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Finding a civil civic community

Kaplen JCC spearheads group to facilitate the hard conversations

In May, Community Calls met for a panel presentation and small group discussion. This is the panel.
In May, Community Calls met for a panel presentation and small group discussion. This is the panel.

Northern New Jersey is home to a wide range of communities; faith and cultural groups that have flourished but rarely interact with each other.

We live in a world of increasing tension but also with a reservoir of increasingly untapped goodwill. It is possible to form relationships between groups, and although it’s rarely easy to do that, it’s significantly easier to begin to work toward that goal before something horrible happens than it is to begin the work in a nightmare’s wake.

That’s why it was providential that Sue Gelsey, the chief engagement officer at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, began to work on her brainchild, Community Calls, about a year ago. It met first in July and that meant that the organizational machinery and emotional commitment was in place three months before October 7.

Now, the group is launching publicly with its first program; “Dialogue in Good Faith,” a panel discussion by three thought leaders — Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, Dr. Terrence Johnson of Harvard Divinity School, and Rabbi Hilly Haber of Central Synagogue in Manhattan — and moderated by Tikvah Wiener of the Idea Institute, to be followed by small-group facilitated conversations among audience members and set for February 25. (See below.)

Ms. Gelsey, who lives in Haworth, had been the JCC’s CEO for many years, but she left it for the JCC Association some time ago. She loved that job at the JCCA, including during the pandemic, but once it was over, she realized that something was missing. “I wasn’t affecting people’s lives the way I wanted to, and I thought that I had one more job in me,” she said. She was an extremely effective administrator, but she was tired of social distancing. She wanted to do something that could help people less abstractly.

When she was able to go back to the JCC last January, in a role that was adjusted to allow her to act as both administrator and active creator, she was thrilled. She now oversees the membership, early childhood, and health and wellness departments, “and I also oversee how we engage with our staff and leadership. And I took this title, chief engagement officer, because I want to remind myself that it’s all about people.”

Since her return to the JCC, she’s been working on Community Calls. “The idea was not necessarily to create a new organization, but to help the ones that already exist — faith groups, civic groups, cultural groups — and have them come together programmatically and socially to strengthen relationships, disrupt tensions, and create change.”

She started having breakfasts and lunches with leaders of those organizations, and many of them decided to join the coalition. Because this is a group that meets in person, it has some natural geographic boundaries, although Ms. Gelsey thinks they’ll expand with time. Now, the group centers around Tenafly, Englewood, and the Northern Valley.

The groups involved in Community Calls include Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, and Presbyterian organizations, among other faith groups; ethnicities include Chinese, Korean, Greek, and Indian, among others; there are synagogues, churches, cultural organizations, and other civic groups among the members.

“Sometime in May, when I was up to 18 partners, I realized that I needed to stop having breakfasts and lunches,” Ms. Gelsey said. “I could have kept on building the organization, but when we got to 20, I thought let’s start with this group, and see what we can do.”

She began to work with Ms. Wiener of Teaneck, a visionary educator; the Idea Institute is an educational consultancy.

“Tikvah and I have been thought partners; I could say we learn from each other, but the truth is that really I learn from her,” Ms. Gelsey said. “When I came up with the idea for Community Calls, I bounced it off her. We’ve been brainstorming the whole time.”

Small-group discussions followed the panel, shown above, in a format similar to the one planned for February 25.

She’s also been working with the Teaneck-based Russell Berrie Foundation.

After October 7 and then the war in Gaza, members of the group were able to continue working together, using the relationships they’d already begun to build. “It hasn’t changed anything for us, because we weren’t old enough to change,” Ms. Gelsey said. “We know that it changed our course, but we don’t know how, because we don’t know what that course would have been.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the Jewish world about allies not coming through for us, but my very new relationships stayed. They were there. I got calls from folks. When I reached out to people, they have been responsive. They didn’t turn their backs.

“We have thought leaders who really are committed to intergroup work.”

The group now is thinking about “how we can get to a space where people can be people again. What does difference look like?”

That’s what the February 25 panel will explore. Each of the three panelists has impressive academic and organizational credentials and also is warm, open, and engaging, Ms. Gelsey said. And she is even more excited about the small-group discussions, putting theory into practice, as she is about the panel. As she talks to the community about it, “the reception has been warm, because people are anxious for dialogue. There is some anxiety, but we have to be able to be a little uncomfortable.”

The meeting is open to the entire community, and she hopes that people of different backgrounds will come to talk and listen to each other.

The Idea Institute is partnering with Community Calls for the meeting. “We hope it is a way to spark conversation among people of different faiths and cultures,” Ms. Wiener said. “We think it’s especially important now because people feel very divided. In a time like this, the impulse is to hunker down with your own tribe, but it is the time when you need to reach out and build a bridge with someone else. Even when you know that some of those conversations will be hard.”

