by Gary Rosenblatt - Editor and Publisher, The Jewish Week
Aspen, Colo. — The dozens of handwritten postings on a wall-length bulletin board at the Aspen Institute two Sundays ago looked to me like a modern-day page of Talmud. They contained questions and cross-references that dealt, in one way or another with the future of Jewish life in America, the theme of a two-day conference, sponsored by The Jewish Week, called The Conversation.
The program brought together 75 American Jews from around the U.S. who are leaders in a variety of fields, from bioethics to philanthropy, and from Mideast politics and diplomacy to journalism. (Sadly, another 15 would-be attendees were snowbound in Denver by a fluke blizzard and couldn’t make it to Aspen.)
The program topics were not planned in advance. There were no panels, prepared texts or plenaries. Instead, in an effort to foster spontaneous dialogue and a level playing field among seasoned academics, businessmen and women, rabbis, community activists, young artists and writers, and others, the planners used a relatively new format known as Open Space. It called for the participants to be seated in a large circle and for volunteers to come forward and jot down a subject they would like to convene a conversation about — an issue of importance to what they felt it means to be Jewish in America in the 21st century. They would then post their topics on the large bulletin board and people could choose which conversation to attend.
From the outset there was an instant rush among participants to put up their issues, and for the next 48 hours their energy never flagged. In six 90-minute sessions during the two days, 44 formal conversations were convened (in addition to countless informal talks at meals and between sessions), with as many as 35 participants at some and as few as three or four at others.
Each conversation was summarized by a note taker, and the results were posted alongside each other — snapshots of an immediate Jewish agenda — to be further analyzed in the coming weeks.
A small sampling of the topics posted and discussed: innovative philanthropy; transmitting Jewish values to the next generation; gender and Judaism; Jewish life beyond affiliations and denominations; Jewish life on campus; spirituality in an age of consumerism; how can we help bring peace to the Mideast; Jews as Democrats/Jews? as Republicans; how to respond to Evangelical Christians; and who needs rabbis?
It’s a challenge for me to write objectively about The Conversation, having been involved in the planning of it over the last two years and because, in an effort to help create a safe environment and allow people to speak openly, a commitment was made not to quote the participants directly. (Not easy for a newspaper to propose.)
But based on the comments made by those in attendance, the conference was unique, even transformative, because it managed to bring a wide range of people, who otherwise might not meet, together on common ground. The participants described the format as refreshing, even liberating, allowing them to speak openly and honestly, and while they often disagreed sharply, they were tolerant of opposing viewpoints. And they inspired each other with their passion for and commitment to the Jewish people, underscored by their willingness to trek to Aspen during this busy High Holy Day season.
There was a sense that Jews in America, Israel, and around the world are facing both gathering threats and opportunities, and there was an air of urgency about the need for fresh perspectives and creative responses.
Some called for action, insisting that for the conference to be a success, it must result in specific projects launched by the group. Others argued passionately against such expectations, insisting that the primary benefit was to offer enlightening meetings and discussions, and a sense of community, all of which presumably will make the participants a little better at what they already do.
The Conversation was born out of a sense of both frustration and faith. Frustration over how so many conferences in the Jewish community have become predictable, even stagnant. Complaints often are heard that the most interesting parts of these conferences takes place in the hallways. The Conversation was an attempt to make the sessions themselves innovative and compelling.
The faith was in the notion that the attendees could talk to and listen to each other in a venue that brought together a wide range of voices — generationally, religiously and politically — and allow them to interact in a meaningful, unscripted way. Several participants spoke of the all-too-rare spirit of tolerance that prevailed, noting that at one religious service leaders of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform seminaries prayed together.
Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldin, in a book entitled “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives,” writes that “the kind of conversation I’m interested is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter.”
That’s what the planners of The Conversation were seeking as we brought the group together during a period of personal and communal reflection, between Rosh HaShanah? and Yom Kippur, in the majestic setting of the Rocky Mountains.
Contrary to pre-conference expectations, Israel was not a dominant theme. It was discussed at several sessions, but more often the participants returned to issues of vision, leadership and community here in America, and a deep concern about transmitting Jewish values — including a connection to the Jewish state — to the next generation. The voices of the 20- to-35-year-olds in the group were sought out eagerly, and there was lively debate over whether to propose new Big Ideas or find ways to fund those already known.
