Forward Thinking

Can Brooklyn Jews Talk Civilly About Israel?

By Elisheva Goldberg

  • Print
  • Share Share

Young Jews discuss Israel at a ‘Resetting the Table’ event in Brooklyn. / Ezra Weinberg

This past Sunday, in the high-beamed, chilly Brooklyn Lyceum, a group of 20- and 30-somethings tried to talk about Israel — no small feat.

The program, called “Resetting the Table,” was designed to allow young people to get together and go really deep, really fast. Guided through the rough waters of this conversation by Eyal Rabinovitch and a team of Facilitation Fellows trained by him and Daniel Silberbusch, the 50 or so young people who showed up were held to communication guidelines that asked, among other things, that they honor confidentiality, listen with resilience, speak with respect and avoid generalizations. Essentially, it asked them to be civil.

And it’s no wonder: this iteration of “Resetting the Table” was funded by the UJA Federation of New York, and is generally part of a broader initiative at the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA)’s “Civility Initiative.” The model includes two organizing cadres: a group of “Facilitation Fellows” and a group of “conveners.” The Facilitation Fellows, who facilitated Sunday’s conversations, are trained over a period of months to hold these kinds of sessions. The “conveners” are the organizers on the ground, and, coached over many months, are meant to gather their associates at various institutions (from Yeshiva University to Hazon) with the goal of holding facilitated conversation on Israel internally.

The event unfolded unhurriedly: folks trickled in, picked at the marvelous display food from Brooklyn’s new kosher eatery Mason & Mug, heard an introduction from Rabinovitch, participated in an icebreaker, and only then chose their discussion topics, which ranged from “What is the responsibility of American Jews towards Israel?” to “Should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?” Then they sat down in sectioned-off corners of the room for facilitated conversation that would last an hour and a half.

The results were mixed. Some groups were heated, like the one on “legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel,” where the conversation revolved around the word “apartheid.” Others were dense and emotional, like the one that discussed generation gaps and family conversations. And still others were subdued — not a few participants told me they felt they “needed more conflict.” Two participants I spoke to used that exact phrase, and had come to the event with remarkably opposite expectations: one told me he came because he knew that this conversation wouldn’t “shove anything down your throat” and the other came “looking for an agenda.” The latter told me that the last event he had been to on Israel was run by AIPAC and titled “Fuel for Truth.” This is, of course, not surprising — the group was self-selecting; the act of walking through the door itself suggested a degree of open-mindedness.

But what should probably be remembered is that this kind of event — a relatively short affair from 4:00 to 7:00 on a Sunday afternoon — is a rarity. The Civility Initiative generally does internal programming that spans months, not hours, and is highly tailored to a specific community’s culture, not a random sampling of Brooklyn Jews. And, according to Rabbi Weintraub, part of the reason they primarily focus on processing these issues with existing communities is because “the work can be much deeper over a period of time.”

The most meaningful work, said Weintraub, is when they work with Jewish communal institutions for two thirds of a year, and watch congregants “go from seeing Israel as a subject to be avoided at all costs, to seeing their synagogue, JCC, or other Jewish institution as the place they go to have hard, important conversations about Israel.”

And it’s more than just the time; they do a wide range of programming — from surveys to communication skill building to story exchanges. Weintraub explained that while some of these pieces can feel “soft” at first, they each function as a brick in the foundation laid for the tougher stuff. In her words, building a community with a “foundation” has far more “resilience” — a “culture of conversation and listening” can help people “have disagreements more skillfully.”

It’s hard to argue with the idea that changing the American Jewish conversation about Israel today — which Weintraub has characterized as fraught with avoidance, antagonism, and echo chambers — requires slow, steady, institutional change. All its deliberateness and composed, civil, facilitated conversation provides a venue for people to argue from a place of lived experience. It grounds them in compassion and recognition of what is at stake for others in the issue of Israel.

And the truth is, even what some called a “soft” conversation can be powerful and connect people. One participant told me he happened to share a small group with someone he knows from his Brooklyn synagogue — they had never had a conversation about Israel, but now they would. It took a Brooklyn arts space, kosher kale, and some structure for them to rediscover each other.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: UJA, Civility Initiative, Israel, New York, Brooklyn

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.