This dedication on display at the ninth annual Focal Point conference, organized by OLAM, a network of Jewish individuals and organizations committed to global service, international development, and humanitarian aid.

This year’s conference, held in New York City last week, was the second year that Focal Point has marked a return to its fully in-person format after navigating through virtual and hybrid events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of OLAM, described Focal Point as “the premier Jewish gathering for people interested in humanitarian aid.”

This year’s event brought together 190 participants from 18 countries, representing a diverse array of Jewish and Israeli organizations and individuals working in humanitarian aid, international development and global volunteering.

Sir Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, traveled from the U.K. to address the gathering.

“His message was clear and compelling,” Ginsburg said. “Even in times of great internal need, we cannot turn our backs on the world’s most vulnerable people.” 

The attendees ranged from the staff of OLAM’s 81 partner organizations to approximately 40 Jews who are individual members of OLAM but work in non-Jewish humanitarian aid organizations, some in prominent international bodies such as the U.N., large NGOs and the World Bank.

This year’s conference was shaped by the events of Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a devastating attack on Israel. The impact of this crime reverberated throughout OLAM’s network, with many partners experiencing personal losses. Some had colleagues killed or kidnapped.

The conference emphasized the importance of maintaining global commitments.

Ginsburg noted, “We discussed how we hold onto the good work we are doing around the world and ensure the Jewish community continues to support that, when there is so much need in Israel.” This concern is not theoretical; some OLAM partners report losing up to 50% of their funding as donors shifted priorities to Israel’s immediate needs.

The conference provided a platform to navigate these complex dynamics. Sessions explored how partners working in Muslim countries are managing relationships in light of the conflict.

Another critical discussion centered on the experiences of Jews working in non-Jewish organizations, some of which have taken stances on the conflict that are not pro-Israel and have even spread anti-Jewish sentiment within their organization.

Ginsburg explained that one of the topics permeating the conference was, “How to continue doing work inside Israel while continuing to work outside of Israel as well?”

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. addressing the Focal Point Conference in New York City alongside OLAM CEO Dyonna Ginsburg, May 2024. Photo by Jesse Kornbluth/OLAM.

Aid from different angles

Paul Anticoni, chief executive of World Jewish Relief in the U.K., said, “OLAM has brought structure and relationships to an area that didn’t have any prior. Here, agencies that are good in some areas can share that knowledge with others who are weaker in that area, and vice versa. The different partners come at the task of providing humanitarian aid from different angles. We have different funding backings and needs.”

Anticoni said that he enjoyed three sessions from which he learned a lot: Helping those in poverty build their empowerment with a focus on women and girls in particular; building governance resources to maximize mobilization and fundraising capabilities; and creating and maintaining organizational resilience—how to help teams stay focused and motivated amid significance turbulence while facing issues that one cannot expect or be prepared for, such as Oct. 7.

Yael Rogers, a social worker who works in the humanitarian aid field and is an individual member of OLAM, was struck by the “professional breadth of the attendees and the extent and depth of their work as well as how varied and widespread the organizations are positioned in the global sphere.

“I was curious to meet professionals on the ground, and expand my knowledge and understanding of the current issues in the humanitarian aid scene both in Israel and the U.S.,” she added.

“Since October 7, the need to support one another has grown,” Rogers said. “It is crucial that we support our peers. For them, the larger circle of Jewish organizations in the field is their circle of support and it is beneficial to strengthen those peers who need that support.”

Michal Bruck, CEO of the NALA Foundation, which aims to eradicate neglected tropical diseases through holistic community engagement, has attended several Focal Point conferences and finds each unique, reflecting the year’s global challenges. This year, trauma and resilience were central themes.

“Focal Point served as an incredible place to build new partnerships and leverage NALA’s impact. We meet partners that look at global humanitarian challenges from different angles and together create new added value,” Bruck said. 

For her, a poignant moment came during the closing event, which featured a Rwandan representative, commemorating 30 years since the genocide in which well over half a million people were killed, and a person who had been held captive by Hamas.

This juxtaposition, Bruck said, “showed the strength of humans vis-à-vis the most difficult times in life, and also created a ray of hope for building a better future for the next generations.”

Anticoni summed it all up by saying, “The world is a mess, all of us humanitarian agencies are all disastrously stressed, and although the funding has changed drastically, with the focus on Israel, we still have a part to play in our Jewish narrative around the globe.”

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