Everyone who attended called for future Conversations to expand and deepen the discussions. Will there be more? If so, who will participate, what topics will be discussed, and will there be specific take-aways from the first conference that will result in programmatic action?
For now, these questions remain open, but what was clear from the experiment in Aspen is that there is a great eagerness among thoughtful Jews to explore new ways to grapple with old problems of continuity and commitment and to try to make the world a little less bitter.
Gary Rosenblatt can be reached by e-mail at Gary@jewishweek.org.
by Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
Things started to go bad quickly.
The United Airlines agent informed us our flight from Denver to Aspen was over sold — not everyone with a valid ticket was going to get on board.
Dozens of passengers were trying to be the ones past the gate.
Among them, lots of Jews.
We were flying in to join The Conversation: A Project of The Jewish Week — a novel, never-done-before two-day conference on the Jewish future.
The idea was the brainchild of Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. What would happen, he wondered, if a group of people concerned with the future of Jewish life meet in an unstructured, relaxed, off-the-record atmosphere, trading ideas, analyses and solutions.
It was to be the Jewish equivalent of those Renaissance weekends the Clintons and their gang made famous — minus the touch football and the gentiles. Gary got funding from major private philanthropies, secured a location in Aspen and invited about 70 people from across the country.
And even in the Denver airport waiting area, it was shaping up to be a heady experience. Journalists, scholars, rabbis, activists and filmmakers were deep in conversation.
The rest of the passengers in the busy hub seemed positively sedate compared to our animated group. It was a combination of class reunion and high-octane graduate seminar, getting to wrestle big problems with people passionate about the same things.
But first we had to wrestle with getting to our destination.
When the ticket agent pleaded for people to give up seats for a later flight, one of the Conversation participants called out a pledge.
“If some of us don’t go,” he said. “none of us will go. Can we agree on that?”
Evidently we couldn’t: Not three minutes later, when the final boarding call was made, the same man disappeared onto the airplane.
Within an hour, the storm worsened. The next flight was cancelled.
Rather than wait for a 6 p.m. flight to be scrubbed as well, 20 of us opted to arrange for two separate vans. A film producer worked his cellphone and in an instant made the arrangements.
“That’s what I do,” he shrugged, “I produce.”
So off we went. Strangers mostly, but all familiar with one another’s work or world: In our van were my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy (spouses were not welcome at the Conversation, Naomi and I received separate invitations); the president of a national Jewish organization; a distinguished professor; a film director and producer, and a nonfiction author. I’m not mentioning their names because the rule was that even our participation would be off-the-record.
Ray, our driver, turned out to be a Muslim from Tehran. He asked what we were all doing in Aspen.
“There’s a conference for Jewish academics, thinkers, leaders, rabbis,” someone said.
“Just Jewish people?” Ray asked.
I had to wonder if he’d seen the new documentary on the “Protocols of Zion,” which debunks the notion that Jews met late in the 19th century to plot their takeover of the world (see article on Page 31). I made a mental note to send him a copy.
Just before we got to the Eisenhower Tunnel, an organizer at the conference called. The event had begun in Aspen with a facilitator asking the group to come up with discussion ideas. Dozens had been narrowed to six.
At this point, with the president of the Jewish organization relaying information over the phone, we tried to take part. She listed the potential discussion issues.
“No. 1: Helping people choose Judaism. No. 2: Congregations of Torah, tzedakah and chesed. No. 3: Using television and movies to strengthen Judaism. No. 4: How can Jews contribute to creating positive images of Israel? No. 5: Gender and Judaism, why do boys fall out of Jewish life, and why do girls feel excluded? No. 6: Why be Jewish?”
We jumped into the discussion, already on a first-name basis. We had four hours to go, and no one was shy.
The professor, a researcher with a deep and fluent knowledge of the state of Jewish practice, went first. One fact of Jewish life, he pointed out, is that women call the shots. In an intermarried couple, it is the woman who decides the faith. It is the woman who keeps Judaism alive in the home. Boys and men, he said, are opting out of Jewish practice after their bar mitzvahs, and few return.
We debated this, bringing our experiences and anecdotes to flesh out the data. The discussion deepened over several miles.
In the background, the car radio was tuned to the Phillies game for Ray’s amusement. Outside, snow whipped through the transcendent pine forest. I was in a special place, among remarkable individuals. I felt fortunate to be on this journey.
Then Ray stopped.
He had no choice. Traffic had slowed to a standstill. Somewhere up ahead, a big rig without chains had jackknifed. Not only weren’t we flying to Aspen, it began to look doubtful that we would be driving there either.
We pulled off the road in Silverthorne for a restroom. The snow was coming down in globs. I stepped out of the van into six inches of frozen slush; ice water filled my shoes.
Moments later, Ray re-started the van and quickly realized the defroster didn’t work. He dove under the dashboard, fiddled a bit. No go.
The windshield turned opaque.
“I think we just hit the trifecta,” said the president.
The other van went ahead. Ray couldn’t raise a traffic report on the radio; there were no police or emergency workers in sight. After a month of hurricane and earthquake news, we were all hyperaware of how easily social order can spin into chaos.
The professor suggested we check for rooms at nearby hotels: “It’s not pessimism,” he said. “It’s precaution.”
We crossed the frozen highway, the author wiping down the windshield as Ray inched along. But the hotel that appeared just ahead of us was pitch black. There was a regional power outage, which was expected to last until morning. No one was allowed to check in, and the lobby full of stranded travelers looked like a Red Cross shelter.
The idea we all clung to — of eventually laughing this all off over drinks by an Aspen fireplace — gave way to the image of eight people shivering in a van under a snowdrift, a Jewish Donner Party.
“Years from now,” said the producer, “people will ask why this is called ‘Conversation Pass.’”
Ray banged the dashboard, flipped a switch — and the defroster kicked in.
Van 2 called back to say they were stuck in traffic, but after a group vote we decided to push on. We sailed up the interstate. Ray, our driver, broke the silence.
“Really,” he said, “I find what you are saying so interesting.”
Ray said he’d come from Tehran 11 years ago. He’d married a Christian woman, and no longer practiced his Muslim faith. His four children were being raised Christian.
“That’s my point,” said the professor, “the woman decides.”
“I say, every man finds his way to God in his way,” Ray said. “My children, whatever they choose is OK with me.”
The Conversation started up again, spurred by the Muslim in the driver’s seat. We traded life and work stories. We drove about three miles — and then hit bottom: an unbroken, miles-long line of snarled 18-wheelers, SUVs, pickups and sedans.
We were going nowhere, ever — if ever meant Aspen.
I asked the professor what book he’s writing. Maybe we wouldn’t get to talk all night in a room in Aspen, but we could just as well talk in a van all night on the way.
The professor launched into a lucid, compelling distillation of his series of lectures he gave at Yale University about the future of Zionism. We pitched in with questions and our own experiences. But carsickness and despair had taken over a couple of us. The Conversation wound down.
Some of us wanted to head back to Denver. Others wanted to forge ahead. I was in the latter group, for a while. I had romantic visions of dealing with these multiplying dilemmas the way we knew best, the same way Rosenblatt assumed we could tackle some of the Jewish world’s thorny issues: by talking. I figured we’d sit in traffic and talk through the night, and the hours would pass quickly in stimulating debate, and by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., things would be moving.
Finally, Ray was able to tune into a traffic report: The highway was closed indefinitely with continuous wrecks. Van 2 called to say they had turned back. Our adventure was becoming less “Gilligan’s Island” and more “Lifeboat.”
We caved. Not pessimism, pragmatism. There are some situations, I guess, you just can’t converse your way out of.
Ray somehow maneuvered the van into the opposite lanes. There were a few gasps.
“Believe me, I have four kids,” Ray said, “and I want to see them.”
The road back to Denver was clear. A phone call from Aspen informed us that the handful of people who chose — we thought foolishly — to wait in the airport all day for the evening flight had arrived safely at the conference. Our van grew quiet for several more miles.
“So what’s the moral of the story?” my wife the rabbi asked. “What’s the life lesson?”
“You’re better off in the airport than you are on the road,” the director said.
“Until,” the producer added, “you’re better off on the road than you are in the airport.”
Naomi and I headed back to Los Angeles the next morning. We had little alternative. An even bigger storm had come in, and, in any case, all flights to Aspen were booked.
The Conversation, I heard, was a great success. The problems of the Jewish people were kicked around, hashed out, pondered, debated. Nothing got solved — that’s not the purpose of these things. But there is a certain magic in intense discussions, among caring people, in closed quarters.
The film director from our ill-fated van put it this way, somewhere along mile Marker 221, eastbound on Highway 70: “I have faith in our journey, and we will arrive at the place we need to be.”
Or, conversely, we won’t.