Wren: Atlanta Can Learn From Israel’s Dialogue
OpinionGuest Column

Wren: Atlanta Can Learn From Israel’s Dialogue

Solutions begin when we take time to listen to each other instead of focusing on taking sides.

McKenzie Wren

McKenzie Wren is the president of Congregation Bet Haverim, the program coordinator with SOJOURN and owner of her own facilitation group, Culture on Purpose.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta's leadership mission visits the Western Wall.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta's leadership mission visits the Western Wall.

Have you ever been so moved by someone’s story that you placed a hand over your heart, palm open, and said, “Oh, my G-d”?

Maybe you’ve taken a deep breath right after. A moment of stillness with your hand covering your heart as the person’s words reverberate. That’s empathy, feeling the other person’s experience.

Many times that experience is fleeting as our conscious mind goes on to try to make sense of the story. We judge, criticize, explain, problem-solve and attempt to create some distance from the story because the story hurts. Listening can hurt.

And it should hurt. When we are confronted with the pain of the world and a person’s experience, it should hurt to hear. Sickness, death, trauma, hunger, abuse, war, loneliness, exclusion, discrimination, school shootings — the list of what people experience is as long as our messy human history.

The constant news cycle makes it difficult to keep hearing. I know sometimes my heart can’t hold knowing about one more experience of pain. It’s overwhelming.

But what happens when we stop listening? When we stop letting other people’s experiences affect us?

What happens when we run a people’s reality through our own narrative and can no longer hear their own story? When our worldview doesn’t allow us to hear the pain, or even just the experience, of another person?

I spent a week in Israel “on the Front Porch” with 70 community leaders from Atlanta in January. We represented a range of demographics and interests: multiple synagogue denominations, male and female rabbis, lesbian and gay people, startup agencies and well-established agencies, and a variety of political affiliations.

During the trip I talked with more Atlanta rabbis than I had met in my whole life. I talked with board chairs, agency heads, Israeli soldiers, kibbutzniks, Ethiopian Jews, young people who had made aliyah, elders who had made aliyah, secular tour guides frustrated with changing neighborhoods, women who had been spit on for praying at the Western Wall. I heard from people on the right, the left and everywhere in between. I even stopped four female soldiers on the street to ask them about their experiences in the military.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. The more I listened, the more I realized the complexity of the country, how dangerously simple it is to take a stand and think you know the answer and how dangerously destructive that approach is.

Many times I found my hand over my heart, just breathing in and making space for the latest story, the latest expression of pain.

I had to make space in my heart for the man on the border who could casually explain away theft and violence with the comment “Because they’re Arabs.” I had to make space in my heart for the woman of Givat Haviva who fears, after 50 years of working toward peace, that her country may brand her a traitor.

For the story of the Palestinian man caught between a rock and a hard place as he tries to educate the children in his village. For the man who believes with all his heart that Israel’s military might is the way to peace, and for the man who believes that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d and it is only our experience as Jews that matters.

From Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a rabbi involved in an organization called Roots, I heard the most illuminating quote, one that still lingers in my heart and likely always will: “The Infinite is a kaleidoscope of partial truths, and we can only ever know our partial truth. Falsehoods occur when we think that our partial truth is the whole truth.”

This quote resonates so deeply with me. We all have beliefs and values and a plethora of opinions, but if we allow those opinions to close down our ability to hear, it is unlikely that any change can occur between two people. It is in listening first that we can begin to see.

Said Noor A’wad, a Palestinian tour guide who works with Roots, “We listen until it hurts.”

The people of Roots believe that “by encouraging direct contact and deep communication between local communities, we [see] transformation: Stereotypes are replaced by an understanding of the other’s humanity, suffering, needs and roots. This greatly reduces fear and creates appreciation and support for each other. This groundwork of trust, safety and understanding is the foundation of any political solution.”

We here in Atlanta have often not been able to listen to one another because of our preconceived worldviews. We stand and stare at each other — and sometimes scream at each other — from across our divides. Our denominational, political and social worldviews keep us on our own “sides.”

And sometimes we just stand and stare at each other from across a field of not-knowing. Because we have never talked to each other.

Though the stories of Israelis and the stories of Atlantans are not the same story, there is nonetheless much to learn by talking to each other. To listening deeply to each other. Our views of our stories about Israel keep us separate, unable to talk to each other, as do many other things.

Our views on LGBT people, interfaith families, female rabbis, who is Jewish, whether we are a culture or a religion, who we are as a people and whether we even are one people — these things keep us separate. But they don’t need to.

If we in Atlanta can make the same vow as the people working across the most divisive conflict in history can make — to listen until it hurts — we may be able to find a way forward together. A new way.

Listening may not solve problems, but it certainly creates the conditions to be able to learn from each other, understand our hopes and fears, and maybe, just maybe, something new will emerge for both us.

Here’s to our deep listening and a rich kaleidoscope of sharing.

McKenzie Wren is the president of Congregation Bet Haverim, the program coordinator with SOJOURN and owner of her own facilitation group, Culture on Purpose.

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