‘I’ve become so tentative about what I can say and who can I trust.”

“The isolation is painful, there’s a sense that it’s all on you.”

“Our community doesn’t want the rabbi to speak about politics.”

“You feel like a leader has to put on armor and desensitize oneself before speaking up.”

Looking around the room and listening to many of the 30 communal leaders — respected rabbis, educators, fellow editors and lay and professional heads of Jewish organizations — discuss the price they pay, personally and professionally, for speaking out on vital issues at a moment of deep polarization, I couldn’t help thinking, “It’s not just me.”

That was both a comfort and a distressing realization of how widespread the problem of expressing one’s views is — from the pulpit, at a board meeting or in an opinion piece — at a time when seemingly any comment or call for action is perceived as political, and up for vigorous debate, or worse.

The day we met, for example, a number of Jewish schools participated in a national 17-minute walkout to mark the shloshim (30th day) for those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Some parents and students objected, saying the commemoration reflected a leftist, anti-Second Amendment sentiment.

Students protest gun laws at Solomon Schechter of Long Island today. Courtesy of Solomon Schechter of Long Island

Recognizing that risk-taking is increasingly threatened, and concerned about the long-term consequences for our community, the leaders of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (SHINA) convened a four-hour session last Wednesday at its Upper West Side office to allow participants to share their experiences and learn from each other. A key dilemma that emerged was how best to balance a perceived moral obligation to express one’s “prophetic voice” with the pragmatic need for occasional self-censorship to avoid being marginalized.

The conversation was candid, sometimes raw. (Chatham House Rules applied; the discussions could be reported on but the identities and affiliations of the participants were deemed off the record.)

A number of participants spoke of being caught up in controversies generated by a small number of zealous critics seeking to marginalize, if not demonize, them for their views. The Internet and blogosphere were blamed for spreading these attacks, many of them anonymously.

(For those in the room, most of their critics were on the political right, though it was acknowledged that each side has its radicals.)

“Israel is the elephant in the room.”

Less dramatic than dealing with the hard-core extremists, but also troubling and more common, is the general difficulty of jumping into the fray on any number of thorny issues because of the deep divisions out there.

The participants shared the emotional stress they feel in deciding whether and when to speak out, contemplating the risk factor in terms of criticism and even job security. “Is it worth it, I ask myself,” one woman said, “and what will be the long-term impact? And how will I feel if I don’t speak out?”

“Israel is the elephant in the room,” one man said; Israel made its presence felt early and often in the discussion. Some rabbis describe Israel as “the third rail,” the one topic to avoid in sermons for fear of alienating congregants who are either supporters or critics of the government in Jerusalem. The result, though, is often silence on critical issues of the day.

One veteran pulpit rabbi said he loses sleep over “the long-range horror of creating young cohorts of incipient leaders who feel hamstrung” in what they can say or do in their rabbinate.

A young rabbi noted that the notion of having a safe space to speak freely within his own congregation is increasingly unrealistic, threatened by backlash via the Internet and blogosphere. A rabbi’s sermon or remarks, sometimes taken out of context, may appear anywhere in the world and spark hostile responses from critics close to home or halfway around the globe.

A dramatic example of such a case was one of four scenarios that we, divided in groups, tackled during the day. Each case was a thinly disguised version of a real situation. One involved a rabbi who emailed a draft of a proposed itinerary for a congregational trip to Israel that included visiting Palestinian sites. The email was shared around the world and the rabbi was vilified as being anti-Israel. (I wrote about the rabbi and the troubling response last year.)

Yehuda Kurtzer leading a study session at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s new headquarters in Morningside Heights. Steve Limpan/JW

The case my group dealt with involved a well-liked assistant Hillel director who was asked to apply for the top post at a politically progressive campus with a politically conservative board of Hillel directors. The former director had been unable to maintain consensus or civility.

We were asked to explore the obstacles at hand, what resources the leader in question needed to succeed, and what “courageous” leadership might like in this case. We drew up a list of the kinds of people who could advise her, the pitfalls she should look out for and the ways she might leverage her experience and popularity to create a manageable environment. But it wasn’t easy, and so much, we realized, depends on interpersonal relationships — and defining the role of a leader.

“Is leadership about getting people to where you are, or getting close to where they are?”

“Is leadership about getting people to where you are, or getting close to where they are?” one participant posed.

The exercise underscored the need for protocols and proactive tools to deal with delicate situations, and the benefit of collaboration among people committed to countering the polarizing atmosphere so prevalent today within the American Jewish community and beyond.

At day’s end, there was consensus that the program was helpful, and that similar sessions should be held, and expanded, for other groups. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of SHINA, said there were plans to convene a group of philanthropists to grapple with these issues of leadership from their perspective.

In an interview a few days later, Kurtzer explained that a practical objective of the session had been to provide leaders with skills and practices that can prove effective in preventing or minimizing intimidating responses.

Another goal was to “build a stronger network so that if one person is attacked [for one’s views], more people will feel responsible” and take action. The issue, he said, is “how can we create a Jewish community where the loudest voices reflect the majority of the people?”

Good question. Unfortunately, in recent years it has been the small number of radicals with the shrillest and most destructive demands who have garnered so much attention. Those of us who care about a shared future need to take a far more active role in assuring that reality.

Gary@jewishweek.org