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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What began years ago has now become a very common event in our Delta community of Greenwood, Mississippi: we host a group from “somewhere else” as they tour the Jewish South.
The groups are diverse, find their way to Greenwood and the South for many different reasons. In recent years, as a Board Member of the ISJL and through my association with Rachel Jarman Myers—this thriving experience has grown and become something I’m proud to be part of with increasing frequency.
This past spring we hosted a number of groups. Two of my favorites were a congregational group from Syracuse, New York, led by Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord; the other was The University of Maryland’s Hillel organization. The Syracuse group was a warm, enthusiastic community that connected with our own. I received a lovely letter from the rabbi following their visit. Our shared love for our Jewish community was so evident, throughout the visit and in our communication thereafter.
The coordinator for the Hillel group, Amy Weiss, became a great email friend of mine as she planned this wonderful Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Mississippi Delta. Led by Corinne Bernstein, Anna Koozmin, and Noah Stein, a total of 14 young folks flew into Memphis and spent a full week in Mississippi. The trip represented a combination of service, experience, culture, Judaism, and fellowship. Our family farm in Carroll County served as their “base camp,” providing a wonderful refuge after each day’s service to the community.
The group invited our family and our shul members to Friday night dinner and services at our farm. The evening was just amazing… from the food, the fellowship, the services, and most importantly, sharing Shabbos with our new friends.
T. Mac Howard, founder of Delta Streets Academy, an initiative that identifies and mentors at-risk young African American men, was one of the Hillel group’s favorite work sites. An email introduction between T. Mac and Amy parlayed into a working relationship between the two groups.
The school benefited, the Hillel group experienced a component of life most had never seen, and connections were established that will all be for good. It was a win–win, and the perfect Tikkun Olam for the Hillel group.
Greenwood is a natural place to stop because of the amenities available: The 5-star boutique Alluvian Hotel and a variety of restaurant opportunities rival anywhere in the South, and the charm of our small community is unparalleled. Ahavath Rayim, our Greenwood synagogue, was founded in 1907; more than 100 years later, we continue to gather and we fully participate in Jewish life—Delta Style.
In addition to touring our shul, both groups were treated to a “walking tour” of Downtown Greenwood by Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a noted historian and author. Greenwood is surrounded by three rivers and for decades has been known as the Cotton Capital of the World. The Jewish presence in our community is wide-spread.
What’s the value of the experience? The values are as diverse as the groups we host.
To understand that a Jewish community does exist in the Jewish South, to experience some of the sites, like the BB King Museum in Indianola, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and to visit the offices and meet the staff of the ISJL are all important components of the experience.
What’s so special to me is the relationship that we develop with these groups—although some we will never see again, we still form lasting bonds. The understanding and the conversations that we engage in as a result of these encounters are meaningful. To expose our “guests” to the Jewish life we live every day is important. We are unskilled and untrained ambassadors for our Judaism, as we reach out to the predominately non-Jewish world of the South. Hopefully, the “outreach” of these trips in small measure—makes this world a better place.
And if you’re interested in your own Southern Jewish Experience trip, contact Rachel Jarman Myers!
Get ready, sports fans! It’s time for Mensch Madness, Round 2, and the Men’s Semi-Finals with Moses (1) taking on Hillel (3)!
We’ve got a sold out crowd here in the arena today, as our number one seed takes on an underdog winner! Seemingly everyone is on Hillel’s bandwagon, with a large contingent of college students filing their way into the stands. Moses, however, seems to have the celebrity backing, as everyone from Maimonides to Mendelssohn has been spotted sporting light-up promotional toy “staffs.”
Let’s check out some quick background on our teams. Michael Shapiro’s preseason rankings had Moses listed as the #1 most influential Jew of all time, whereas Hillel the elder just barely cracked the top twenty-five.[i] Don’t be fooled by his nickname “The Elder” – Hillel is actually significantly younger than Moses. Some people have some concerns about Moses’ knees and how they’ll hold up over the length of the entire post-season, especially considering his most recent ACL surgery.
Our guest referee for this game is Dwayne Johnson, and he wastes no time in tossing the ball up to start the game. Immediately, Moses jumps out to a huge lead. When he raises the ball in his arms, he has a clear avenue to the basket since, for some reason, Team Hillel stands in two rows and just watches Moses blast by. In a surprising move, Moses has elected to play barefoot. We got reports that say he took off his shoes after a local fan said something like: “You’re playing in the Garden! For Bostonians, you’re standing on holy ground!” This situation has not slowed his pace at all, as Moses continues his blistering barrage.
But, what’s this? As we near the half, Moses has charged off into the stands. Hillel begins to score at will! Where did Moses go?! We’ve just got word, our sideline reporter informs us that Moses saw an underage sheep wander off toward the beer concessions and is now carrying the animal back to the proper seat on his shoulders.[ii]
That’s the halftime buzzer. In a shocking surprise, Team Hillel is up, 34-40.
Our teams have returned from the locker and Moses looks angrier than when the taskmaster whipped that slave. We’ve gotten word he got quite the halftime pump-up, since the “Chairman of the Board,” Big Mo stormed into the locker room to give an inspirational speech. We’ll see if he bestowed any “championship knowledge” onto his namesake. Hillel starts out with the ball and is moving in a sluggish manner. I think this team may have scarfed too many matzah sandwiches in the locker room. Moreover, Moses’ face is shining so bright for some reason! Team Hillel seems to now be employing the “hack-a-shaw” method, swinging blindly nowhere near the ball… hitting Moses’ arms. I’m almost sure those are fouls, but for some reason still no whistles. Tired of not getting any calls, Moses has gone over to confront our referee. Holy Smoke! Moses has hit The Rock! That’s a technical foul, you cannot put your hands on a referee. That will give Team Hillel an opportunity to hit some free throws and have one last chance at a miracle upset. He hits both of them!
Here we go folks, we’re about to find out if, down by one, Hillel can overcome his renown calm demeanor and upset Team Moses! They inbound the ball to Hillel and, wait, a court side fan has asked him to explain the entire Torah on one foot. He’s completed that with barely two seconds left on the clock! He begins to move the ball down the floor…
TWEEEEEEET! Referee Johnson has blown the whistle. We have a call! Yes, that’s a double dribble! Moses’ Ball! Moses’ Ball! The game will end on a technicality! This is the worst playoff blunder since Chris Webber, folks.
That’s all from us here at WJEW Sports Radio. Our headline of the night:
MOSES MARCHES CLOSER TO THE PROMISED LAND. WILL PLAY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP!