Chabad’s Rohr Jewish Learning Institute leadership summit aims to give handpicked attendees tools for a post-Oct. 7 world

Posted Thursday, Mar 14th, 2024

Raheli Baratz-Rix of the World Zionist Organization moderates a panel with former U.S. ambassadors Gordon Sondland, Clifford Sobel, Stuart Bernstein and John Rakolta at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s leadership summit in Delray Beach, Fla., in March 2024.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Maya Makarovsky flew here from Boston for less than 24 hours amid a busy courseload to share her experience as a Jewish student at MIT, an environment the third-year student calls “hostile for Jews and Israelis.” 

“When there’s antisemitism, the best thing to do is be a proud Jew. Chabad on campus has taught me how to do that,” Makarovsky told eJewishPhilanthropy moments before she and two other university students addressed the 120 attendees on Tuesday night at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s first invitation-only leadership summit, held over two days at the Opal Grand Resort in this beach town between Boca Raton and Palm Beach.

JLI is a division of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Its courses include adult learning and the Sinai Scholars program for college students. JLI holds several in-person events each year, including its national retreat. But the invitation-only leadership summit was the first of its kind; a response to the Oct. 7 attacks and the rise of antisemitism that accompanied it. 

In addition to Makarovsky, students from Dartmouth College and Columbia University spoke about increased antisemitism on campus since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.

“For us, and for tens of thousands of our fellow Jewish students on campuses around the world, hatred does not leap out of a book or documentary, but appears in angry faces and violent words that surround us and rearrange our reality,” Makarovsky told the crowd. “But we’re here to share something else,” she continued. “We have firsthand experience of a formula that can turn the tide… when we feel shaken, my friends and I go to Chabad; there, everyone gets exactly what we are going through.” 

The attacks and the subsequent spike in antisemitism in the nation, organizers said, were the impetus for the inaugural leadership conference.

Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of JLI, told eJP that the summit was a preview of JLI’s plans to expand — specifically with engaging middle and high school students who may not be receiving a Jewish education. “It’s been in the works since Oct. 8,” Mintz told eJP at the summit. “This was a launch for what we want to incorporate.” 

Mintz emphasized that while Oct. 7 was a catalyst for the event — and mentioned several times throughout the two days — the conference’s theme was life. “The message here is that we can continue,” he said.  

“Instead of what’s done in Holocaust education, telling us how Jews were killed,” Mintz continued, “[the summit] is telling us not how Jews died, but how Jews live.” 

Still, Oct. 7 was prevalent throughout the gathering. On Tuesday night, Natalie Sanandaji, a survivor of the Nova music festival shared her harrowing story. During dinner on Tuesday, violinist Daniel Ahaviel dedicated his musical performance to Sanandaji, the victims of Oct. 7 and those still held hostage in Gaza. 

Clive Rock came from California — this was his ninth JLI conference. Rock told eJP that the summit was unique because it also included non-Jewish pro-Israel voices. He pointed to a panel featuring John Rakolta, the former U.S. ambassador to the UAE, who is Mormon. “It wasn’t a spiritual panel. It was practical. It was amazing at a time when so many Jews don’t believe in being Jewish,” Rock said of the session, “The Ambassadorial View: Israel, International Diplomacy, and Antisemitism,” which featured Rakolta in conversation with Stuart Bernstein, former U.S. ambassador to Denmark; Clifford Sobel, former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and former U.S. ambassador to Brazil; and Gordon Sondland, former U.S. ambassador to the EU. The panel was moderated by Raheli Baratz-Rix, head of the department for combating antisemitism and enhancing resilience at the World Zionist Organization.

Jay Eisenstadt, from New York, also frequently attends JLI events and courses — having donated to the institute for years. He said the leadership summit was “different in light of Oct. 7, like everything is.” 

“A lot of conferences are theoretical,” Eisenstadt told eJP. “This one was relevant and real. As a Jewish community we are now more in tune to the threat out there, so this was more about orders and solutions to what can we do.”

He continued: “Coming from here, I’ll be better educated back in New York in terms of what and how to respond to people who are adversarial.” 

Makarovsky, Rock and Eisenstadt are some of the hand-picked attendees at JLI’s summit, held Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday, ranging from college students to participants in their 90s. “Everyone of us here are movers and shakers,” Miriam Lipsker, co-founder and director of the Chabad Student Center at Emory University, told the crowd. 

Other notable speakers and panelists throughout the summit included Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; Roger Hertog, president of the Hertog Foundation and chairman of the Tikvah Fund; and philanthropist George Rohr. 

David Kaplan, who takes JLI courses in Chicago and does marketing consulting for the group, said that amid numerous panels, the “most interesting and intelligent part” was the people he met during hallway banter. “Being here, meeting these people, it just really gives me nachas for being Jewish,” he said. 

Mintz noted that “every person at the table these last few days are thought leaders in their community. Every one of them was carefully chosen.” 

Participants came from around the U.S.—  including Boston, New York, Atlanta and Chicago. They work in a variety of fields — from rabbis to business executives to health-care workers. “They’re not here as individuals,” Mintz continued. “Each person represents thousands of people that they’ll go back and [educate] in their communities.” 

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute provided eJewishPhilanthropy’s accommodations.

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