Diaspora Gathering

My wife and I just returned from spending over 2 weeks in Israel. This trip was not your typical tourist trip. In fact, with the exception of one night in Mitzpe Ramon, home to the gigantic and beautiful Ramon Craterwe spent every other night staying with family and friends.

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Sculpture overlooking the Ramon Crater

Our son, Josh, is in his second year of college at the TechnionIsrael’s Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and this was our first opportunity to visit him there. He plays hockey with the Haifa Hawks, and coincidentally, the first thing we did on our arrival was watch him play hockey.

Josh also led us on a walk on  the beach of the last Arabic town on the Israeli Mediterranean, Jisr al Zarkawhere beauty, history and poverty are all intertwined.

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Fisherman pulling in their net on the beach at Jisr al Zarka

In addition, my mother and her husband are spending the winter in Netanya, where they have spent every winter except last year for the past 12 years, and we spent most of our nights with them. It was a pleasure to spend quality time with them in the place that has become their home away from home.

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My mother Rachel and her husband Peter

As I reflect back on what was primarily a visiting trip, I realize that, like most Jews, while my family is spread around the world in what is known as the diaspora, as they fled oppression in Europe prior to the Holocaust, Israel is the place where some of the family with whom I am closest as well as childhood and college friends, have returned and made a life for themselves.

Part of my family fled Europe, but were not allowed into the United States to join the rest of their family in the 1930s, so they settled in Mexico. One of my Mexican cousins, Isaac (Pelon) Leventhal, immigrated to Israel when he was 18 years old in the early 1970s. After meeting him in Mexico City at his sister’s wedding just before he emigrated, I have visited him numerous times in Israel from 1976 through this most recent trip. As he and I have grown older, we have married and had children, and now he and his lovely wife Eli, have 8 grandchildren. Our son has had the opportunity to get to know these cousins better while he studies in Israel, and we were able to visit all of their homes and families during our stay. The warmth of my Israeli family will stay with me for the rest of my life even though time and distance separates us.

I even had the opportunity to visit friends on Kibbutz Ein Gev, where I volunteered during the winter of 1979-80, while my cousins Pelon & Eli lived there. Coincidentally, a friend from England, whom I volunteered with so many years ago, was visiting the kibbutz at the same time we were there and we had a small reunion with our friend and kibbutznik Uzi.

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At the end of our trip, we traveled to Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem to stay with an old college friend, Richard and his lovely wife Michal. They led us on a beautiful hike on Har Eitan, after which we traveled into the city of Jerusalem to visit an old childhood friend, Galia, and her husband Roni for lunch.

It is truly an understatement to describe Israel as one of the most controversial nations in the world. Almost everyone has strong feelings about it, both positive and negative, and while I love that Israel has provided refuge for millions of Jews, including family and friends, it saddens me that Israel has been unable to resolve its generations old conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Due to my love of Israel and hope for its survival as a just, peaceful and democratic state, I have taken on a leadership role in advocating for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by becoming Chair of the Madison chapter of J Street, which advocates for a two state solution to resolve the conflict. My advocacy is quite public so both my family and friends in Israel are quite aware of my positions, most of whom do not agree with me.

Despite our political disagreements, our love for each other is not diminished. In fact, my choice to repeatedly visit family and friends in Israel to maintain our relationships and better understand their lives there serves to enhance our relationship. On a few occasions during our recent trip, both friends and family were clear that they disagreed with my positions, but I often successfully found small, but important points where we did have common ground. Equally important, our disagreements never interfered with our ability to have warm and loving relationships.

As I reflect back on how my friends, family and I can agree to disagree, and not let that poison our relationships, I hope that the lessons I learned in Israel can be applied to the often poisonous political conflict in the US. After all, when friends and family can love each other despite their disagreements, one realizes that one warm hug can overcome virtually any political dispute.

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

 

Tikkun Olam-Repair of the World

Every day we encounter problems that cry out for Tikkun Olama Jewish concept that means repair of the world. As a founding member and President of my synagogue,  Shaarei Shamayim, who has dedicated my professional career towards Tikkun Olam, congregants regularly ask me for advice on what they can do to help repair the world. Such requests have increased significantly since the last election.

Globe with Bandaid/Plaster Over U.S.A/North America

Fortunately, my synagogue has a spiritual leader, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, who is also dedicated to Tikkun Olam, and our congregation gladly supports her efforts. However, she knows that it is not enough for her to speak out or take action on issues by herself. Members of our congregation and our community must do so as well, if genuine repair of the world is to occur.

Shortly after the election, we were privileged to have one of our members, Ruth Conniff, the editor of the Progressive magazine, talk to our members about the election results. Her talk inspired many of our congregants to look for ways to get directly involved in Tikkun Olam. Rabbi Laurie convened a number of meetings to determine how best to facilitate the desire of so many members to do good work in our community. I am very pleased to report that we now have now formed 4 projects available to our members:

  • Friends of the State Street Family-providing food and other assistance to people who are homeless in our community.
  • Circles of Support-working with Madison Urban Ministry to provide support to individuals leaving the prison system and returning to our community. I am joining other members of our congregation to participate in this project.
  • Jewish Social Services Resettling Refugees Project-through which our members will help provide assistance to 50 new refugees to our community.
  • Protecting Vulnerable Communities – Reflection, Advocacy, and Action-a group that will look for ways to protect vulnerable communities that may come under attack in the coming days, weeks and years.

