Reflection on the election: An important message from YJ Executive Director, Simon Klarfeld

posted by on Nov 13, 2016

November 10, 2016

Shalom Chaverim,

While the dust slowly settles on the US elections, one thing has become very clear to me over the past 8 months: we are living in an extremely divided society for which civil nuanced discourse has been replaced by shouting matches and a basic unwillingness for people to listen to (never lone appreciate) other people’s perspectives. Certainly the tone of the election process – from the candidates’ debates and stump speeches, to their surrogates’ words against their “opponents,” to the unfiltered, visceral and often hateful outbursts from Americans across the country via social media – is something this country has not experienced in living memory. The question now is: what’s next?

How do we heal the divides within the society? How do we (re)create an environment in which multiple perspectives and viewpoints are heard, welcomed and appreciated? How do we allow and encourage the debate of ideas without the demonizing of those who stand on a different side of the table?

There are five key ingredients that Young Judaea brings to bear on creating a civil society of discourse:

  1. Passionate Pluralism– as a movement that is grounded in being non-partisan, non-denominational and non-divisive: providing a broad tent under which all can enter and be welcomed we strive to bring out the diverse opinions, beliefs and questions that everyone brings to our table. The Jewish notion of there being “70 faces of Torah” and the fact that the Talmud always quotes the dissenting voice alongside the ‘majority’ voice because no individual has absolute knowledge or truth, are the bases for our approach to education.
  2. Skills of Discourse and Understanding– In order to create a “safe space” in which those thought processes can be developed, challenged and fine-tuned among people with very different perspectives, Young Judaea trains its peer teen leaders and professional facilitators in how to structure conversations and learning from one another, encouraging active listening, critical thinking and nuanced interpretation (when typically our problems cannot be resolved with a simple bumper-sticker phrase and approach)
  3. Role modeling– by exposing our participants to multiple perspectives, facilitating dialogue that allows participants to compare and contrast those perspectives and self-reflect on their own viewpoints in light of that learning, we are creating future leaders and facilitators for the wider Jewish community and society at large. We can, and must, express our personal opinions and beliefs when called for – it is how we do that, how we behave towards others while doing that which distinguishes a thinker from an arguer.
  4. Intolerant of intolerance– as a movement, we cannot be silent when seeing or hearing bigotry, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. The vitriol – the hate speech – that has been released is absolutely unacceptable. As Jews – as human beings – we cannot stand by as our community together with many other communities are attacked – verbally or otherwise.
  5. Civic engagement and social activism– we aim to inspire all who come through our gates with the notion that “You and I can change the world” and that it is our duty – our obligation – as a free people – to right the wrongs that we see in society: t repair the world. Once our beliefs and views have been formed  – and even as we are still open to learning from others with different perspectives – we teach our participants to turn those values and ideals into action – be that in our own homes or on Capitol Hill.

So, for me, this election period – while very hard to witness and comprehend in terms of its severe tone and unforgiving exchange between sections of our society – has underscored the need for our work. The need for summer camps that create a place where diverse communities of learning and understanding are formed, for year-round activities that train teen leaders to be facilitators of nuanced exchange of differing viewpoints, for our Israel programs that shed light on the multiple perspectives of Israeli society and the many ways in which one can have a meaningful lifelong engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.

We see the results among our alumni – role models for civility and social change – for teaching and learning, for mentoring the next generation that will change the world for the good.

Whoever you voted for and however you now feel, I hope you will agree with me that Young Judaea’s approach of pluralistic, civil quality education embedded in Jewish values that creates leaders and activists is critically important in today’s world.

Ultimately, our role as the premier Zionist youth movement of America, is to inspire hope, and truly live the words of our anthem – Ani v’ata neshaneh et ha’olam – You and I WILL change the world.  We have been doing it for over 100 years and will clearly need to continue for many more years to come.

We look forward to offering opportunities – to our participants and our alumni – for us to discuss these serious issues in the weeks and months ahead. It will only be through thoughtful, tempered discussion that we will model the type of discourse we wish to see in the world today.

Yihyeh tov — It will be better.

Simon Klarfeld

Executive Director, Young Judaea