Category Archives: Community Engagement

Big Questions Vs. Hard Questions

At this year’s ISJL Education Conference, I helped lead a session about “Conflict Transformation.” The term is used to describe a response to conflict whereby our goal isn’t to view conflict as something negative that has to be quashed, but as a positive opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships.

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With that in mind, I was delighted to see “The Questions We Share,” an article in last week’s New York Times highlighting the work of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions, an initiative that aims to foster constructive conversations among students. The goal is to make room for everyone’s knowledge, beliefs and opinions while ensuring that people are genuinely listening to each other. At the core of this initiative distinguishes between hard and big questions.

In the article, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, co-founder of Ask Big Questions, clarifies the difference between hard and big questions: “A hard question…requires special knowledge to answer. A ‘big question,’ by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”

He demonstrates his point by using the following example: If one were to start a discussion about the Middle East that attempts to uncover how we can bring peace to the Middle East, it is very likely that the conversation will be limited to the people who have the most knowledge and passion regarding the issue. Rather than fostering a dialogue, it is likely to turn into a debate and create a rather hostile environment. Instead, the Ask Big Questions model focuses on building empathy around shared issues by asking questions that establish trust and invite everyone’s input. A potential question could be “How do you feel when you are a part of a conversation that turns to the Middle East?”

In the South, Jewish individuals are often seen as representing “the Jewish view,” though of course no individual Jew can speak for all Jews. When asked hard questions, it can be helpful to re-frame the question, so that you are able to talk about personal experiences rather than responding for all Jews. In this way, and in many others, big questions can generate informative and authentic discussions.

Hillel put together this conversation guide for facilitators who are leading a discussion centered on “Big Questions”. The guide is based on teachings from the Center for Civic Reflection. I encourage you to download it—and use it!

What are some hard questions your community has grappled with? Can you think of a big question that would encourage people to share related feelings and experiences?

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Posted on August 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“Chosen” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Apart”

moses-looking-promised-land

As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.

At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:

“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”

In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.

So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?

Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.

I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.

“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”

We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.

Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.

Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest.  Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.

I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:

Before the gate has been closed,

before the last question is posed,

before I am transposed.

Before the weeds fill the gardens,

before there are no pardons,

before the concrete hardens.

Before all the flute-holes are covered,

before things are locked in the cupboard,

before the rules are discovered.

Before the conclusion is planned,

before God closes his hand,

before we have nowhere to stand.

-Yehuda Amichai

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on August 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Operation Oneg: A Southern & Jewish Soldier Story

10527579_10152386621819900_688915388354685383_nLast week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.

Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.

We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.

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Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!

(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)

The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.

Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.

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Posted on July 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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