In Israel and at home, a new perspective

BY LARRY LEVIN, PUBLISHER/CEO

Did you ever visit one of those exhibits at a children’s museum where you reach your hands into an enclosed box, and with the benefit of touch but not sight, try to not only identify, but communicate, what’s inside?

It’s hard, isn’t it? We’re so accustomed to utilizing our eyes for recognition that the exercise of employing hands to “talk” to our brain about what we’re experiencing is difficult, and sometimes impossible. And then the task of communicating our unique perspective to another makes the likelihood of creating a shared reality that much more difficult.

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The goal of acquiring new tools for perceiving the world, and creating shared understandings, was at the heart of two recent major initiatives of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

One of the programs occurred on the ground in Israel, one was local to St. Louis. And I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in both.

The first, a weeklong mission to Israel in February with major support from the Lubin-Green Foundation, exposed 10 local agency executives to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, and challenged us to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated view of the country and of Jewish peoplehood.

The second, a leadership training workshop — a collaboration of the Federation’s JProStl (which also receives major funding from Lubin-Green) and the Coro Foundation –taught execs a methodology for broadening our viewpoints as a way to more effectively plan and better manage Jewish agencies.

When I was asked months ago to participate in these programs, there was no way I could have then imagined how their goals would dovetail. By the time I had experienced both, their commonalities seemed glaringly obvious.

The conclusion? My perceptions had changed. The programs did exactly what they were intended to do.

Fostering understanding

I’ll not provide the full theoretical construct of the Coro leadership program, lest I both get it wrong and lose you in abstraction. Suffice it to say that at the root of the training is a recognition that when we communicate about things, we do so bringing our own unique sets of life circumstances to the table. And that only by honestly recognizing that our own perception and communication about what we experience is not equivalent to the thing itself — or in Coro parlance, “the map is not the territory” — can we start to understand different perspectives from our own, and to communicate based on that understanding.

While the primary goal of the workshop was to help us better navigate our own organizational planning and work efforts, the experience left me better understanding what I experienced in Israel.

For one who was never privileged to go there previously, Israel was elusive to me, both intellectually and viscerally. Despite well-designed and executed briefings our group had for months leading up to the trip, I still felt alarmingly na ïve. Sure, I read much of the literature provided, and kept up with the daily Israel news, but putting the pieces together remained an unsolvable puzzle.

But I could only attribute part of my labyrinthine perception of Israel to not having visited. In many ways, I shared a reality of many American Jews who have relied on institutional groups and leaders to tell us what we should think about Israel. What our political views should be, how our romanticized visions should look, how the American-Israeli relationship should be defined.

As we know from so many aspects of our current culture, this reliance on a “top-down” institutional model no longer works very well. Through the Web and virtually instantaneous communication via Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, people can experience one second and convey their perception the next. They don’t need to be told what they should think; they’re telling each other what to think, and at lightning pace.

This doesn’t mean there’s no place for education, analysis and smart information dissemination, of course. What it does mean, however, is that respect must be given for the difference between “the territory” and “the map”. Rather than force-feeding a limited perspective, sharing a variety of perspectives that allows the recipient to “pick and choose” seems to be a much more realistic and successful model for effective communication and connection.

And so it was with our trip. The vision of the mission — initiated by agency executives and fleshed out and implemented by Federation staffers led by Executive Vice President Barry Rosenberg, in conjunction with United Jewish Communities’ Israel office — was all about broadening perspectives. Among the goals:

“Deepen personal knowledge and engagement with Israel…Better define the place of Israel in their own lives…Improved ability to talk about/interpret key Israeli issues (security/ peace process/image/minority rights/pluralism/social issues)…create opportunities for agency engagement/partnership/projects in/with Israel.”

This notion of creating a wide spectrum of touchpoints related to the particular agency’s work, is consistent with a more modern and relevant approach to Israel and Jewish peoplehood connections. This trend is exhibited with such programs as Focus Israel, which in 12 North American cities is helping members of Jewish synagogues and organizations better define what Israel engagement means to them. Not on someone else’s terms, but on their own, whether through the arts, culture, the economy, technology, or whatever else appeals to individuals.

So it was that a major component of our trip comprised four sessions facilitated by members of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom project on Israel Engagement. During those sessions we had terrific dialogue about what form engagements can take in various constituencies, and how being sensitive to those connections can help create more intelligent and emotional bonds between the Diaspora and Israel.

The diversity of our schedule and programs demonstrates the power of this multi-faceted model. Some examples:

* Briefings in Jerusalem about both external and internal politics (made more interesting by us being there during the national elections) and social issues by governmental and think tank leaders;

* Shared social and professional experiences in the Partnership2000 Yokne’am-Megiddo region that serves as St. Louis’ (and Atlanta’s) sister community;

* A visit to a kibbutz and the resident center for Israeli-Arab cooperation;

* A tour of the relatively new “Secular Yeshiva” in Tel Aviv that creates a new padradigm for studying Talmud in conjunction with community service;

* An educational visit to the border fence region between Israel and the West Bank, just a couple miles from Jenin, a town well reported as a hotbed of terrorist mobilization;

In most of these sessions, even if the presenters had a particular point of view, they were quick to acknowledge the validity of other perspectives. The openness of the dialogue sent a very clear message, at least to me – the presenters were far less interested in forcing a particular perception and far more interested in providing context, history, data and discussion to allow for — in fact, to encourage — personal reflection and engagement.

Reflections on return

In some ways, the modern construct of engagement rather than persuasion has some definite advantages to me as a journalist.

I came home not feeling that anyone told me how to think, or what to conclude, about particular issues involving Israel or Jewish peoplehood. But the message was instead this: As an American Jew, as a St. Louis Jewish agency professional, and as the publisher of a Jewish newspaper, I should think about them, talk about them and encourage dialogue about them.

I actually embraced that message wholeheartedly before the trip; I just didn’t know enough to ask challenging and important questions. Now I know better, as I developed a much broader understanding of many issues, and the benefit of new professional and personal relationships in Israel through which to explore ideas further and in more depth.

My ability to appreciate more and different “maps” of the “territories” of Israel and Jewish peoplehood was substantially enhanced by this visit.

The process of finding many connective points by which Israel becomes more accessible will inevitably help the ongoing effort to discuss Jewish peoplehood in these pages.