The Conversations We Need to Be Having: A Message from Our CEO

By Gil Preuss

This is conference season in the Jewish community. Many organizations will be holding major events and meetings, and important business will get done. I’ve attended hundreds of these gatherings and learned a great deal from them, but I can’t shake the sense that when we meet, we don’t really talk about what is truly important.

I wonder about the discussions we’re not having – whether on the panels, in the plenaries or in the hallways.

No, I’m not talking about the latest and the most urgent issues we face, whether in Jewish identity, diaspora-Israel relations, #metoo, the strength of our institutions or something else.

It’s not the content that’s missing.

It’s the conversation itself.

The problem, as I see it, is we are too quick to shut off and dismiss those with whom we disagree. We literally won’t listen to people who hold views that are different from our own, no matter the issue. I don’t think the Jewish community is alone in having this problem – but it’s getting in the way of our critical work.

As a community, we’re good at getting together. We’re good at responding to crises. We’re not good at listening to each other. None of us is innocent here. I know that there are times when I will steer clear of someone who I know just wants a debate. It’s natural – we prefer not to be browbeaten.

But all too often, we let that reluctance take over, and we stick to the same discussions with the same people – those who agree with us. Since we know that we are not going to change the other person’s views, we simply avoid a conversation or argument.

In today’s world, this issue is exacerbated by the way we control the information we get – we set up our own newsfeeds from sources we agree with, we participate in the echo chamber of our Facebook friends’ posts, and we are selective of the tweets we favorite and share. We wind up reading and seeing things that validate our beliefs.

I wonder what would happen if we took the time at conferences, meetings and other communal gatherings to have conversations with people on topics where there is no agreement and no hope of reaching one. What if we created an expectation that you can have opposing points of views, and still listen? What if people knew that they wouldn’t be shunned for saying something unpopular?

We would certainly gain a better appreciation of the diversity of thought and we would definitely strengthen the fabric of our community. In a recent article by Andrés Spokoiny, President & CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, he reflected, “Jews have always believed that the word of God is to be found amid the clatter and noise of debate. The secret of our creativity and our very survival is to be… the people that is not afraid of differences; that embraces diversity as the ultimate source of richness; that believes that no human can have the total truth and that we need one another like pieces of a magnificent puzzle.”

Our heritage gives us many great examples of arguments that were spirited and unresolved but where the community grew through the process. Rabbi Andrea London reflects that the Jewish sport of argument is accompanied, in Talmudic lore, by the principle that we should respect each other. The houses of “Hillel and Shammai were willing to have their children ‘intermarry’ despite intense disagreement on matters of ethics and halachah (Jewish law),” she writes. “They were able to stay focused on a higher purpose: helping the Jewish people to live according to God’s will.”

Bringing this concept to life in our modern world isn’t always easy, but it is a higher purpose to which we must still aspire. Our community is built on multiple, varied and strong voices. By opening ourselves to hearing – and actually listening to – each unique perspective, we deepen our understanding of what makes us who we are.

To do this, we have to start from a position where the goal of the conversation isn’t to convince, but rather to listen and understand. We must assume that people come to every issue with different experiences – and those shape everything about them – including the positions they hold.

We also need to lower the volume. Our goal can’t be to shout louder or develop a more cutting argument or personal attack. Our goal has to be to learn and engage.

This does not mean that we need to change our own views. Nor does it mean we should engage in discussion with a bigot or someone whose sole purpose is to incite a reaction. It does mean that we give credit to people for having good intentions, even when they reach conclusions opposite our own. It means we have to assume that we might be wrong – or at the very least, we might not be the only holders of ‘truth’. The goal isn’t to win an argument by shutting someone up; the goal is to learn by not shutting someone out. So how do we put this insight into action?

At Federation, we are delving into a strategic planning process by organizing a series of conversations about our priorities, hopes and dreams. In embarking on this work, we know that we must commit to ensuring that the multitude of voices who make up our community are all invited to the table – and that they feel welcome and heard when they get there. Beyond the strategic plan, we must commit to learning perspectives not typically heard. We must be open to ideas that challenge our own views of the world and community.

Individually, next time you’re at a meeting or conference, commit to taking the time to attend sessions where you’ll learn something new, where you know there will be attendees with different ideas, and you might come away with a broader perspective than before. Follow up directly with people who hold different, yet interesting perspectives. Connect with others who are equally as passionate about your issues but see them through a different lens.

We may find that whatever disagreements we have, we agree on bigger, more important things. There is no way to find out unless we show people that we want to get to know them despite our differences of opinion – and that we’re not defined by those differences.

The country is currently facing significant and increasing challenges because people are unable or unwilling to see “the other.” Our community is struggling with this, too. But that shouldn’t be. We share a history, faith, traditions, culture and countless experiences of struggle and celebration. Let’s not forget what unites us – the many ways in which our puzzle fits together – and listen and learn about the things where we might not agree. I believe we’ll be stronger for it – and renewed by the process.

Gil Preuss is the Chief Executive Officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.