A few years ago, during my shul’s decision to amalgamate with a nearby synagogue, a lot of the discussion centered around the building — its significance as an historical site and its soon-to-be status as another discarded shul in the Cape.
The discussion reminded me how much this community invests in its physical spaces, both financially and otherwise, because a space is so much more than just a space — it anchors a community and provides context and memories more valuable than the price of land or construction. However, I feel that we also spend far too much time focusing on the bricks and mortar that shape us and not enough energy on the other kinds of spaces — the non-physical ones that this community needs.For too long I have struggled with belonging to a community where the loudest voices are the only ones being heard, or attending Jewish communal events where the conversation usually disintegrates into a shouting match over opposing views; whether it be about Israel, conversion or women leaders. Where are the spaces that allow multiple voices to be heard? How do we create spaces that encourage people to share their views in meaningful and safe ways? When will we acknowledge that these spaces are just as important, if not more so, than the physical ones we are building, renovating or demolishing?
Firstly, it is imperative that this community recognise that difference of opinion is what makes us rich and diverse, as a Jewish people and as a community body. Secondly, we all need to learn how to deal with conflict effectively and in ways that encourage people from all viewpoints to contribute to the conversation. By providing safe spaces — environments that inspire people to share and more importantly listen — we will go a long way to using conflict effectively. Importantly, safe spaces are not places of shared opinions, but rather places of shared values. Safe spaces uphold dialogue as the primary tool of communication, not the back-and-forth accusation-filled shouting matches of normal debates. Dialogue is an active form of listening, requiring one person to speak at a time and forcing the listener to mirror back what the speaker has said, ensuring they fully understand the meaning. This process of individual speaking and ‘word mirroring’, places more emphasis on the listening and reassures the speaker that what they are saying is both heard by the listener and understood. It is a simple but challenging process because it puts the brakes on impulsive and loud speakers, and forces everyone to stop thinking about what they are going to say next and actually listen to what is being said. It is also critical if a comunity is to share views in a healthy and powerful manner.
Celebrate difference and debate
A debate that uses the tools of dialogue ensures conflict is actually dealt with and not just shouted about, because it validates the participation of all those contributing. Dialogue is a tool that can be incorporated into any situation, event or discussion, but it needs to be a consciousness decision. It could significantly contribute in creating a variety of safe spaces for this community andmight even encourage those who would not necessarily have participated to stand up and feel valued and heard.
It is no coincidence that the very title of this Jewish Chronicle column, ‘Safe Spaces’ has over the past few months highlighted new voices from within the community, generated thought-provoking debate and provided controversial Friday night conversation starters. By allowing dialogue to take place, through the medium of print, the CJC and Nahum Goldmann Fellowship have ensured differing opinions are highlighted and respected. Imagine if this model were replicated in other environments and in differing forms? Our community would reflect the best of the houses of Hillel and Shammai, who despite their serious differences, ate together, engaged in dialogue and generally behaved as ‘one people’. So let us celebrate and encourage difference and debate and use the dialogue process constructively in our schools, shuls and communal organisations to bring out the best in our community; and as a safe means to encourage even more voices to participate in communal discussion. This is absolutely vital, because without it we are going to stagnate and suffocate the very community we are striving to create — one that is dynamic, exciting, vibrant, inclusive and primed for growth.