By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub speaks during the civility workshop held Aug. 9 at the Selig Center. (photo by Jonathan Barash)

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub speaks during the civility workshop held Aug. 9 at the Selig Center. (photo by Jonathan Barash)

Three dozen people who have distinguished themselves as thought leaders in Jewish Atlanta gathered at Federation on Sunday, Aug. 9, to learn to play nice.

It sounds so basic, which perhaps explains why our teacher for the day, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, resorted to preschool techniques (“Clap twice if you can hear me”) to herd us.

It was a nice metaphor for how childish we all can act when the topic is Israel, and Rabbi Weintraub was there, through the efforts of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, to help us learn to act like and treat one another as adults.

Support for Israel ought to unite the Jewish community. But that unity breaks down when we dive into the details and our different values, priorities, perceptions, backgrounds and influences. There is no safe space for questioning, conversing, listening and learning; there’s no room for uncertainty.

Our shared passion for Israel, what it is and what we want it to be, increasingly drives apart those who are engaged in the Jewish community and drives away the next generation.

We’ve seen that inability to listen to each other — the essential element of any conversation — too many times in Jewish Atlanta in recent years. (See Peter Beinart and the Marcus JCC; JNF and Charles Stanley; and anything related to the New Israel Fund.)

Without civility — which is not about reaching consensus or convincing the other side but about offering and accepting the space to hear and be heard — we can’t understand or learn from one another, and we can’t express the mutual respect to disagree without dislike and to maintain communal strength.

We in Atlanta aren’t unique in our wrestling with Israel; flare-ups over Israel seem inevitable in Jewish communities. Rabbi Weintraub said three reactive patterns are common: avoidance of the topic; antagonism toward those who disagree with us; and avoidance of those on the other side.

My biggest worry is disengagement. College students forced to take sides on Israel before they’re ready or repelled by the anger they see in the argument too often reject organized Judaism or Judaism itself. We can’t afford that loss of vitality.

We of course didn’t solve all the problems at the JCRC workshop. We just started the effort, but the mix of viewpoints was encouraging even if the lack of denominational diversity was disappointing. The hope is that the conversation about the Israel conversation will continue, and we’ll develop the skills and the facilitators within our community to create a safe space for Israel discussion.

Look for more on this important effort from JCRC throughout the year. Meanwhile, you can help, one conversation at a time. When you find yourself talking to someone who holds different views about the Israeli settlements or the Palestinians or religious pluralism, resist the urge to prove that you’re right and he’s an idiot.

Instead, take the time to listen, to learn, to try to understand. Worst case, you delay the usual argument by a few minutes. But maybe your would-be opponent returns the respect and listens to you. Maybe you change a mind. Maybe you find that your positions have more commonalitites than differences. Maybe your positions wind up just as far apart as before, but you both realize that those areas of disagreement aren’t as important as the Judaism that brings you together.

It doesn’t hurt to try, and the effort should be its own reward.