table talk

Resetting the Table aims to shift ‘rigidity into receptivity’

Support from Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw's Hearthland Foundation will expand the group's programming with multi-faith leaders and the entertainment industry

As the associate vice president for campus affairs at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago and executive director of the Hillels of Illinois, Emily Briskman oversees nearly 60 Hillel professionals, many of whom spend significant time dealing with on-campus expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Through her work with Hillels, Briskman has participated in programs run by Resetting the Table, an organization dedicated to building dialogue and deliberation across political divides. 

First created with seed funding from UJA-Federation of New York in 2013, and becoming an independent organization the following year, Resetting the Table is in a phase of growth and expansion. Recently, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation began funding Resetting the Table programs happening outside of Jewish spaces, reaching multi-faith clergy and other leaders working to combat toxic polarization.

Resetting the Table has worked with 35 federations plus The Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and trained 58 federation CEOs. The nonprofit, which has fiscal sponsorship through JCPA, has significant funding from The Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, Project Accelerate, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Civic Health Project and The Jim Joseph Foundation, among others.

At JUF — which is just completing its third year of partnership with the organization — various staff teams participated in five consecutive Resetting the Table cohorts from December 2021 to May 2022. The team assembled cohorts including professionals and lay people, varying denominations, demographics and political perspectives, to engage a cross-section of the community in dialogue. Sessions emphasized skills and tools that will help participants engage in productive and collaborative conversations.

“We didn’t want a uniform or a monolithic group of people talking to each other who all agreed,” Briskman told eJewishPhilanthropy. “We really wanted to get that idea of what’s going on across the community. That intergenerational piece for us was so important,” she said. “Generational differences, especially on Israel, can be deeply polarizing,” she added. 

After distributing two smaller grants in 2018, The Jim Joseph Foundation provided a three-year grant in June to provide general operating support for Resetting the Table’s work. Specifically focused on Jewish educators and leaders, the funding will support grantees’ efforts to engage young people in content about Jewish identity or Israel, the foundation’s chief operating officer, Dawne Bear Novicoff, told eJP.

“In today’s day and age, young people are looking for places to be honest, to be open, to have nuanced conversations,” Bear Novicoff said. “They don’t want to shy away from difficult conversations; therefore this is providing an opportunity for the grantees and the educators to help hold those conversations.”

Facing the fear

Resetting the Table’s first federation partnership, with the UJA-Federation of New York, had formed to identify what was driving young adult disengagement from Israel; the process revealed that what looked like apathy toward Israel was actually fear and anxiety, the organization’s co-founding executive director, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, told eJP. 

“So much of what young adults were calling for was a more productive conversation across difference,” Weintraub said. “Young adult disengagement also was in part driven by other dynamics in the community that we have to change — communal institutions and what the climate is like around Israel.” She added, “I think a lot of the impasse is around our own ideological silos within the Jewish people. I’m a big believer that we need a kind of collective insight to solve problems that we don’t have when we all live in echo chambers.”

“There’s real fear that exists in our community about talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel in general, for fear of saying the wrong thing, having the wrong opinion, being ostracized, for whatever opinion it is that you do have,” Briskman said. “Breaking that fear cycle is so important. Israel is something that we should be able to talk about,” Weintraub said, adding that many are afraid they don’t know enough about the region or are going to say the wrong thing, leading to disengagement. But Resetting the Table’s training “really breaks that cycle,” she said.

“I am among those who more frequently avoid conflict than actively engage in charged conversation,” Lisa Rosenkranz, a JUF board member who participated in the Chicago training, told program organizers. “I also live in my own bubble – the majority of people with whom I interact share my perspective. I believe the skills being built in this program extend far beyond just differing opinions about Israel – we are building the ability to have constructive conversations across many charged topics. Reflecting back and making sure you truly understand an opposing point of view is so essential for these conversations,” she said.

Weintraub describes RTT’s work as “shifting rigidity into receptivity,” adding that sessions are designed to “help shift the common tendencies of polarized conflict…so that people can take in ideas and information and people that they otherwise might have dismissed, written off out of hand.”

Federation facilitations

Resetting the Table received an aggregate of $3 million from federations for various training programs designed for their target audiences and constituencies. Baltimore brought together high-level donors and philanthropists; Seattle focused on lay leaders and board members. In addition to its partnership with JUF, the organization is in its fourth year of partnership with federations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Weintraub compared the federation experiences to chaplaincy training: All clergy members need some pastoral counseling experience, but some train for years, or at different intensities, to achieve deeper expertise. The organization’s four-to-six session boot camp facilitation training that teaches foundational skills for difficult conversations and troubleshooting techniques for challenging group dynamics, might be particularly useful for Israel trip providers, young adults, campus professionals, clergy and others who might confront political or moral differences around Israel. There are also intensive, rigorous facilitation trainings (13 sessions over seven months); some students may train more intensively to become coaches or trainers.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought in Resetting the Table after hearing about its work addressing polarization in New York’s Jewish community, Alisa Finsten, the federation’s chief of staff, told eJP. With funding from a Jewish Community Foundation Cutting Edge grant — $350,000 over three years — to replicate the model, the federation created a bench of trained facilitators who could preside over challenging conversations within L.A. Jewish community organizations, and work directly with those organizations to put on dialogue programs. 

“We really felt that the federation was the best organization poised to do this work, because of our role at the 30,000-foot level in the L.A. Jewish community,” Finsten said, noting federation’s partnerships with synagogues, schools, camps and Hillels in the politically diverse and geographically spread-out community. While the three-year grant period is over, Finsten added, the federation remains committed to the work, allocating funding for a staff person to serve as an in-house “force multiplier”: advising on local challenging conversations and bringing the Resetting the Table model of dialogue to its leadership programs. For example, the federation’s Community Leadership Institute cohort will participate in a Resetting the Table program before their September trip to Israel. 

Beyond Israel

Resetting the Table discussions go beyond conversation for conversation’s sake, organizers say; they also glean insights and heal or strengthen relationships across divides, while facilitators, the organization’s founder added, “help people be able to investigate their differences and confront them courageously in ways they [can] stay connected and receptive.” And while Resetting the Table was created to focus on the Jewish world, after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the organization went national, bringing programs to the general population beyond Jewish issues, in a country that’s increasingly polarized. 

Hearthland’s support, for example, is part of the foundation’s work “to help build a more just, equitable, and connected America,” Shayna Rose Triebwasser, the foundation’s senior program officer, told eJP. 

“Part of how we do that is by investing in projects and programs that bring people together across all kinds of divides to build relationships and solidarity,” Triebwasser said. “We believe that when we come together, we not only affirm our shared humanity and have the opportunity to understand our collective challenges more fully, but we can also begin to design solutions that work for more people and build the power we need to make real change. 

“We’ve seen a polarization take over our country, our globe,” Briskman said. “This project is really reacting to that because…any fracture in our community is really an existential threat. It doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree with each other, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences of opinion. I have a colleague who likes to say that in the Jewish community, we never expect uniformity. But we do strive for unity, which I think is a really good line, especially for Resetting the Table: we want to be able to talk to each other.”