The Wisdom of Elder Dialogue

It has long been my firm belief that big problems cannot be solved without dialogue. Since my business, Systems Change Consulting, is to help solve big problems, I have spent the past two years working to expand the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayimhosted a few Jewish Dialogue sessions for our members, nearly 2 years ago, I recognized the need to expand this remarkable process, which allows for all opinions to be shared and understood by all participants, to the larger Madison Jewish community. To that end, I was able to convince the other 2 Madison synagogues, Temple Beth El and Beth Israel Center, as well as the Jewish Federation of Madison and the UW-Hillel to co-sponsor 3 dialogue sessions that were held during April-May, 2014.

Those sessions were so well received, that we submitted a Social Innovation grant to the Jewish Federation of Madison, which agreed to fund monthly dialogue sessions during 2015. These sessions have been held in a variety of locations around Madison and continue to be well received. Some of the sessions have targeted specific segments of Madison’s Jewish community, such as University of Wisconsin students and Board members of the sponsoring Jewish organizations.

But, last night’s session was truly remarkable. As many elders are unable to travel, we decided to convene a session at Capitol Lakes, an independent living retirement community. Unlike all of our other sessions, where we adhered to a fairly strict advance registration policy to ensure that the sessions did not get too large to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Capitol Lakes social worker informed us that advanced registration would not be practical there, and we could not exclude any of their residents who wanted to attend.

So, I worked closely with our Rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, and our facilitator, Harry Webne-Behrman, to modify our typical dialogue arrangement in order to prepare for what Capitol Lakes expected would be 30-35 attendees. Rather than place everyone in a circle, as was our usual practice, we decided to set up tables for 4 participants to talk with each other.

I arrived early to make sure the room was set up appropriately, and to make final plans with Harry. As elders often do, participants started showing up 20 minutes before the scheduled starting time. I had fascinating discussions with one gentleman from Ireland, who clearly remembers the radio announcement of the Germans invading Poland, and another who shared a joke about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As the room filled, we quickly realized that we needed to add more tables, as over 50 residents had joined us.

Cap Lakes Dialogue

Harry did his typically wonderful job informing everyone that the purpose of the session was to learn from and understand each other. After all, this was a dialogue, not a debate. The participants revealed themselves to include many who had been to Israel, some who had lived there, and many who had never travelled there. Their views were from across the political spectrum.

Participants included both Jews and non-Jews. At one point, one non-Jew asked whether she and other non-Jews were welcome, and we informed her that everyone was welcome. To my great pleasure, one of the Jewish participants told everyone that she felt the dialogue was enriched by having both Jews and non-Jews attend. Indeed, as Harry and I wandered around the room, we witnesses everyone deeply engaged in meaningful dialogue.

No, we did not bring peace to the Middle East last night. But 50 elders engaged in meaningful dialogue and learned a lot from each other. Many thought that educating Israeli and Palestinian youth together was the long-term answer, though others expressed skepticism that the current generation, with so much history of conflict, could provide appropriate educational models for the next generation. Fortunately, there are some successful examples of such Israeli-Palestinian schools, which were shared with the group.

It is my belief that through dialogue, these elders made achieving peace one step closer to reality. We have submitted a grant application to continue these dialogue sessions next year, when we hope to deepen the sessions to explore specific hot-button topics such as settlements, water rights, the Iran nuclear deal, and boycott, divestment and sanctions. If the grant is funded, I look forward to returning to Capitol Lakes once again to learn more from these elders.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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