‘Safe space’ in Maywood for Mideast dialogue
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‘Safe space’ in Maywood for Mideast dialogue

To open communication between those with differing views, the Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood has scheduled three “dialogue” sessions on the Israel-Gaza situation under the leadership of student Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, the congregation’s religious director.

“A dialogue is a conversation in which participants take as their primary goal [the pursuit of] mutual understanding,” said Greenfield. “There is a lot of fear in expressing views outside of the mainstream,” she said. “My responsibility is to encourage people to speak their truths and increase their ability to hear, listen, and communicate.”

Greenfield was trained as a dialogue facilitator by the Jewish Dialogue Group in Philadelphia and is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She is completing her rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

“The reality is that there is a widespread range of views,” Greenfield said. “Mainstream Jewish perspective presents itself as a monolith, but many Jews are struggling to understand what is going on.”

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Student rabbi Jarah Greenfield will lead dialogues on the Israel-Gaza situation at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood. Charles Zusman

Greenfield says the Jewish Dialogue Group has “absolutely no political agenda,” but works to provide a secure environment for discussion. The idea is not to argue, debate, or try to persuade those with differing views, but rather to discuss, listen, and learn.

The Philadelphia group was modeled on the Public Conversations Project in the Boston area (www.publicconversations.org) and was launched at the end of 2001, soon after the second intifada and the 9/11 attack, said Mitch Chanin, director of the Jewish Dialogue Group (www.jewishdialogue.org).

“A lot of people wanted to have discussions that were difficult to have,” he said. “Where people are in conflict and they want to open up, they might come to us.”

The group’s trained volunteer facilitators foster a sheltered forum where views can be expressed without fear. The ground rules say learn from others, reflect on your own views, but don’t try to bring the others to your viewpoint, Chanin explained.

Viewpoints among the Maywood congregation span the spectrum, from the right, where media coverage is seen as presenting Israeli actions in a negative light, and the left, where some Israeli action is seen as violating human rights, Greenfield said.

Argument and debate are certainly not new to Jewish life, where opinions abound and are often expressed with fervor. Take Israeli politics, for example. But the concept of reasoned dialogue is also deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, Greenfield said.

“The mark of wisdom is being able to learn from every individual you encounter,” Greenfield said, paraphrasing a Talmud passage.

Chanin offered another passage: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. As it is said: ‘From all who would teach me I have gained understanding.'”

The Maywood dialogues on the Israel-Gaza situation are scheduled for Feb. 22, March 1, and March 8. The group size is limited to eight or nine, Greenfield said, and the first two are for members of the congregation. The third session is open to others, but an RSVP is required via e-mail to rabbi@rtbi-online.org.

“The dialogues are a platform for diverse voices we don’t always hear,” said Caryn Starr-Gates, membership chair at the temple. “We are honored to host this program, we are all about embracing diversity.”

The dialogue is a process of self-discovery, Greenfield said, and a new awareness may surface even months after the session. Greenfield said she would like to see the process take root, with more sessions, and perhaps adult education classes focused on Israeli issues. She hopes participants will spread their new awareness.

Participants must agree to the ground rules. Also, questions should be asked out of curiosity rather than to challenge another’s viewpoint, Greenfield said, and participants must avoid negative statements about individuals or groups.

Interruptions are not allowed. Those who are reluctant about speaking must agree to step up more and give their views, while the more vocal of the participants must agree to step back a bit and listen more, Greenfield explained.

Confidentiality is a key ingredient, and participants agree not to attribute statements to those taking part. “So it’s a safe space,” Greenfield said.

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