If I were a betting man, I would have wagered plenty that the 2019 edition of The Conversation, the annual Jewish Week-sponsored off-the-record retreat that took place Oct. 27-29, would be dominated by discussions about President Trump, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a close second.
And I would have been a big loser.
That’s not to say that the two controversial leaders didn’t come up among the 50 participants — a very diverse group of accomplished, thoughtful and creative Jewish women and men from around the country — during their non-stop talkfest at the Pearlstone Conference Center in rural Maryland. But of the more than three dozen topics that participants posted on the discussion wall — the theme each year is “Being Jewish in America in the 21st Century” — not one mentioned Trump or Netanyahu by name. Instead, the emphasis was on more parochial concerns, like who will be the next generation of American Jewish leaders and the future of funding for Jewish nonprofits, as well as global worries like climate disasters and the rise of autocratic leaders on an international scale.
Each year The Conversation brings together a new group of people with a wide range of political and religious viewpoints from different parts of the country. The age range this year was from early 20s to 95. As the participants opened up over the 48 hours spent together, many revealed a sense of pessimism about the future, fueled by a deep frustration over the toxic level of discourse — or non-discourse — on political issues in the U.S. and by the worrisome similarities between the leadership in Washington and Jerusalem in terms of potential threats to democratic societies.
In some ways the key concerns discussed over the years have changed little from the first Conversation in 2005. Looking back, I noted that among the key topics posted and discussed back then were: innovative philanthropy; gender and Judaism; Jewish life beyond denominations and affiliations; Jewish life on campus; spirituality in the age of consumerism; how we can bring peace to the Mideast; anti-Semitism; how do we transmit Judaism and Jewish life to the next generation; and who needs rabbis.
But while many of the topics were similar this time, the tone and nature of the discussions have deepened, grown more worrisome and hit closer to home. Anti-Semitism is not just seen as a danger in Europe but here at home, in our neighborhoods, where synagogues have armed guards. The campus criticism of Israel has galvanized around BDS and Apartheid Week efforts, with Jewish students increasingly on the defensive. Mideast peace is an increasingly elusive aspiration rather than a practical goal today, and a range of Israeli policies are more openly and sharply criticized by young people. Some of the sharpest debates at The Conversation this year were about Israel, and they indicated a generational divide. One frustrated defender of IfNotNow, the American Jewish progressive group opposing the Israeli presence in the West Bank, told me that critics “cling to outdated views” of the situation. In turn, a traditional supporter of Israel complained that the progressive camp “doesn’t really understand Mideast history, nuance and context” or appreciate that “half of world Jewry lives in Israel” and must be supported.
There were passionate discussions as well on racism, gender bias and sexual harassment, with the emphasis on criticism of the establishment.
I sensed an undercurrent, particularly among the millennials, of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation in a culture today where people communicate more through their devices than in face-to-face dialogue, with so much nuance lost along the way. All the more reason why participants of all ages expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to meet and engage with each other, to share ideas and dreams, and to listen to each other with respect, even when they disagreed. They praised the “safe space” that The Conversation provides and noted how rare such opportunities are for people of opposing views to hear each other out.
That point was underscored for me on my return home this week when I learned the sad news that Sh’ma, the modest but compelling journal of ideas that addressed a wide range of Jewish views on the issues of the day for almost 50 years, is ceasing publication with its current, 751st issue. Founded by the late Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a Reform scholar and major proponent of pluralism and spirited debate, Sh’ma has been thoughtfully and creatively edited by Susan Berrin for more than 20 years.
In an essay announcing the decision to close Sh’ma in the face of a declining readership, Berrin noted that “as partisanship and polarization increasingly define Jewish communal discourse, and American discourse as a whole, we recognize that the need for thoughtful, respectful debate is more pressing now than ever.”
Fortunately, The Conversation has been able to create a community of connection and civil discourse among its almost 900 participants since the project was launched in 2005, and countless collaborations have resulted among them since then.
One reason for its success is that there is no planned program or outcome for the deliberations; the objective is simply to bring creative Jews together and let them take it from there. We have confidence that the results will be beneficial and sustaining. The challenge, though, at a time of increasing partisanship and polarization, is to maintain and grow this oasis of deep and meaningful dialogue and keep The Conversation going.