Facilitating a Holy Space for Conversations

by Yonatan Gordis

Once upon a time, the Jewish people were grouped into tribes, some of whom had very specialized service roles. The priests, descendents of Aharon, were conduits for those seeking to connect with the Divine, with ritual, and with others who were living in a similar culture and community. Ultimately, they facilitated Jewish conversations so that the three systems of Jewish life (human-to-self; human-to-human (community); and human-to-Divine) could flourish. However, with the shifting of time and countless systems (ritual, prayer, language, community and more), the specialized roles of the priests have all but disappeared.

One of the key competencies that the Center for Leadership Initiatives (CLI) seeks to bring to the Jewish community is the facilitation and convening of meaningful conversations between diverse stakeholders who – in the past – could not or would not engage in fruitful, honest, attentive and constructive dialogue. It is our effort to deconstruct the Tower of Babel, brick by brick and floor by floor, and to re-create shared language. In the past months, CLI has placed new emphasis on training facilitators, the people who understand the skills necessary for “working the room,” making space for voices, steering conversations towards poignancy and productivity, and ultimately breaking the barriers that exist between so many members of the Jewish community.

In December 2009, CLI launched Facilitation Intensive, a six-month certification program to train a new cadre of impassioned and skilled facilitators, who will work at our programs and throughout the Jewish community. With two retreats and a personalized apprenticeship program, the fifteen participants are learning the brass tacks of facilitation – working conversations, designing sessions and conferences, dealing with challenging participants and ultimately elevating conversation to where we feel it should be in this community; a productive and, dare we say, even a holy place.

Great facilitators must command presence in a room, acting as a vessel that holds context and subtext while powerfully charting the flow of conversation. They need amazing ears to hear what is being said and what is not being said, and they need eyes to see who is talking and who is not. They need sharp minds to perceive and calibrate psychology, strong hearts for compassion, and a strong belly full of intuition to know where to lead. They need to make matches and connect dots. Great facilitators are servants. They steer the course, allow it to change, and simultaneously hold high the vision for the room. And ultimately, they need to be translucent; making certain it is never about them.

In the end, it is the conversations that should be remembered and utilized, not the facilitator. Like our ancestral priests, we hope the facilitators we are offering the community will keep their eyes on the prizes, those complex relationships that make up communities – spiritual, political and personal. Perhaps, as they go out and do their precious work, the Jewish community as a whole will come be recognized as one that models dialogue unlike any other; with vision, passion, humility and acceptance. Perhaps these modern day servants will be able to help elevate the mundane and redundant, to something unique and holy, as our age-old tradition has taught us.

Rabbi Yonaton (Yoni) Gordis is the Executive Director of The Center for Leadership Initiatives.