This spring, HUC-JIR rabbinical and cantorial students enhanced their studies with Building a Culture of Dialogue Training, a program developed in partnership with Resetting the Table (RTT), an organization that works to positively transform public conversation by building a civic and communal culture of trust, learning, and collaboration. The training, made possible by Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer and Laurie Gross, in loving memory of their son, Avi Schaefer, z’’l, teaches students a celebrated methodology for transformative communication across political divides.
HUC-JIR and RTT have worked together in different capacities since 2015. Through this seven-session experiential training program, participants learn best practices for building dialogue and deliberation across divides in Jewish institutions and develop skills and tools for facilitating and convening difficult conversations.
Leah Reiser, Chief Training Officer at RTT explains, “The purpose of this training is to equip rabbinical and cantorial students with skills and tools to support direct and constructive conversations about the most charged and complex issues facing our community today. We live in a time of tremendous volatility, anger, contempt, siloing, and increasingly even violent and deadly confrontation in the face of political divides. We see this inability for people to be in collaborative and productive communication across their political differences as one of the central crises of our time.”
Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, Ph.D., HUC-JIR Rabbinical School Director and Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Rabbinics, who was involved in forming the partnership, concurs: “Our students live at a time when dialogue has become almost impossible – political discourse, social media, etc. is filled with people who do not talk to each other or listen to each other. Our students need skills that this training provides and I am grateful to the Gross Schaefers for making this possible.”
In the workshops, students practice facilitating complex situations they will likely need to navigate in their future work, whether in an educational environment, board meeting, pastoral interaction, or preaching on contentious political issues. Participants model courageous, honest, and constructive conversations within the group where they themselves have differences in opinions around topics such as Israel, antisemitism, and racial justice.
Rising third-year rabbinical student Hannah Pomerantz participated in the most recent cohort. She explains, “I chose to apply for the program because I know that having conversations with those who disagree with me is a growth edge for me. As a rabbi, I will have to navigate having a diverse community and I want to be prepared to address that as it comes up in real-time with compassion and strategy.”
Another participant of this spring’s cohort, rising fifth-year rabbinical student Max Antman, reflects, “We often talk around an issue rather than being direct. There’s a directness to RTT that is really effective. If we never have the courage or skill to name differences in a way that is honest and kind, but also real, then that stunts or mutes the conversation. Something that came up was that recognition or realization of someone else’s perspective is not an endorsement of it. Just in validating that you’ve heard someone, you can open up the conversation to perhaps changing their perspective but, if not, having a meaningful conversation that allows both parties to grow. It’s a simple concept, but not something I had necessarily put a lot of thought into in the past.”
Leah says, “We love this program because it’s so clear that it’s meeting a real need for the Jewish community broadly and for students. If we can invest in building a culture of productive and courageous engagement with our differences, we will be a stronger, more vibrant community. To me, it feels like work that is urgent and matters so much.”
Students: stay tuned for applications for the next cohort in the spring of 2024.