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Boston Synagogues Creating Community of Conversation around Israel

New initiative makes Boston Jewish community a key center of iEngage activity in North America

In November 2011, nearly 40 Boston-area rabbis were introduced to the iEngage Project through a full day of learning with SHI faculty Donniel Hartman, Yehuda Kurtzer and Julia Andelman. What began as a day of learning, funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish Federation of Greater Boston, has blossomed into a partnership in 2012-2013, in which 14 new synagogues are presenting iEngage content to their congregants, using the iEngage video lecture series which continues to be generously subsidized by CJP.

The 14 rabbis participating in this partnership will gather throughout the year for special study opportunities with visiting Hartman faculty. Learning will kick off with senior iEngage Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi on November 6. Some of these study opportunities will be open to other Boston-area rabbis as well. Together with the seven synagogues that taught the iEngage curriculum in 2011-2012, this new initiative makes the Boston Jewish community a key center of iEngage activity in North America.

A unique collaboration is taking place among four synagogues in the Coolidge Corner neighborhood of Brookline that have come together to teach their iEngage courses. Congregation Kehillath Israel, Temple Beth Zion, Temple Ohabei Shalom, and Temple Sinai – representing Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated – will each offer a 12-session iEngage class. Six of the sessions will be taught by each rabbi at his or her own synagogue.Congregants from all four synagogues will come together for an interdenominational learning experience for the remaining six sessions, providing them with the opportunity to study with all four rabbis. 

The schedule was carefully crafted to dovetail with the content of the iEngage curriculum.  The four opening sessions that form the conceptual foundation of the curriculum will be studied by each community individually. The next four-session unit, focusing on the theme of Power, will be explored together. Participants will study the theme of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State at their individual synagogues; and will join together again to study the issue of Human Rights in Israel and the final iEngage session, Values Nation. 

The five collaborating rabbis – Claudia Kreiman, Moshe Waldoks, Sonia Saltzman, David Starr, and Andrew Vogel – limited the number of participants to 25 from each synagogue.  At least one synagogue ended up with a waiting list for the course.  In order to ensure a high-quality discussion and an environment of mutual respect among members of different synagogues who do not know each other, an “iEngage Values Agreement,” adapted from material produced by the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, MA, was developed. 

This Agreement put forth a set of Jewish values and concepts clarifying the guiding principles of the iEngage experience such as Shema (Listening), Kavod (Dignity), Hokhma (Wisdom), and Elu v’elu (Multiple voices).  Students are asked to commit to seven communication guidelines, such as: “I will express my different viewpoints in a thoughtful manner and without an insulting spirit. I will keep in mind my goals of learning and reflection. I may respectfully disagree with others, but I will resist the urge to persuade them to ‘my side.’”

The creation of this collaboration was no small feat. In addition to gaining buy-in from several parties in each congregation; the logistical task of coordinating four different synagogue calendars over the course of three months was monumental. But the opportunity to create a community of conversation around Israel that transcended the individual synagogues was worth it to these five leaders. The four courses have just begun. We look forward to hearing about the enhanced discussion that they will no doubt cultivate together over the course of this year.

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