By Billy Planer
On Etgar 36, the summer program I created in 2003, we take Jewish teens on a journey across the United States to help create a Jewish connection to their physical homeland – America. We do this by engaging them in our people’s time-honored tradition of being involved in political and social movements. From Haym Salomon who helped fund the American Revolution and the Jewish lawyers who helped create zoning and labor laws as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, to the Jewish gangsters and mafia that helped create Las Vegas and the young Jews who played major roles in the social and cultural changes in the 1960s, we Jews have been at the forefront of shaping the country we live in today.
A fundamental philosophical and educational building block of Etgar 36 is to help the participants discover their own voice and power – not what we want them to think – by meeting with representatives of all sides of political and social issues. It is our hope that Etgar 36 empowers and inspires them to get involved and create change, as they see fit, to make the world a better place. We also hope this helps continue the tradition of Jews being involved in shaping America, as we have done for generations in disproportionate numbers to our overall population.
One way we help the participants find their voice is by engaging in the lost art of civil discourse when meeting with people with whom they may disagree. After all, what is the fun, and real purpose, in only meeting with people who share your point of view? Our tradition is based on debate and disagreement. One only needs to look at any page of Talmud to understand the value Judaism places on making sure dissenting voices and opinions are heard and recorded.
People are supportive of and excited by our philosophy of meeting with opposing sides of issues. For example, when addressing guns in America, Etgar 36 participants meet with a father whose son was killed at Columbine High School and subsequently became a gun control lobbyist, and then turn around and meet with a lobbyist for the NRA. We spend a lot of time discussing with the participants that engaging in dialogue with someone who thinks differently than they do does not equal endorsing their views. How can you truly know what you believe if you never test it against opposing thoughts and questions? As an educator, I believe the only way to do this is to risk the discomfort of speaking to those you disagree with and allowing dissenting opinions to enter your world.
We also teach the teens to refrain from demonizing the person who disagrees with you. That person is just ANOTHER human being created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), not the OTHER, who just disagrees with you. To quote one of the speakers on our summer trip, Daryl Davis, a black man who meets with Klansmen, “How can you hate me if you don’t really know me?”
This is why in 2014, when I was walking my summer group from the National Mall in Washington DC to Lafayette Park to see the White House and we came upon a Pro-Palestine rally, we did not immediately leave. Rather, I found a few Palestinians and asked if they would meet with some teens to talk about their point of view. I explained that I had a group of Jewish teens who will probably not be in agreement with the rally, but who know how to listen and ask respectful questions and engage in civil discourse. The protestors agreed and we had a powerful 30 minute discussion. I don’t think many of the Etgar 36 participants agreed with the protestors, but we all walked away with a better understanding of each other’s thoughts. This impromptu discussion was balanced by meeting with J Street and AIPAC the next day.
This past summer, our schedule was designed to coincide with the two national political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. We walked around both conventions meeting with protestors, supporters, members of various causes, and politicians. This is how we came across a Jews for BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) against Israel rally. Subscribing to our core beliefs, we sat and spoke with one of their representatives. Not a single teen supported his views, but they were now able to solidify their thoughts and verbalize their disagreement. This meeting was counterbalanced by our meetings with the Legislative Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
I wish everyone could be as privileged as I am every summer to witness a group of teens grapple with the multitude of issues that America is debating and discussing. You would see that they have the ability and inner strength to handle these very sophisticated and nuanced topics and meetings, and to form their own opinions and thoughts. The organized Jewish community and our educators, would be doing our young people and our people as a whole a service to realize that engaging with and hearing an opposing voice may be uncomfortable, but it is through this discomfort that one grows and forms ones own educated opinions.
In today’s world, just giving teens talking points but keeping them in an insulated thought arena is not going to work. As a community, we have spent billions of dollars on educational programming to prepare our young people to hopefully grow up as knowledgeable Jews. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything unless we can test drive the education and identity we have given them by hearing and engaging with dissenting views. If it can’t stand up against an opposing question, then how strong is the education we have provided?
Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.