We at The Jewish Week should know by now not to try to predict what participants at our annual retreat, The Conversation, will choose to focus on when they get together for frank, off-the-record discussions each fall.
But when more than 50 thoughtful, accomplished and creative Jewish women and men from around the country gathered for two days in rural Maryland last month, in the midst of the violent stabbing attacks on Jews in Israel, several of us were certain that the Israel-Palestinian conflict would be at the top of the list.
It wasn’t, though. Not even close. True, Israel came up in the more than three dozen discussion groups, touching on intra-Jewish conflicts, politics, religious practice and maintaining the national culture for Israelis living in America. But there was more engagement over issues like why be Jewish today, will there be a future for Jewish life in the U.S. a few decades from now, and how — or whether — we should maintain a Jewish establishment at a time when young people are distancing themselves from mainstream organizations.
At the closing circle, some participants expressed gratitude that the group had avoided the raw and difficult debates on the Mideast troubles, while others said they were saddened by that very fact.
After hosting 12 such retreats, and now with more than 600 alumni of The Conversation, we’ve learned that the discussions from year to year are unpredictable, though always passionate and insightful. The one constant theme raised by participants at the end of the 48 hours is that such a forum for forthright discussion among a wide range of Jews — some in their early 20s, others in their mid-80s, with differing political, religious and social views — is all too rare in our community and very much needed. The ability to discuss, and disagree, sometimes sharply but always with respect and a willingness to hear the other side, has become a lost art. All the more reason for The Jewish Week to strive to continue to sponsor The Conversation each year, and to encourage others in our community to provide similar opportunities for Jews with different points of view to engage in meaningful dialogue.
As MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” has noted, it is in open, spontaneous and respectful discussions “that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.”