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.
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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With the recent violence and escalation in the Middle East, my mind is on Israel. With every report of a rocket falling or a siren blaring, my heart skips a beat. It’s so close to home.
I spent last year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, while living in Jerusalem. I have close friends and family in Israel right now, and feel a deep sense of sadness and worry for what they are living through.
And my friends are not all Israeli.
While in Israel, I volunteered with organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Encounter. These experiences led me to make meaningful connections with young Palestinians living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. I want to tell you about one of my friends. I want to share her story, because I believe that it’s important to make room for voices to be heard.
Haya and I met about six months ago, when I participated in an Encounter trip to the West Bank. She was speaking on a panel, and talked about the politics of being a young woman living in Hebron. We chatted for a while after the panel, a little about politics but mostly about college and Miley Cyrus. Haya is currently studying English literature at the University of Hebron.
I visited Haya a few times after we met. She showed me around Hebron, and her University. I met her friends and she took me to her favorite shops in town. When I heard news that the IDF was looking for the men that abducted and killed three young yeshiva students in and around Hebron, I reached out to her. I heard several reports of house demolitions, road blocks, curfews, and so on, but I wasn’t really certain what was happening on the ground.
She lives in a suburb of Hebron, so I didn’t really think anything would be bad in her immediate proximity. Her family is middle-class, and they are all peace activists. Her parents came to the same discussion I met Haya at, and stayed for dinner after. Her father, a small and joyful man, asked me if I had any Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I told him no. Immediately, brimming with excitement, he responded, “Now you have one!”
So as this latest escalation of tensions began, I texted Haya: “Are you okay?”
All she responded, after moments of typing back was, “Not really.”
I pushed her: “What’s going on?”
“There are settlers and soldiers everywhere. They closed all the entrances and exits.” She was confined to her house. Then after moments of silence, she added, “It’s going to be a tough night.”
She continued to tell me about how the soldiers searched her neighbor’s house, that they were searching all the houses in the neighborhood, that hers was probably next. That she was afraid. Then the tear gas came and she described the smell to me, and how even though she was inside the smell was so strong. She said, “I hate it.”
I tried to imagine smelling tear gas in my own home. I cringed. I couldn’t really imagine it.
Haya and I are a similar age, have the same taste in music, watch the same TV shows, have friends in common. Yet we are worlds apart. I listened as she told me about the soldiers that would forcefully enter her house and ransack it. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. As we work towards a better future, one filled with peace and lovingkindness, we must reach out to those unknown to us and listen to their stories attentively. We must share our own in return. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than or us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”
This notion is a Jewish one, too. Pirkei Avot 6:5 teaches us “Torah is acquired by means of 48 qualities [including] attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding…deliberation… asking and answering, listening, and contributing to the discussion.” As we continue to pray for the safety of friends and family in Israel, it’s important to remain open to hearing personal narratives. These stories are what help make the events “real,” and allow us to see the real life people impacted by conflict on a daily basis.
Let us listen to these narratives, value these friendships, and pray for peace for everyone. Everyone.
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