How I learned to be courageously curious about Israel

This is a guest post by Alexander Germanacos, a San Francisco native, graduate student for family therapy at California Institute of Integral Studies, and volunteer for New Israel Fund’s New Generations.

You know you have been there: your heart starts beating a bit faster, the voice in your head is shouting “Are you kidding me!?!” and you write off the person you are talking to as being a lost cause. We all remember having that difficult conversation on Israel.

I have certainly had my fair share of frustrating and unproductive word battles with people of all ages and backgrounds on the topic. As a graduate student in Family Therapy, I like to think I am equipped to engage a host of thorny issues. But even with my graduate training, the topic of Israel still challenged me. So, last year, I applied to New Israel Fund’s Facilitation Fellowship in San Francisco, to engage with people about Israel in ways that are productive. I wanted to answer the question that has been running through my head: “How do we get to a discussion around Israel that is not polemical?” I was about to find out.

The Facilitation Fellowship is designed to promote community conversations on Israel, and specifically social justice issues, in the Bay Area, training a cohort of young adults to foster meaningful, direct conversations in the Jewish community. In early December 2012 ten fellows met in Petaluma for a weekend-long training. We had an exciting and emotional weekend learning to mediate between different sides. The final night of the retreat, an epic thunderstorm rocked our cabins. The wind and gale shook the forests, and yet, we were safe. I like to think of the storm as symbolizing a kind of tempestuous, collective cleansing of our longstanding experiences with conversations around Israel.

The fellowship training process lasted over eight months, and we were provoked to think about Israel from different perspectives. We enjoyed sensitive, insightful, and constructive guidance by our trainer Eyal Rabinovitch. We also practiced facilitating and I developed three essential qualities for moderating conversation on Israel: curiosity, courage and patience. I learned to become curious, and simultaneously courageous to delve deeper. And of course, I learned patience because the facilitator’s goal is not to have people arrive at any particular predetermined conclusion, but rather allow people to express their thoughts and experiences.

I remember the moment that the experience of facilitating clicked for me. I was with a small group of people, discussing the challenges of intergenerational conversations on Israel. One participant shared his struggle within his family in talking about Israel. He had never been given the opportunity to voice his own opinion, which differed from that of his family. After hearing his stories, I felt what I was doing was incredibly important: I was providing a safe space for someone to talk, someone who had been shut down within his own family. Many of the other participants had never been in a group before where people could share so openly about the conflicts around Israel that arose in their family. I realized that my role this past year was to make such spaces available.

Our cohort convened 12 different events this past year, engaging hundreds of young adults in conversations about Israel. Our gatherings ranged from small group “Conversation Circles” to NIF’s dynamic 120-person gathering “Love, Hate & the Jewish State.” With each conversation, we enabled another young voice to be heard, and helped our community explore how to be a little bit more courageously curious on Israel.

Applications are now open for Bay Area residents in their 20s and 30s through January 12, 2014. If you are looking to build skills to engage on the topic of Israel in an open, honest and civil manner, as well as develop the fundamentals that will help in a broad range of emotionally-charged situations, I highly encourage you to apply. For more information on the Facilitation Fellowship contact Orlee Rabin at orlee@nif.org.

3 Responses to “How I learned to be courageously curious about Israel”

  1. Just some advice:

    It’s better to use terms like ‘record attendance’ or ‘our biggest meeting ever’ instead of ’120-person’. In an American Jewish community of many millions, ’120′ sounds kind of small.

    On the plus side I’m sure, Alex, that you could teach the participants a lot about democracy. After all you people invented it! Certainly not the Jews.

    And thanks for terms like ‘synagogue’, the Septuagint, and our cheap copy, the Sanhedrin.

    Here’s more: www.ancient-hebrew.org/8_greek.html

    Very interesting stuff.


    Dave Boxthorn · January 7th, 2014 at 11:41 am
  2. Yes! We need more positive writing, such as this, about Israel and the Middle East. People need to learn all the good that NIF, the Abraham Fund, and other moderate voices are doing. Dialogue between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs– or, dare I say it, between Jews and Palestinians– is far more newsworthy than “pricetaggers” or the latest scuffle on the Temple Mount.


    David Mark · January 8th, 2014 at 2:27 pm
  3. Dave Boxthorn —

    We’ve asked you many times before to contribute to reasoned discussion about the issues. Instead, most if not all of your comments are derisive sniping and sarcastic insults to our authors.

    We do not ban commentors for sharing political beliefs counter to that of our authors — in fact we value it. We’ve tolerated you until today because we hoped that appealing to your better instincts would produce an informed debate. It hasn’t and your rudeness has finally produced enough complaints by readers to merit blocking you permanently.

    If you’d like to reconsider your style and return to Jewschool as a debater of big ideas, then you’re welcome to reach me here.

    Good bye,

    The Jewschool Editorial Board


    Kung Fu Jew · January 10th, 2014 at 7:49 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik