What are the chances of getting representatives from AIPAC, ZOA, J Street, IfNotNow and New Israel Fund in a room for a conversation about Israel/Palestine and its role in their lives without the conversation ending with shrieking or glasses being thrown?
I had the opportunity to take part in this social experiment recently when Base DWTN, a home-based Hillel project aimed at millennials, introduced the Shalom Bayit Fellowship. It brought together eight young Jewish New Yorkers from diverse political backgrounds over two facilitated conversations and a Shabbat dinner. Our goal wasn’t to change anyone’s minds or convince fellows of the “right” way forward; it was to see if we could maintain civil discourse and uphold each other’s humanity at moments when we might feel least inclined to do so.
The idea came from a Facebook post a young community organizer, Zach Schaffer, wrote asking if anyone would be interested in breaking bread with folks they rarely get to encounter in a facilitated dialogue. I reached out to Zach as he had joined us at Base Hillel a few times, and we met soon after, dreaming up this fellowship idea over coffee in Chelsea.
Since Yom Kippur I’ve been mindful how the religious spaces I’m part of cater to particular politics. I’m usually eager to build bridges where there aren’t ones. Base felt like the right testing ground, as we are not officially tied to any synagogue or particular political affiliation. Base is our home. Could we manage to maintain the peace in the home?
Zach and I put together a blueprint for our sessions and an application. We asked applicants to rate their answers from strongly agree to strongly disagree, asking questions like: Do Israelis have a partner for peace? Do Palestinians have a partner for peace? Are Palestinians/Israelis justified in using violence against civilians? We included a space where applicants could tell us about a time they engaged with someone who held countering views and invited them to share organizations they felt best described their political affiliations. There was an outpouring of interest on social media asking when we would bring the still-untested idea to Chicago, Washington, Boston and elsewhere. We selected our fellows, mindful of gender and political differences.
In the first session, we began with a text learning on the important role of healthy conflict in Judaism, exploring the validity of dissonant opinions and engaging with the other. We included a midrash, a rabbinic legend from Pesikta D’Rav Kahana:
“Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to Israel at Sinai as though He were a statue with faces on every side. A thousand people might be looking at the statue, but it would appear to each to be looking directly at him. So, too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, ‘The Divine Word is addressing me.’… The Divine Word spoke to each and every person according to their capacity.”
We shared hopes and fears on sticky notes. We crafted our own six-word memoirs, describing our relationship to Israel. “Israel took away my Jewish identity” or “Israel is the Jewish people’s home.” Zach, who was trained by the dialoguing group Resetting the Table, led the way, facilitating the conversations, inviting participants who were quieter, encouraging folks who shared to step back.
Over Shabbat we invited fellows to bring along a significant other. We asked our guests to share a “rose, bud and thorn” as it relates to Israel, something they are hopeful for, proud of and struggle with. More than one fellow shared that their “bud” was this very Shabbat table itself, a gathering of folks from across the political spectrum, simply talking.
There were no fireworks or yelling. There were passionate feelings. There were offensive remarks shared. There was an opportunity for people to respond in turn.
One of the best moments was the “questions harvest.” After our fellows shared their six-word memoirs, we invited people to ask whatever question they might have. The questions, though, would not be answered. It was a space specifically created for cultivating curiosity. Often when we hear a remark or learn of a person’s political affiliation, we’re quick to pigeonhole them to a certain set of beliefs or values. But labels lie. And the question harvest allowed for the full person to be explored only to be revisited later during the facilitated dialogue.
Judaism holds the pursuit of peace to be life’s highest virtue. “And all its seeds are peace,” we say of the Torah. Perhaps the larger Jewish community can learn from these eight politically diverse fellows in their simple willingness to show up and have a conversation. In order to keep the peace in one’s home, don’t we need to engage with the people who live in that very place?
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base, a home-based Hillel project aimed at young Jews.