The Circles We Sit In

Rachel is a middle school teacher in the East Bay and current New Israel Fund Facilitation Fellow.  She is connected to the local Jewish community through work with NIF, Hazon bike rides, and Wilderness Torah, and will soon be a farmer at Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.

A recently published self-help book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go (Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti) describes the authors’ life lessons learned about everyday social encounters, including the seemingly simple notion that people will go, move, and interact wherever and however the chairs in a room are arranged.  Such was certainly the case several weeks ago at New Israel Fund’s “Love, Hate, and the Jewish State.” On a Wednesday night in the spunky San Francisco Public Works building, chairs were lovingly arranged in several small circles, waiting to be filled with the hopeful voices of members of the Bay Area young adult Jewish community drawn together by a desire to have meaningful, open conversations about Israel.

“Love, Hate, and the Jewish State” was an evening of conversation that drew together over 80 young adults from across the Bay Area to talk about what matters to them in relation to Israel.  Crowd-sourced topics ranging from “This Land is Whose Land?” to “Occupation / Anti-occupation:  Framing the Issue” or “Minority Rights in Israel” were on the table, as were the widely diverse perspectives and opinions in the room.

This evening was the product of several months of thinking, collaborating, and facilitation training for myself and eight other NIF Facilitation Fellows and our trainer, Eyal Rabinovitch.  The art of sitting down with strangers to talk about issues that can be very close to our hearts, minds, and identities, if done well and intentionally, is no simple task.  The Fellows were trained to ask questions. To seek meaning. To draw out threads of importance. To truly reveal what is at stake for each of us in these conversations. We were asked to trace together threads of commonality and to clearly, calmly, and openly name our differences.  At a time when Israel conversations in the Jewish community too often involve polarizing hostility or communal avoidance of tough issues, these are tasks that, each time I sit down to facilitate a conversation like this, feel to me simultaneously like simple guidelines for civility and also profound instruments of healing for the Jewish people.

My particular group sat down to talk about minority rights in Israel and the myriad of issues that speak to us in this realm.  It is fascinating to watch initial moments of hesitation or curiosity quickly blossom into moments of sharing stories, connecting narratives, and asking open-hearted questions of each other.   A number of issues were raised – anywhere from the acceptance of converts in Jewish communities, the religious/secular divide in Israel, or immigration rights, to a yearning to open up conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in Israel.  What immediately stood out to me was a common desire to understand each other better.  What made the experience all the more meaningful was that we were surrounded by seven other conversation circles of this intentionality; there is a palpable buzz and energy when an entire room – an entire building! – is engaged in this work.

All of this is not to say that this work is easy.  An openness and common desire among participants undoubtedly provide fruitful soil for conversations such as this to emerge.  However, no matter how willing and open we may be, delving into territory such as this requires a form of vulnerability, a conversational intimacy, a leap of faith.  There is an element of the unknown inherently involved in this undertaking that can be challenging or even terrifying.  For this reason, I found it humbling and heartening to see this degree of patience and courage emerging from so many young people in our local Jewish community.

One night of our “Love, Hate, and the Jewish State” conversation, of course, is not enough; we must continue questioning, continue seeking answers, and continuing to realize the ways in which our understanding may be incomplete in order to truly reap the benefits of this work.  However, one evening can remind us of what is possible.  The conversation is continuing in many corners of our lives and in many corners of the bay.  It is taking place not only at other upcoming events like this, but also, I believe, in the moments when we stop and question something or someone we do not understand or in the moments when we are brave enough to sit with an experience or perspective that is very unfamiliar to our own.  Especially at moments like the present, when tensions and emotions are running high and the news we hear, regardless of our political affiliations, can make us upset, angry, or afraid, the need for remaining in conversation across lines of difference is all the more critical.

It is incumbent upon each of us to take up this work where we can – by talking to our rabbis, congregations, Federations, JCCs, Jewish organizations, and various communities to make our voices heard in saying that a better, deeper Israel conversation is possible.  In a world too often fraught with division within our community, our short time in conversation together at Love/Hate reminded me of the power we have to begin to rearrange the chairs, the structures in our lives, to draw the circles in our conversations about Israel just a little bit wider.

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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