Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What We Need: Balanced, Civil Discourse

My father, in his office at Harvard

It’s hard for me to contain my excitement about a new program in memory of my father, Bernard Wolfman, who died just over a year ago.  We soon will develop a more engaging public name for what we are now calling the Bernard Wolfman Memorial Public Policy Forum at Beth Sholom Congregation. 

My father was a scholar of tax law and legal ethics also widely known for his work in public interest advocacy.  After serving in private practice in Philadelphia, he went on to teach at University of Pennsylvania law school, where he also served as Dean, and then at Harvard University law school. Deeply committed to inquiry, thoughtful discussion and high public and academic standards, he not only practiced law, he sought justice. He also was proud and deeply connected to his Jewish heritage and in particular to what he perceived as a connection between that heritage and the pursuit of justice.

For these reasons, we are establishing The Bernard Wolfman Memorial Public Policy Forum at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA, the synagogue community with which he was most closely connected in his adult life. The goals of this project are to develop an annual forum that provides the community with:
  • An opportunity to learn about issues in contemporary American public policy in a balanced way
  • A forum for experiencing public civility, academic inquiry, and pluralism
  • Elevation of the level of discourse through engagement of high level scholars and facilitators to present and discuss current public policy issues
  • The presentation of public policy issues through a Jewish lens
We wish both to present public policy issues and, in recognition of my father’s commitment to education, action and civil debate, to enable the community to more effectively engage by:
  • Presenting both sides of the issue from scholars of great expertise in their fields
  • Providing the tools for civil discourse and debate-we will ask scholars both to teach an issue and to model respectful, passionate disagreement
  • Asking speakers to offer ideas and venues for participants interested in engaging in activism for a particular position
 We will determine each year’s topic to reflect current critical issues. To extend the educational opportunity as much as possible, the program will be free of charge and open to the community at large, entirely underwritten by a fund established at Beth Sholom Congregation. We intend to partner with other organizations that can assist in broadening the reach, including educational institutions and policy oriented groups on all sides of the issues. And we will market the forum, as we want this not to be not only about exposing the 900 people that the historic Beth Sholom sanctuary can hold each year for the event, but about using the event as a springboard to reach many, many more with the civil discourse concept that is becoming an increasingly critical issue in our society—as the current political debate vividly illustrates.

We announce this now, during the Jewish high holy days, when we seek to return to the better path for the coming year.  For it is our hope that the forum will help us all along that path. 

Similarly, we plan to hold the forum each year during the intermediate days of Passover.  It is a holiday that my father loved, in large part because it brings family together but also very much because of the message of freedom that the festival embodies.  That message fits well with the concept of our public policy forum.  By delving into key issues in a balanced manner, and by raising the bar for civil discourse, perhaps we can help free ourselves to explore, interact and move forward with impact.