By Rabbi Lauren Berkun and Janice Weinman, Ph.D.
In an increasingly polarized political environment, the Israel conversation across America has become toxic and divisive. For the past two years, Hadassah and the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America have embarked on a groundbreaking partnership to transform the nature of the Israel conversation in the Hadassah network. The Hadassah-iEngage initiative empowered lay leaders to facilitate nuanced, pluralistic, values-based conversations about Israel based on the Hartman curriculum, “iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” For the first time, Hartman trained lay leaders to teach a curriculum that was designed for rabbis. The experiment yielded surprising and encouraging results.
In the fall of 2016, a cohort of 20 exceptional Hadassah lay leaders from chapters across the country met at the Hadassah headquarters in NYC for a full-day training with Hartman faculty. This training seminar launched the two-year initiative by creating a community of learners committed to developing new skills, knowledge, and tools for facilitating iEngage courses in their own local chapters. During this seminar, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer and Rabbi Lauren Berkun taught traditional and contemporary Jewish texts which modeled a diverse and values-based conversation on the spectrum of views about Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The Hadassah leaders explored their experiences and images of Israel and began to unpack the diverse ways in which American Jews think about and talk about Israel.
Following this intensive retreat, Hadassah leaders met throughout the year for two-hour webinar classes with Rabbi Berkun to study the Jewish values of peace, land, justice, compromise, self-preservation, and exceptionalism. The commitment and dedication of these Hadassah iEngage fellows was astounding. For each session, the leaders came prepared having spent hours reading background articles, watching Hartman video lectures, and reviewing Jewish texts in the course sourcebook. Together on webinars, the women learned, dialogued, and prepared to teach these values to other Hadassah members. The sophisticated level of discussion, open-minded dialogue, and earnest curiosity about this approach to Israel education made the program an unexpected success.
Despite concerns from some participants that they were not professional Jewish educators or rabbis, the level of dedication to the study process yielded a cohort of Hadassah lay leaders equipped to offer the iEngage course to hundreds of members in chapters throughout the country at a high and sophisticated level. In many ways, the passionate and enthusiastic Hadassah volunteers, fresh to the ideas, were uniquely suited to model these conversations with their “students.”
As the Hadassah iEngage fellows reported, the program gave them confidence to open new kinds of conversations about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a Jewish values lens. They also became more self-aware about which Jewish values animate their own politics, and are now more empathetic and compassionate about why people have differing views on Israel.
Throughout the 2017-18 program year, Hadassah iEngage fellows have been facilitating the Hartman course in their local chapters. While the fellows are “in the field,” support from Hartman and Hadassah has continued. There are regular check-ins, updates, and conversations about the course facilitation experience.
Sherry Skolnick, a Hadassah leader in Bellmore, NY, reported that despite diverse backgrounds, her participants all came with a thirst for a high-level conversation, and often stayed late after class to continue the stimulating conversations generated by the course material. The curriculum was designed to help the participants leave opinions, rigidity, and defensiveness at the door. “The purpose of this course is to enable Jews to talk to other Jews. That has helped us to stay focused and away from sharp personal opinions.”
In some communities, Hadassah leaders have teamed up with local rabbis to co-teach the course. For example, Sue Polansky and Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass., have partnered to jointly facilitate the course for Hadassah and synagogue members. Their course is representative of many Hadassah chapters and synagogues throughout the country with participants ranging from Democrats to Republicans, J Streeters to AIPAC veterans, liberal to traditional.
As Sue Polansky reported, “I thought the best thing about the course was that we were able to talk about Israel in a new and different way. The class left me with a better understanding of my own views, as well as those of others. It was eye-opening for my students. In all the years that we have talked about Israel, it was never “values-based.” We never thought about why, or which things were most important. Our participants were able to see things differently. People managed to change their views. People were enraptured, and they have asked ‘what are we doing next year?’”
The process of empowering lay leaders to serve as ambassadors for a diverse and respectful Israel conversation is trailblazing for the Hadassah network and the North American Jewish community. Rabbis and educators are not the sole agents for transforming the Israel conversation through thoughtful, text-based, values-based dialogue. The partnership between Hadassah and the Shalom Hartman Institute demonstrates the great potential for lay leadership to help forge a new path for a North American Zionism that is nuanced, self-reflective, empathetic, principled, and truly pluralistic.
Rabbi Lauren Berkun is the Director of Rabbinic and Synagogue Programs for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Dr. Janice Weinman is Hadassah Executive Director / CEO.