I have certainly had my fair share of frustrating and unproductive word battles with people of all ages and backgrounds on the topic. As a graduate student in Family Therapy, I like to think I am equipped to engage a host of thorny issues. But even with my graduate training, the topic of Israel still challenged me. So, last year, I applied to New Israel Fund’s Facilitation Fellowship, to engage with people about Israel in ways that are productive. I wanted to answer the question that has been running through my head: “How do we get to a discussion around Israel that is not polemical?” I was about to find out.
The Facilitation Fellowship is designed to promote community conversations on Israel, and specifically social justice issues, in the Bay Area, training a cohort of young adults to foster meaningful, direct conversations in the Jewish community. In early December 2012 ten fellows met in Petaluma for a weekend-long training. We had an exciting and emotional weekend learning to mediate between different sides. The final night of the retreat, an epic thunderstorm rocked our cabins. The wind and gale shook the forests, and yet, we were safe. I like to think of the storm as symbolizing a kind of tempestuous, collective cleansing of our longstanding experiences with conversations around Israel.
The fellowship training process lasted over eight months, and we were provoked to think about Israel from different perspectives. We enjoyed sensitive, insightful, and constructive guidance by our trainer Eyal Rabinovitch. We also practiced facilitating and I developed three essential qualities for moderating conversation on Israel: curiosity, courage and patience. I learned to become curious, and simultaneously courageous to delve deeper. And of course, I learned patience because the facilitator’s goal is not to have people arrive at any particular predetermined conclusion, but rather allow people to express their thoughts and experiences.
I remember the moment that the experience of facilitating clicked for me. I was with a small group of people, discussing the challenges of intergenerational conversations on Israel. One participant shared his struggle within his family in talking about Israel. He had never been given the opportunity to voice his own opinion, which differed from that of his family. After hearing his stories, I felt what I was doing was incredibly important: I was providing a safe space for someone to talk, someone who had been shut down within his own family. Many of the other participants had never been in a group before where people could share so openly about the conflicts around Israel that arose in their family. I realized that my role this past year was to make such spaces available.
Our cohort convened 12 different events this past year, engaging hundreds of young adults in conversations about Israel. Our gatherings ranged from small group “Conversation Circles” to NIF’s dynamic 120-person gathering “Love, Hate & the Jewish State.” With each conversation, we enabled another young voice to be heard, and helped our community explore how to be a little bit more courageously curious on Israel.