By Cindy Mindell
SHERMAN – With the incessant flow of information that defines the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine an oasis where one can process and discuss the many complex issues of our day.
That is the raison d’etre of “Great Decisions”, a program created in 1954 by the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) that has spread across the U.S. in a network of local chapters.
FPA was founded in 1918 with a mission to serve as a catalyst for developing awareness, understanding, and informed opinion on U.S. foreign policy and global issues. Through its balanced, nonpartisan programs and publications, the FPA encourages citizens to participate in the foreign policy process. Great Decisions is FPA’s national civic-education program, briefing book, and TV series administered and produced by the Foreign Policy Association. Each year, the program highlights eight of the most thought-provoking foreign-policy challenges facing Americans, and provides background information, current data and policy options for each issue, and serves as the focal text for discussion groups.
Connecticut is home to 10 Great Decisions chapters. Next month, the JCC in Sherman will become the newest venue to host the forum.
The idea was first proposed by Mona Joy Roth, former JCC vice president, who learned of the program from the chapter facilitator in Ridgefield.
“The idea became a reality with us when the new JCC president, Russ Whitman, sought to expand our programs beyond culture, art, music, food, and religion,” says New Fairfield resident Lester Shafran, who will facilitate the group. “We wanted to reach out in a non-sectarian way and provide a program that could cut across all lines in Sherman and in the surrounding communities, and to attract all thinking people.”
Shafran says that his educational and professional background is a “natural fit” for the role of facilitator. A professed “political junkie,” he holds undergraduate degrees in political science and economics and a JD from Brooklyn Law School, and has taught at Adelphi University. A former assistant D.A. in New York’s Queens County, Shafran served as a New York City commissioner under mayors Abe Beame, John Lindsay, and Ed Koch, and as New York Senate counsel. He is current chair-elect of the New York Society of Administrative Executives.
FPA provides each participant with the Great Decisions 2013 briefing book and each facilitator with DVDs covering the eight issues, which are also broadcast as a PBS documentary series. Shafran will open each two-hour session with the documentary, followed by a group discussion. The Great Decisions program culminates with an annual opinion-balloting process among the participating chapters, collated by the FPA into the National Opinion Ballot Report and presented to the White House, Departments of State and Defense, members of Congress, and the national media.
The designated topics for this year are: Future of the Euro, Egypt, NATO, Myanmar, Intervention, Iran, China in Africa, and Threat Assessment.
“The end-result goal of Great Decisions is to bring people together to express their ideas and opinions in a civil, non-political forum and to give them the ability to self-educate and learn from the materials and from one another,” says Shafran. “We and the FPA believe that this kind of participation is vital in strengthening the democratic process by encouraging citizens in expressing and discussing their opinions to public and elected officials. This is democracy in action.”
Though the FPA prepares the topic list almost a year before presentation, the issues are all current and ongoing, Shafran says. “The most critical issues, to me, are Egypt, Iran, and Intervention, for obvious reasons: I’m Jewish,” he says. “But all have significant impact and effect on the U.S. in a very serious and critical way.” And while Israel is not specifically listed, “it is always front and center, particularly when Egypt, Iran, and Intervention are included,” he says. “I am sure that Israel will be a topic of discussion in detail vis a vis these issues.”
Great Decisions World Affairs Discussion Group: Sundays, Aug. 25, Sept. 15, Oct. 13, Nov. 3, Nov. 24, Dec. 8, 11 a.m., JCC in Sherman, 9 Rte. 39 South, Sherman. Admission: Fee: $30/participant (includes briefing book) Registration/information: firstname.lastname@example.org, (860) 355-8050.
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