Jewish Education at The Davidson School

Jewish Dialogue Group - Opening A Can Of Worms

by Aharon Varady 



How can one successfully facilitate a group of Jews discussing matters of heated conflict? For too many, the experience of talking with family, friends, or other community members about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exhausting. "Opening a can of worms," as one participant of the recent Jewish Dialogue Group facilitator workshop described it. Ten participants from the Davidson School attended the three-hour workshop this past Sunday, April 21st, to help them help others engage the diversity, complexity, nuance, and humanity of controversial topics.


For over ten years the Jewish Dialogue Group (JDG), led by its founding director and trained mediator Mitch Chanin, has taught community members how to facilitate small groups meeting together to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Facilitators in these conversations help to protect the conversation, keep participants speaking within pre-established time constraints and a common communication agreement.


The communication agreement -- agreed upon and discussed in advance of the dialogue -- becomes the common article through which speakers are empowered to share their opinion knowing other will "hang in" with resilient listening so long as they speak for themselves and their own experiences. Most challenging to the goals of many, participants are encouraged through the communication agreement to avoid criticizing the views of other participants or to speak with a goal of persuasion.


Jewish tradition places a strong value of listening as part of siaḥ (שיח, conversation), both of which are understood as defining elements of Jewish prayer. But what activities, exercises, and skills can Jews practice to help them better listen and converse with one another, and especially the Other -- the one we disagree with?


The danger for Jewish educators avoiding controversial topics is that the conversation within the Jewish community can become paralyzed. When social networks organize around shared opinion, listening skills atrophy and there may even be the danger of radical ideas becoming normalized in echo chambers where only the same ideas and opinions are circulated without challenge or critique.