The Day(s) After: Civil Discourse and Why Genuine Leadership Matters Above All Else

By Barry Finestone

As we wade into uncharted waters as a country, I want to try and step back just a bit to explore what I believe is an especially essential quality for organizations and organizational leaders within our field to exhibit at this moment: genuine leadership. I also want to offer some thoughts about the role and responsibility of Jewish education in fostering and supporting this leadership.

Over the last few months, many organizational heads, education leaders, educators, and yes, funders, have been asked in various ways to help make sense of the Presidential election, to formulate “a response,” and to devise some type of path forward about which all can feel positive.

Already, in the words written above, I have stepped into a challenging aspect of leadership within our community right now. Those words inherently create a narrative and paint a picture of our community with an exceedingly broad brush: “We are shocked at the results of the election.” “We can’t make sense of it.” “We need to push back.” These words to a certain degree exclude anyone who correctly predicted the election, supports the positions of President Trump, and can explain in no uncertain terms why and how he won.

When we think about civil discourse, it is easy to fall into a trap of speaking civilly only to people with whom we largely agree. Sure there may be differences here and there, but people who share basic principles and beliefs often remain civil if disagreements arise within that context. Step out of that boundary, however, and civility becomes a much more challenging proposition.

Yet, the interactions outside of that boundary are not just important – and in some cases inevitable – but also can be deeply rewarding. Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, recently reflected that during his time in the Ohio Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives some of his “most lasting moments of personal growth and satisfaction were when I got to know someone who came from a very different background and perspective than me, and when I built a relationship of mutual respect with that colleague.” Eric’s reflections are part of a larger piece about the lessons we can glean today from the story of the debate between the Schools of Hillel and Shamai over a point of halakha – a story I too believe offers important insights about how and why to engage in conversations those with whom we disagree.

Yet while Hillel and Shamai argued their point for three years (and others argued it on their behalf for generations), it seems that our community today cannot argue for three minutes without resorting to anger and divisive behavior. Why?

Partly because in conversations that occur both inside and outside of our community, every single word matters; every framing of a conversation matters; every interaction is an opportunity for judgment or misjudgment. We all know that discussing the election, or Israel, or numerous other current issues can spark not just heated arguments, but tangible – I would argue deeply negative – outcomes. People may stop going to Jewish learning experiences, or stop financially supporting community organizations, because of a stance an individual or organization did or did not take about a single issue.

Genuine leadership, now more than ever, must account for these sensitivities. Let’s not presume to know someone’s beliefs or feelings until she or he tells us. Genuine leadership presumes that audiences are savvy enough to make up their own minds about their beliefs, and how they want to act on them. It may be especially difficult for community leaders to rein in themselves when an issue hits at their heart. But we see that the strength and civility of our community depends on an even keel approach, in which organizations offer resources and engagement opportunities that acknowledge a variety of perspectives on issues.

For the last couple of weeks, the Foundation has reached out to numerous grantees to learn more about their on-the-ground realities and efforts around civil discourse and social justice. In this first of a two part blog series, I want share a few quick examples and note some common themes around the work of grantees to promote civil discourse and, relatedly, civic engagement.

First, organizations exhibit genuine leadership by fostering civil discourse as a pathway to relationship building and civic engagement, as determined by their audiences.

All of the independent communities that comprise the Jewish Emergent Network – seven non-denominationally affiliated Jewish communities – have initiatives underway that promote civil discourse in some way. But what’s especially noteworthy is that the JEN communities’ leadership has made concerted efforts to bring together people of differing opinions and perspectives on issues and to build bridges to outside communities.

BBYO, too, offers another substantial example of genuine leadership. In the fall, it turned the focus of its ongoing “gamechangers” campaign – which offers teens a framework for creating positive change – to civic engagement. Teens committed to learn about the election and educate themselves on relevant topics of their choosing. 75 BBYO chapters used resource guides (created in partnership with Repair the World) to program around these topics. As a nonpartisan organization, BBYO helps teens better understand issues and formulate their own opinions rather than take a stance on a side of an issue. Again, no judgments and no preconditions about what constitutes worthwhile civic engagement.

Second, the Foundation also learned how organizations are deftly balancing the need for reactive and proactive efforts in the community. As a starting point, genuine leadership can entail just “being there and being a resource.”

Groups like Keshet, for example, had an influx of calls and emails from parents and youth immediately after the election. They asked questions like “What does this election mean for me or my child?” Keshet’s role in this regard simply was to offer information. It held a webinar for parents of transgender kids two weeks after the election; parents came to Keshet because trust had long been established. Similarly, Facing History and Ourselves heard from educators and education leaders looking for resources to facilitate conversations around the election and divisions in our country. Demand for its workshops on how to have difficult conversations, with its target audience of schools and teachers, has increased.

Finally, Hillel International worked to respond to students needs in November and, through its Ask Big Questions Initiative, crafted a new initiative launched just this week – the Campus Conversation Challenge – designed to spark thousands of new conversations between people who never spoke to each other before now or were mere acquaintances.

These all are examples of organizations being present for their audiences, facilitating conversations, and providing resources for others to facilitate conversations as well. They are responding to concerns and providing timely information while also formulating strategies and initiatives focused on civil discourse in a more proactive way.

I am especially interested in seeing how the efforts at promoting civil discourse take shape, given that opinions and perspectives may harden over the coming months. Can we, a collection of thought leaders, educators, funders, and others who comprise a field, truly be inclusive of others with whom we vehemently disagree? Can we, as a field, develop initiatives and materials that genuinely convey that we want to engage with “the other?” These are challenging questions with no easy answers.

Still, the Hillel-Shamai story, and certainly other Jewish teachings and values, again is a valuable reference: While the School of Hillel leadership modeled behavior that emphasized the study of “the other’s” perspective, leadership of the School of Shamai did not. The eternal optimist in me hopes our community’s leadership can model the former’s behavior and help to change the current dynamic of too often hateful and unproductive argument. If leadership can do that, our communities will be real examples to the wider community of how to conduct conversations and debate among people of varying perspectives.

Barry Finestone is President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Cross-posted on Jim Joseph Foundation Blog