It strikes me as praiseworthy, and more than a little sad, that the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has created a position called “director of Jewish intracommunal affairs.”
Basically, the new post suggests that the increasing nastiness and lack of respect we Jews have shown for our fellow Jews who don’t vote, pray or think as we do has resulted in such serious rifts among us that we need to hire a full-time professional to get us to talk to each other.
That’s the responsibility of Matthew Ackerman, who since last fall has been working on bringing disparate elements of our community together to talk about the issue that once united and now divides us: Israel.
In the next few weeks, the JCRC will launch “The Israel Talks,” a carefully planned series of community forums, starting with groups of about 10 to 15 people in White Plains, the Upper East Side and Great Neck, neighborhoods chosen for their diverse elements.
“We want to make the groups cohesive and have people speaking freely among themselves,” says Ackerman, who will facilitate the discussions.
In nearby Bergen County, N.J., two participants of the Berrie Fellows Leadership program, designed to educate and inspire potential lay leaders in Jewish life, have helped plan an evening of interdenominational dialogue to try to break down the barriers between Jews who pray differently, or not at all.
Ian Zimmerman, a member of the liberal Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, says he and Lee Lasher, president of the Modern Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, likely would never have met and become friends if not for the Berrie program. They decided to launch a project that would have lay leaders “get together, share best practices” and work toward convincing rabbis of the different streams “to work together better.”
The two, each in business in their professional lives, have launched Unite4Unity, a grassroots effort to encourage all kinds of Jews to gather, interact, learn from each other and form friendships. Their first program, scheduled for the evening of March 12 at Ahavath Torah, will be a moderated discussion among three local rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — on the potentials and limits of cooperation.
On the college campus front, where faculty members as well as student activists often deride Israel as illegitimate, one result is that many Jewish students avoid the topic of Arab-Israeli relations because it is so polarizing and they are confused.
In response, several weeks ago, some 250 students from 17 colleges in the Northeast took part in the first bView conference, formally known as Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World. (See Opinion piece by Brandeis student Ryan Yuffe on page 24.) A year in the planning, the student-driven initiative was given high marks by participants for creating a culture for civil discussion, focusing on ways to allow various views to be heard, and talking about personal connections to Israel.
Three isolated signs of progress in the area of tolerance may not constitute a trend, but there is a sense that relations among differing groups of Jews has deteriorated to the point that pro-active steps need to be taken to avoid permanent fissures.
“Jewish unity seems only to be reactionary,” noted Lee Lasher, “like after a synagogue is firebombed” or when Israel is under physical attack. And too often that cohesiveness is short-lived.
“We need to be more strategic,” he said.
Ian Zimmerman agrees, adding: “Except for our practice of Judaism, we Jews have much more in common than what separates us. The key is to get people to see that.”
At the JCRC in New York, Ackerman, who handled media relations for The David Project, which helps promote Israel on campuses, has been doing a lot of listening since he was hired last summer. He was trained through a program launched by the JCRC and federation in San Francisco, called “The Year of Civil Discourse,” begun several years ago after a series of controversies about Israel seriously threatened communal harmony in the Bay area.
The program helps participants learn to talk to each other more respectfully while disagreeing, with the goal not necessarily to change minds but to discuss issues with a level of trust and with the good of the community uppermost.
Ackerman has also worked closely with the University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose well-received book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” argues that people depend more on intuition than logic in making decisions. He says that groups on the political left and right fail to appreciate the other side’s legitimate fears and concerns.
“Each side is usually right about what it asserts but wrong about what it denies,” says Ackerman, summarizing Haidt.
Together they are trying to apply these insights to foster more productive discussion about Israel from both hawks and doves.
The small forums will be held in people’s homes and food will be served, helping to personalize the experience. The sessions will be held every four to six weeks, and hopefully the participants will become the conveners, and the number of groups will increase and more communities will be involved.
“It’s about creating a positive dynamic,” says Ackerman.
With the national election results bringing a renewed sense of hope among many Israelis pleased to see fresh faces in the Knesset, and the growing realization here that an aging and shrinking Jewish community in this country cannot afford to be its own worst enemy, maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning from tearing each other down to hearing each other out.
Let’s hope it’s not too late.