Curiosity can change our communal discourse
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Curiosity can change our communal discourse

Throughout these past months, as I have been reciting the Kaddish in memory of my dear mother, I have been reflecting on her life and the values she instilled in me and my siblings. One of her defining attributes — cited by many, and especially needed in today’s day and age — is sakranut, curiosity.

Growing up, and continuing throughout adulthood, whenever we would discuss something, Mama would always present the other side of an argument, decision, or idea. Some might call that playing devil’s advocate, but really it was far from anything devilish; my mother challenged us to expand our horizons and always to consider and value other perspectives, experiences, or thoughts. This practice, unfortunately, appears to be lacking in much of our society today.

She really would have enjoyed a symposium I was recently privileged to attend, which focused on viewpoint diversity in our community today. At the meeting, which was convened by the Maimonides Fund, colleagues from across the Jewish communal landscape learned from each other and from respected thought leaders as we considered the increasing polarization of civic – and communal – debate.

Rabbi David Wolpe, senior advisor at the Maimonides Fund and senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, anchored the discussion in core Jewish values, including machloket l’shem shamayim — argument for the sake of heaven. As a people, we have spent thousands of years discussing and debating everything, and, most importantly, learning how to listen and respect each other’s opposing viewpoints. The Talmud itself embodies this; each of its pages is filled with different and almost always conflicting opinions and interpretations of each line, phrase, and word.

Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and noted co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” commented on the changing culture on college campuses and its effect on mental health. He observed that social media has destroyed our ability to see the other side and to open our minds to opposing points of view.

I participated in several small-group discussions exploring the growing challenge in Jewish communal organizations, where we strive to balance multiple stakeholders with multiple perspectives in increasingly divided communities. How can we discuss Israel in a constructive way from diverse points of view? How do we best respond to antisemitism in the context of protected speech, especially on college campuses today?

As a society, we seem to have become so mistrustful and polarized and trained to see and think in black and white that we miss the gray and can’t see nuance. We have forgotten how to have constructive conversations. We seem unable or unwilling to respect people when we disagree with their positions.

Unfortunately, this lack of civility has been part of our Jewish history. A few weeks ago, on Tisha b’Av, we mourned, among many tragedies, the destruction of Jerusalem due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, between our brothers and sisters. Look what happens when we forget a basic tenet of Judaism: respecting diversity in civil discourse.

I feel fortunate to see some signs of hope in my daily work. At Jewish camps across North America, the observance of Tisha b’Av helps convey critical lessons in character development, where chanichim (campers) and madrichim (counselors) create intentional communities away from home each summer. By fostering an environment of belonging, diversity, learning, and curiosity, Jewish camps help to model our collective Jewish future.

We soon will enter the final month of the Jewish year — Elul. We begin our preparations for Rosh Hashanah and a fresh start with renewed positivity and possibility. We all need relief from the negativity, polarization, and exhaustion of our current civic debate. Perhaps, as we begin the new month of Elul, we can commit to changing its tone and tenor and enter a period of renewal, comfort, and growth.

Each morning during Elul, we will sound the shofar as a spiritual wake-up call, challenging us to look inside ourselves, to consider how we can change, learn, and grow. How? Let us bring the joy and spirit from Jewish camps — intentionally modeling curiosity, discovery, and growth — into our communal discourse.

Our world needs it, now more than ever.

Jeremy J. Fingerman has been the CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp since 2010, and he is a vice president of JPRO Network, the network of North American Jewish communal professionals. He lives in Fort Lee with his family. Write to him at Jeremy@jewishcamp.org.

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