But as open as the conversation can be, there is one rock-solid boundary, and that must be stated clearly, Ms. Wiener said.

“We start with the premise that what happened on October 7 was absolute evil. It must be condemned. It must be prevented from ever happening again, to the Jewish people, to any people.

“These acts must be condemned by all civilized people.”

What Community Calls “is aiming for, here in America, is a way for different groups of people to be able to live together,” she continued. “They don’t have to be friends, but they have to live alongside each other in a civil way.”

Sue Gelsey, second from left, joins other members of Community Calls. Calls partner groups in Englewood’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

That means that a central question is “how do we reach civility?” she said. “We have to create it with anyone who wants it. We have to eliminate terrorism, or reduce it to the extent that we can, and build up the structures in society so that they are strong and vibrant and filled with trust.”

Citing a public conversation between the writer Dan Senor, author of “Start-Up Nation,” and the Times of Israel journalist Haviv Rettig Gur, “Israel has weak institutions but a strong society, and America has strong institutions but a weak society,” Ms. Wiener said. Israel’s weak institutions is reflected in the fight over judicial reform, the result of it lacking a constitution; the strength of its society was made clear by the immediate way in which its people overcame their deep political divisions to come together after October 7 and tried to help each other survive and heal.

That comes from a deep sense of “obligation to fellow citizens, as a citizen of the state,” Ms. Wiener said. “Rabbi Sacks”— that’s Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom — “talks about it as a home we build together. A home is a place where you feel an obligation to the people who live in it, whether you like them or not. A civil society is the home we build together.

“So how do we get to this place in America where we feel obligated to each other, instead of feeling that I have this right and I must assert this right? How do we feel obligated to be part of this American experiment?”

October 7 has given American Jews — like Jews around the world — a sense that their position is more precarious than they’d realized. “Post October 7, the question is how does it help the Jews?” Ms. Wiener said. “We are scared. We are awakened to the threats that we face, and we see that some elements of our civil society are working against us. How do we step into a place where we encounter people who are not like us?”

The immediate answer to that question is through groups like Community Calls, but there is a caveat, Ms. Wiener said. “If someone means us harm, if someone is a virulent antisemite, that is not someone who can be in this group.

“Someone who denies the rapes, who denies that October 7 happened — that would be like going to a Holocaust seminar with a Holocaust denier,” she continued. “It would be gaslighting. You wouldn’t be invited to the event if you sympathize with Hamas.”

Even with that boundary, “we have to be willing to have difficult conversations,” Ms. Wiener said.

Community Calls “brings together a group of people who would not have interacted, and gives them a forum to interact, where they can learn about each other.

“We are calling the event on February 25 a dialogue in good faith. You may not agree with everything the other person is saying, but are you coming in good faith, with openness and curiosity and a willingness to grow together?

“There will be a focus on October 7, but the group is a response to the fracturing of American society that occurred before then. This is a response, a way to say that there are people of different faiths and cultures — and people of no faith — who want to come together.

“I don’t want to be overly optimistic. I don’t want to be naïve and foolish. October 7 was eye-opening. We have a lot of work ahead of us as the Jewish people and on the global stage. But I begin to see hope.

“As they say, think globally, act locally. I hope that by having these conversations in our neighborhood, we can begin to restore civility.

“If we don’t try, we’ll never get there.”

Idana Goldberg is the CEO of the Berrie Foundation. “We made the grant to the JCC and the Community Calls initiative in September, before the war,” Dr. Goldberg said. “We understood that building resilience and community relationships before you need them is the best way to do it. It’s the best way for groups that are different from each other to learn to interact with each other and find out about each other’s concerns.

“Obviously we did not anticipate what would happen, but for us, for the foundation, our long-term interest in bridge building and in understanding the resilience of the Jewish community is key to our work.”

She sees JCCs as vital to that work. “The Kaplen JCC is a central hub in northern New Jersey that attracts not just the Jewish community but members from across a diverse set of identities,” she said. “It’s a good home for a program that looks to build relationships through action. Sue explained that by having a council of more than a dozen local community organizations they could identify shared areas of interest and concern, and work together on action projects that could address those issues and then build on them.

“We are in a really fraught time, when sometimes it feels hard to talk about difficult things. The panel that this group is presenting is a model for how to have difficult conversations, by elevating the subject matter.

“We are so glad that this is happening.”


Who: Community Calls

What: Presents “Dialogue in Good Faith,” a panel discussion and interactive conversation

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

When: On Sunday, February 25, at 7 p.m.

Featuring: Panelists Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, Dr. Terrence Johnson of Harvard Divinity School, and Rabbi Hilly Haber of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, moderated by Tikvah Wiener, founder and co-director of the Idea Institute.

For more information:  Email hello@community-calls.org or call (201) 408-1401

To register: Go to www.jccotp.org

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