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Multiple Voices in the Room
Abbe Roth

By: Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies and Campus Life

Dear CJDS Community,

This past week I had the absolute pleasure of attending the iCenter for Israel Education’s biennial gathering, iCON 2018. It was three inspiring days and nights of learning and growing with hundreds of dynamic Jewish educators from across North America and Israel. The goal of the gathering was to “inspire new ideas and groundbreaking paradigms in Israel education.”

We have turned to them many times over the years, and they have been inspirational consultants and tremendously generous with Israel related chomer (resources) for myself and our teachers. The conference I participated in this last week, however, was a gift beyond anything else we have gotten thus far.

Among other takeaways, I have not been able to start thinking of what, for me, was the central message of the conference: in all moments as educators, and especially around our thinking and practice of Israel education, we must have the courage to use our voices and the humility to recognize we are not the only voice in the room.

This message was articulated most emphatically by the incomparable Parker Palmer, the first of three outstanding keynote speakers. On Sunday afternoon, Palmer, an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change, shared these two messages which are central themes in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

His successors on Monday and Tuesday morning, former ambassador to the State of Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro and Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and journalist, echoed this same message from deep within their own experiences living in Israel and America and their roles as spokespeople and, in one way or another, educators for the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds about Israel. 

One of the reasons why this message will stay with me is its inherently contradictory nature: how do we find the courage to use our own voices while also possessing the humility to recognize that ours is not the only voice in the room? I actually find this challenge, that of the holding of paradoxes, to be compelling and generative as an educator.

Shapiro and Halevi underscored an observation others have made: When it comes to Israel, the younger generations of Jews have to hold onto a complex reality, perhaps in ways that we did not at their ages. How do we teach our students to not compromise their own narratives yet remain empathetic to other people?

There is a powerful teaching, generally attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshyscha. It was said of Reb Simcha Bunim that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote, Bishvili nivra ha’olam (“for my sake the world was created”). On the other he wrote, V’anokhi afer v’efer (“I am but dust and ashes”). Knowing the slips were in his pockets, when he needed to be reminded of the courage, he possessed to use his voice or, alternatively, that he must be humble and recognize that he was not the only voice in the room, he would take out the appropriate slip and be nudged back a little towards a healthy equilibrium. 

What if our new paradigm in Israel education was actually an old teaching of Reb Bunim? 

This week’s Torah reading provides another great example of how the inherent contradiction in a paradox can actually help us move forward instead of shutting us down. At the outset of parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Jacob’s famous dream of the ladder. Jacob is in the process of fleeing Esau, of running away, and is the embodiment of the “mover and shaker,” always looking for the next opportunity and, as is befitting of his name, getting a leg up on the situation. Jacob needs to stop moving, to rest, in order for him to see the angels moving up and down above him. At the end of the scene he states, “Behold – God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” God was always there, but Jacob could not see the signs until he laid down, against his inclination, and closed his eyes. The mover, the one who looks outside, had to shut himself off and shut himself down in order to see and be rejuvenated. 

We must find the courage to use our own voices: Let’s steep our students in the texts of our tradition and the history of our people so they can draw from deep reservoirs of Jewish sources in all their diversity and see Jewish history as central, not peripheral, to their lives. 

And we must remember that our voice – that of the parent, the educator, the leader, the previous generation: Let’s continue to create environments where the decision to adopt a particular perspective, all the more so when it is our own perspective, is not the goal. 

As Parker Palmer said, “Our job as educators is to teach our students to live in the conversation and not in the conclusions.” He concluded with a reading of a poem from the late, great Yehuda Amichai, called The Place Where We Are Right.

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

 

Amichai’s final phrases are clear allusions from traditional Jewish sources to the destruction of the Temple and his message is clear: Nothing less than the promise of redemption – whatever that might mean to each of us – emerges not from our surety but from our openness to ideas which are not our own, to loving each other because we are different from each other. 

Our task is to help students live with complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity that don’t have resolutions. Texts, all kinds of texts, become mirrors in which students see reflections of themselves and others, consider what they have seen, and grow in depth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Tamar Cytryn