Convening Community in Difficult Times

community_iconBy Tilly Shames and Karla Goldman

It seems rare these days to enter a conversation or meeting without feeling the need to take a moment to debrief the latest tragedy, lament the difficulty of knowing what to do, sigh, and then move on to the topic at hand. Such was the case when Karla Goldman, director of the University of Michigan’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program and Prudence Rosenthal, board president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, met a few days after the Orlando shooting.

As they shared their sense of helplessness over how to process such a freighted event, it became clear that something more needed to be done. The terrible event in Orlando; its targeting of LGBTQ and Latino individuals; its invocation as both a hate crime and as terrorism; the specter raised of Islamic radicalism and of an immigrant threat; the nation’s inability or unwillingness to limit access to such devastating weaponry; and the general disheartening rise of racial, ethnic, and gender tensions and violence, amidst the current presidential election campaign, was all just too overwhelming to ignore. Moreover, they felt that all of these issues, particularly the targeting of the “other,” which has defined the tenor of much of the Trump campaign, called out to them as Jews concerned for the future of a tolerant, pluralistic and peaceful civil society. Recognizing that others might also be feeling this weight, Karla typed out an email to the leaders of the community’s varied Jewish institutions, inviting them to participate in and help plan a community-wide conversation. Karla’s experience organizing the Jewish Communal Leadership Program’s annual Communal Conversation made them believe that ours was a community able to strengthen each other and identify possibilities for individual and collective action in this time of tumult.

Success depended on buy-in from communal partners across our small yet diverse community. Together with about a dozen community professional and lay leaders who signed on early, we put out a community-wide call to gather at the local JCC. The email invitation for this Community in Difficult Times conversation referenced the Pulse massacre and invited conversation about “the concerns many of us share about the hatred and intolerance that seem to be rising in our country” and to “consider whether recent events hold particular significance for Jews as individuals and as a community.”

By the evening of the event – two weeks after Karla and Prue’s meeting – nearly all local Jewish organizations had signed on as co-sponsors – embracing the range of congregations from Orthodox to humanist as well as the JCC, Federation, Hillel, and Jewish Family Services. A number of community leaders also stepped forward to plan the evening itself. We wanted to provide a structured, respectful space to share and feel heard – a space for consolation and community, and the possibility of making a difference.

We began by describing what had brought the gathering about and set expectations for constructive dialogue that respected the diversity and possibly conflicting views in the room. Rabbi Kim Blumenthal of Congregation Beth Israel led us into conversation with a shared singing of hinei mahtov; Rabbi Sara Adler concluded the program with a beautiful prayer for peace in the form of a poem.

The evening itself focused on the voices of our community. We did not prescribe what the moment was about nor tell people how they should feel or what they should do. Instead, we asked participants to share what about this moment felt significant or troubling to them and to listen to each other. Lively small group discussions were followed by a general sharing-out to consider what it would take to actually address the yearning expressed to “do something.” What we heard was how much those in attendance simply appreciated being able to come together face-to-face. In a time when people turn to social media to express outrage, and “unfriend” those with whom they disagree, being able to sit across the table from someone, hear their story and acknowledge their hurt, reminded us of the power of coming together, in person, as a community.

One participant noted that she could not remember a time when our Jewish community had come together around a domestic issue that was not related to Israel or solely about antisemitism. (Although for some, Israel and antisemitism were exactly what brought them into the room.) That observation, in itself, suggested that we were doing something needed at this moment (or long overdue).

During this conversation (and certainly after – amidst the continuing series of traumatic events filling our newsfeeds and troubling our souls this summer), it was hard to believe in making a difference. But there was a hopefulness in coming together, in validating the ways in which we experience these painful times as Jews, and in casting about for ways to improve our corner of the world. There were proposals to organize around gun control, to amplify our collective voice through paid advertisements or social media, and to create educational settings through which to better understand the issues that trouble us.

As we continue to explore how to build upon this first convening, we’d like to share a few lessons and encourage other communities to try coming together on issues that may not seem to be of explicit Jewish concern or meet particular organizational needs. As leaders, we have a unique opportunity, if not a responsibility, to create structured spaces for our community to process issues of importance to them and our country. We saw in Ann Arbor that there were many individuals – some who may appear unaffiliated – seeking Jewish frameworks for their deepest political and ethical concerns. Rather than consider these topics out of bounds or irrelevant, we can create the space for what may turn out to be uniquely Jewish conversations and responses. Finally, in a society riven by discord, and in which Jews are feeling increasingly vulnerable, such gatherings allow us to model constructive listening and the possibility of learning from voices and perspectives different from our own.

Whatever the ultimate impact of our gathering, there was a great deal of consolation in looking around the room at familiar and unfamiliar faces marked by diverse ages, perspectives, and levels of affiliation and be able to recognize that we were one community – and that enough of us believed – on a Thursday early summer evening – that we might find strength or possibility in each other.

Tilly Shames is Executive Director of the University of Michigan Hillel. Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Jewish Studies and directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan.