By Robert Sherman
What are you feeling and thinking about what is going on in Israel? What is the person next to you – the person who works alongside you every day and with whom you talk about any number of things – what is that person thinking and feeling? How is he or she making sense of it all, or making no sense out of it at all and just feeling confused, angry, frightened, anxious, whatever?
For two days in a row, I’ve been immersed in conversations of this sort first with the people with whom I work every day and subsequently with educators from across the larger community – educators from day schools, congregations, early childhood programs, youth programs, and many other settings. As a result I can tell you that they are feeling a great many things; in some cases feeling emotions they haven’t felt before either in kind or degree, and they are feeling them very intensely. They are frequently tied up in knots and they are immensely grateful for a chance to talk about it in a setting designed to permit and encourage them to express themselves without fear of judgment or confrontation.
I heard people talk about genuine fear in the face of the expressions of anti-Semitism they read about or have seen firsthand both here in New York and much more so in other countries. I heard people talk about the way their feelings were causing rifts between them and their families, them and their friends and co-workers. I heard people talk of feeling terribly isolated and I heard people talk of feeling defensive to a degree that was causing them to agonize over whether they had changed so drastically or whether the situation was so different. Why hadn’t they felt this way before? I heard people talk about guilt and shame and I heard people talk about feeling empathy to a degree that it hurt. Some people I heard were stunningly articulate and some people could barely articulate what they were feeling.
I heard these sometimes anguished bits of personal narrative because two of the leaders of The Jewish Education Project, David Bryfman and Cyd Weissman, chose to design opportunities for our staff on the first day, and for educators across the community on the second day, to speak to each other in this way. We had thought these conversations might lead to serious conflict because of the diversity of opinion that we believed likely to emerge around Israel, the Palestinians, the war and what caused it, and who is responsible for what. The truth is we were surprised at how little overt conflict emerged. This experience wasn’t uncovering biases and forcing acerbic debate – this functioned as a release valve for pent up emotion – an opportunity to speak from the deeply personal perspective within a safe communal context.
I spoke early this morning to the lone lay leader – a particularly activist lay leader – who was present and who was beginning to think about the ways in which she might light up her network in response to what she heard from the educators (we did not invite lay people to participate with our own staff on the first day). People were asking for help. Not only help with solving their personal crises – and I must admit what I heard in some cases sounded a great deal like a personal crisis – but how they would be able to face in a few short weeks or sooner their students and the parents of the students. How could they design conversations and explorations that would help their students to express their feelings and to find ways of thinking and understanding more deeply and for acting with a sense of purpose and conviction?
I suggest that every rabbi in every congregation, every head of school, every executive in a JCC, or youth group director, think about how they might make it possible for members their staff to speak with each other about what they are feeling and thinking concerning this moment in time in an environment that is safe, truly safe; not only safe to disagree but safe to expose their confusion, vulnerabilities and fears. And I encourage every one of us who are not direct providers of service to children and teens and adults but who support that activity – providers of content, capacity builders, and professional developers – to work in a concerted way to make high quality and user friendly resources available and accessible.
This is an “if not now, then when” moment. We definitely need longer term solutions to big issues that will require meetings, and task forces, planning and grant proposals, and large scale collaborations. But right now we need some immediate action to be taken by individuals and organizations in a position to do so in support of those who depend upon us and whom we depend upon to fulfill our missions.
Robert Sherman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.