For some, it may be difficult to take time out of their busy lives to get directly involved in such projects. Many have realized that it is also important to provide financial support to organizations who are doing good work. I have provided links to the groups our Congregation is working directly with who can certainly use financial support. Recently, I responded to a congregant who was looking for Jewish groups who were taking on the important task of Tikkun Olam as she wanted guidance to provide financial support to them. While there are many such groups, in addition to the groups mentioned above, I also informed her about the following laudable organizations:

  • T’ruah-the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
  • Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS)-HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.
  • American Jewish World Service-a community of Jewish global citizens committed to repairing the world.
  • New Israel Fund-Invests in hundreds of Israeli organizations whose work changes the equation on civil rights, on religious freedom, and on social justice. Also organizes, advocates, trains, and convenes to build a community committed to a vision of a democratic, just, and equal Israel.

Of course there are many more projects and organizations which provide ways in which to engage in Tikkun Olam and no one can engage in all of them. So, pick one or more if you are able, and do your part to repair the world. In helping others, you will feel better for doing so.

Although there is much to fear about the unsettled state of our world, I am inspired on a daily basis by the amount of energy that is going into all the work needed to make our world a better place despite the ominous forebodings that surround us. Together, we will repair this world.

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

When Right and Wrong are not the Answer

As I watch with dismay the deteriorating situation in Gaza and Israel, I am further dismayed by the deteriorating level of discourse between those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians.  As one author recently wrote:

there’s also an especially pernicious kind of tribalism that pervades the Israel-Palestine debate within the US-one that turns issues of fact into tests that determine whether or not you’re the right kind of person.

I have watched this kind of debate play out in my nearly 3 decades as a systems change civil rights attorney where one or both sides in litigation is more interested in vilifying the other side and making it pronounce its mea culpas than it is in resolving the dispute at hand.  In these cases, I need to remind my clients that civilized systems of justice were developed to replace vigilante justice and that they should keep their eye on the prize of solving the problem at hand rather than securing their pound of flesh. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Jewish.  I made my first visit to Israel in 1976, volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Gev (pictured below on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights which prior to 1967 allowed Syrians to literally drop bombs from the hill above it on the kibbutz below) working side-by-side with Israeli Jews and Arabs and non-Jewish volunteers from around the world during the winter of 1979-80, and have returned many times since to visit family and friends and attend 2 cousins’ weddings.

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I am also the Vice-President and one of the founding members of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and the chair of J Street‘s Madison chapter.  With both of these hats on, I have successfully helped to create safe space for meaningful dialogue in my community about this issue and continue to work to expand that dialogue.

But despite my efforts and those of many other peace loving individuals around the world, the debate remains largely unproductive at best and vicious at worst while Israel and Hamas continue to lob bombs at each other.  Historians and diplomats may one day be able to judge why this battle has remained so pernicious for so long but one thing remains clear: peace will not come to Israel and the Palestinians because one side convinces the other side that its version of history is right and its opponent’s version is wrong.

Indeed, perhaps because both sides insist that the other side capitulate to its version of history, the battle rages on.  The question, then, is how can this vicious cycle end?  After all, the killing and recrimination has gone on for decades and no solution seems at hand.

So, too, was the situation in Northern Ireland for decades where religious and nationalist warfare raged for decades killing thousands of people.  Ultimately, it was civilian mothers who founded the Community of Peace People in 1976 ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to the decades known as the “Troubles.” One thing worth noting is though the ongoing terrorism in Northern Ireland has ended, not all the conflict is over.  But despite the remaining disputes, overall peace presides in this once troubled land with significant economic benefit to the people in the region.

Resolving the Troubles in Northern Ireland did not resolve the historical debate over who was right and who was wrong.  Nor did it make Catholics & Protestants all love and forgive each other. So, too, peace will only come between Israel and the Palestinians when their people demand it from their leaders and both sides let go of insisting that they are right and the other side is wrong.

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

Creating Safe Space for Meaningful Dialogue

Sadly, we now live in a world in which those who engage in political debate often spend more time shouting at each other and insulting opposing views and opponents, than actually listening to and learning from each other.  In the American Jewish community, this lack of meaningful dialogue is particularly acute when the topic is Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. This problem has erupted in a major way in many college campus Hillel chapters.  At the University of California-Berkeley, the Jewish Student Union recently voted to deny membership to J Street U, marking a low point in refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Jews about Israel and its conflict with Palestinians.  However, not all Hillel chapters have been so closed minded.  Indeed, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel recently welcomed the establishment of a J Street U chapter.

Fortunately, there is an organization which is dedicated to providing a safe forum for Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians. The Jewish Dialogue Group trains facilitators to convene groups of Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians.  It has no agenda to sway participants to one point of view or another.  Rather, its agenda is allow Jews to understand each other better and to learn from each other.  To that end it has published a Manual for Facilitators, Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which you can read and download for free, or purchase a printed copy. It has also recently published a, Guidebook for Deliberation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is also available as to read or download for free, or for purchase in print.

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Last year, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, convened a number of facilitated Jewish Dialogue sessions, and I was pleased to be able to attend one of them. The session provided what it promised, a safe and meaningful dialogue where participants not only learned each other’s views, but of equal importance, learned more about their own true feelings because they were able to express them safely in ways that may not have been available to them in the past.

Based on the success of my own congregation’s dialogue sessions, last fall, I made the decision to try to broaden Jewish Dialogue in Madison to the entire Jewish community.  I felt that the best way to do so was to obtain co-sponsorship of all the major Jewish organizations in Madison.  I am pleased to report that after many discussions, the Jewish Federation of Madison, UW-Hillel, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, have all agreed to join Shaarei Shamayim in co-sponsoring 3 Jewish Dialogue sessions in late April and early May.

The sessions are free, but in order to participate, one must register by April 1st. So, if you are Jewish and you live in the Madison area and can attend a Jewish Dialogue session on April 23, April 30, or May 1st, please register by April 1st.  I assure you that if you participate, you will grow from the experience and learn important skills about how to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue, something our world sorely needs at present.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.