Pursuing Peace In The Classroom


Jerusalem — Here’s one you may not have heard.

Two Jews are stuck on a desert island, only this time, instead of each building his own synagogue plus another that neither of them is willing to attend, each builds one for himself but invites his friend to join him in a constructive conversation to learn more about the opportunities to collaborate.

Though arguably not as funny as the classic joke, the second scenario describes the future that Rabbi Daniel Roth, director of the Jerusalem-based Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution (PCJCR), hopes to develop.

“For almost 20 years I have been dreaming of coming up with ways to help manage conflicts in a healthy and constructive manner,” said Rabbi Roth, seated in the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies’ book-lined beit midrash (study hall). “It stems from a deep desire to try and foster religious tolerance between Jews and other Jews, as well as between Jews and non-Jews.”

The idea for a conflict resolution center evolved over the past five years. A teacher at the Pardes Institute, a non-denominational learning institute in Jerusalem, Rabbi Roth, who holds a doctorate in conflict resolution from Bar Ilan University, offered to teach a course on conflict resolution. By 2011 the course had expanded into a full-fledged program, with its alumni teaching mini courses in the U.S.

Today, the center offers several “rodef shalom” (pursuers of peace) programs in eight American day schools, professional development workshops with Jewish educators, Hillel professionals and Jewish communal leaders, and is in the process of developing programs for rabbinic students and lawyers.

Each program incorporates classic Jewish texts with the theory and practice of contemporary conflict resolution and provides practical applications adapted to each participating community’s unique context and religious identity.

Having peacemakers in the community isn’t a new concept, Rabbi Roth’s doctorate reveals. From the 1100s until as recently as the 1950s, in Jewish communities across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, there were people called rodfei or metavchei shalom — that is, peace brokers — whose responsibility was to proactively mediate conflicts within the Jewish community.

This function was performed not by rabbis, but by community leaders or active lay people, and rodfei shalom became a semi-formal position.

“What we are trying to do is create a global network of rodfei shalom across religious political divides to bring that concept back in Jewish society around shared Jewish values,” Rabbi Roth said.

The course is popular with participants of Pardes’ respected Jewish educators program because PCJCR uses the ancient texts like present-day textbooks.

On this wintry day Rabbi Roth and the educators examined the story of Jacob and Esau as a means of training. Looking at the various commentaries over the course of history, the class realized that the commentators essentially took sides. The students, on the other hand, were encouraged to look at the stories through varying narratives.

“Instead of taking sides we appreciated the ambiguity of multiple truth, how two different stories can be right” from the protagonists’ points of view “at the same time. It’s called the third story, and it’s an important tool in how to engage others. It’s being aware of your own story and open to another story. Constantly stretching our minds with competing interpretations of biblical conflict is incredible training for real-life mediation,” the educator said.

Carolyn Gerecht, who grew up in Washington, D.C.’s Reform Jewish community and ran an experiential Jewish education program in Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom Conservative synagogue, was encouraged to apply to the conflict resolution program as part of Yeshiva University’s Center for Jewish Future experiential Jewish education certificate program. When she completes the program, she will, as part of her arrangement with YU, return to Pittsburgh to work as a community professional.

“This is about charting my own Jewish journey,” said Gerecht. “In the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about conflicts in Jewish texts and how to address them, which has been really helpful to me in applying what I have learned to my own professional life.”

Dallas native Max Jared, 26, another program participant, agrees. A musician and songwriter, Jared, who was doing para-rabbinic work in Texas, is taking a year off from his master’s-level studies in Jewish education to study at the PCJCR.

“My challenge is to discover how to engage people through song in conflict resolution. Daniel [Rabbi Roth] and I have been doing some learning and examining piyutim [liturgical texts] on rodef shalom, and our goal is to help people access those texts through song. The program is helping me to better understand my work. It’s not about problem solving or finding a response to the conflict. The goal is to help each side understand the other’s narrative. It’s to facilitate the exchange.”

Eva Lazar-Sultanik, assistant principal of student life at The Moriah School in Englewood, N.J, studied conflict resolution at Pardes’ last summer and is incorporating the program into her school’s curriculum.

“We are committed to creating and sustaining a school culture which promotes the value of seeking peace,” she says. “This year we assigned year-long older buddies to younger buddies who engage with one another during the year and select activities which empower the older buddy to instruct a younger buddy in pro-social skills in a fun and engaging fashion. All in all, our students have connected positively with the Rodef Shalom program.”

Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute, considers the institute a natural partner and model of constructive conflict.

“Outside, people tend to avoid controversy, but our beit midrash encourages people to form a community where hard conversations take place.”

This weekend, PCJCR will hold a global international Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict (www.9adar.org) dedicated to both the study and practice of Judaism and to conflict resolution. More than 30 groups from across the religious and political spectrums in Israel will gather for daylong event on Feb. 9.

Participants will become rodfei shalom for a day by commemorating, learning or practicing the principals of constructive conflict, in their personal, workplace and communal lives.

Participating organizations include the international Association for Conflict Resolution, the interdenominational Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hillel, NGO Monitor, Queens Community Mediation Center, and the Israel Women’s Network.

According to Jewish history, the ninth of Adar (Feb. 9) is the day when, approximately 2,000 years ago, the students of Hillel and Shammai broke away from their teachers’ perfect model of healthy conflict and brought weapons into the beit midrash. Some say 3,000 people were killed in the violent and destructive conflict over 18 halachic matters. The day was later declared a fast day, although it was never observed as such.

“This is the perfect day,” Rabbi Roth said, “to promote perhaps the one common value shared by all Jews around the world — the love of healthy and constructive disagreements and conflict.”

Moriah’s Lazar-Sultanik has already planned a series of 9 Adar programs for Moriah. “Throughout the month of Adar we will be engaging in various school-wide programs learning conflict resolution skills; it will all lead up to a culminating parent-child learning program,” she says.

“This is the perfect day to promote perhaps the one common value shared by all Jews around the world — the love of healthy and constructive disagreements and conflict,” Rabbi Roth said.