Do not withdraw from the community
My first experiences with Initiatives of Change were summers spent as a participant and intern at the organization's conference center in Caux, Switzerland. I went to Caux to meet people from all over the world — but I hardly knew how much I would discover my own sense of identity in the process.
When I first went to Caux in 2004 I saw it as a long-desired way for me to get outside of my cultural ‘comfort zone’. I had spent my 23 years in a world of limited diversity, surrounded by family and friends in New York City who were intellectually elite, suffused in Euro-American high culture, and largely Jewish. A summer on the mountaintop was going to be a deliberate attempt to spend time with a wide range of people, have my own assumptions challenged, and grow in ways that I could not back at home.
At the same time, I hoped that the summer would be a ‘spiritual’ one — without knowing exactly what that meant. I had been searching for meaning in my life, but intellectual New York had not supplied me with the answers I needed. With one Jewish parent, I leaned towards a Jewish cultural identity, but I had never found Judaism to offer me a strong sense of spiritual fulfillment.
Knowing that Caux was a spiritual place, I resolved that one of my goals for the summer would be to connect more strongly to my own religious background. To this end, I brought with me a number of Jewish texts that I hoped would inspire my own spiritual growth in conjunction with the Caux experience. One of these, called Pirkei Avot, ‘The Ethics of the Fathers’, was a compilation of ethical maxims from Talmudic rabbis that I had always found intriguing. And early in the summer, I found in it a short passage (section 2:5) that came to set the entire agenda for my summer spiritual journey.
Do not withdraw from the community;
Do not be sure of yourself till the day of your death;
Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation;
Do not say 'It is not possible to understand this', for ultimately it will be understood;
Do not say ‘When I have leisure, I will study’, for you may never have leisure.
This short set of injunctions, which had never previously been pointed out to me as important or noteworthy, resonated with me because it seemed to link together a number of issues that are often viewed as separate. I was first struck by the fact that we are asked to prevent ourselves from becoming ‘too sure of ourselves’. This valuing of uncertainty, or what I might call ‘mental flexibility’, fit well with my worldview and had been a large part of my intentions in coming to Caux. I found it very exciting to see that value lifted up within the Jewish tradition. At the same time, the text suggests that flexibility is not meant to become a kind of lazy nihilism that says ‘without certainty, nothing matters’, since we are also told never to give up the quest for ‘understanding’ the world. And furthermore, we are reminded of the urgency of pursuing this quest now, without delay.
Most strikingly, Hillel ties this urgent quest for both flexibility and comprehension (values that are usually thought of as aspects of one's individual personal development) to two virtues that are strongly public and interpersonal, namely ‘connection to the community’ and a ‘nonjudgmental’ attitude. One could conclude, and I certainly did while reading this text that summer, that our embrace of interpersonal relationship — trying to see the world from other people's points of view, and resolutely refusing to withdraw no matter how challenging that becomes — are powerful aids in our efforts to avoid the lazy rigidity called ‘self-certainty’.
Linking Hillel's injunctions to each other in this way, I saw this text as an aspirational statement for my time at Caux: I would attempt to gain my own psychological flexibility through rich interpersonal experience. And as the summer got underway, I found that this basic intention was widely shared by other participants. A great many people, regardless of their religious background, were at Caux to expand their boundaries and encourage their own growth. They worked to develop their openness of spirit and tried to live with a strong sense of personal ethical responsibility. And the texture of the place, from quiet time set aside for reflection to deeply personal plenary sessions, fostered a way of being in the world that would have made Hillel proud.
I found the place to be a paradise, and one rich summer led to the next and the next after that. On each visit I found myself connecting with Jewish spirituality in a way that I was still not finding during the rest of the year, while simultaneously meeting people from all over the world and feeling my own preconceptions change again and again.
But throughout these summers of inspiration, there was one way in which I never lived up to my own values. I told myself that I strove for openness and connection with all people — but somehow, as if by coincidence, when I was around either Muslims or Christian Arabs I kept finding myself closed and disconnected. I was hardly aware of it at first, and would likely have denied it at the time, but I was unmistakably holding part of myself back in those interactions. Under the surface of my awareness, but very much guiding my actions, I was holding on to a strong sense of defensiveness and fear. When I was around any Muslim or Christian Arab I imagined — on the basis, I would say now, of no supporting factual evidence — that I was being blamed for the actions of the state of Israel or the Jewish people. I felt as though the weight of defending either entity rested squarely on my shoulders: and, full of fear and guilt, I maintained my guard and kept my distance.
Notwithstanding my espoused values, I think I could have continued this reaction of defensiveness and denial for a long time. But world events intervened to force a change. At the very beginning of my third summer at Caux, fighting began between the Israeli military and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. And the entire conference center seemed to enter into turmoil. A young man from Beirut was unable to return home, and a number of people, including groups from Gaza, Tunisia, and Egypt, were agitated about the chaos taking place in their region. There were no Israelis at the center that week, but the Jewish Americans there felt troubled. Between the forcefulness of Israeli military actions that summer and the overall tenor of Bush-era US foreign policy, it was easy to feel both that ‘our people’ were being seen as the bad guys and that we were being seen as representatives of those people.
My instinct at this time was to retreat, even further than I had done previously, in the face of perceived blame and scrutiny. I wanted to stay away from people whom I believed had anti-American or anti-Israel views, let the situation blow over, and get on with the summer.
But the spirit of Caux stood in my way — or, more accurately, the spirit of some long-time conference participants who exemplified the values of the place. Two white-haired women from different continents had each taken a kind of personal interest in my experience, as though they saw how much I was closing down and were intent on reversing it. Subtly and not so subtly, they encouraged me to open up to the people I feared. ‘Have you thought about speaking with __?’ one asked about the Lebanese man. ‘Come, let's all have lunch together.’ Or, about a woman from Gaza: ‘You know, __ really wants to speak with you. It would be so special if you sat down with her and talked.’ These women, with that mixture of nurturance and provocation that comes only from lives of deep spiritual service, spoke the voices of my conscience — and after some time, I was ready to listen to them.
And so it was that I found myself, after a musical performance one evening, sitting next to the Gazan woman in question with the intention of having an in-depth conversation. She and I had known each other for some time, but I had never let the conversation go below the surface. And even though it was high time to do so, I could still feel my mind gearing up to become defensive about Israeli policy towards Palestine. I became ready to debate, almost as though to hear her views without rebutting them would have been to betray the entire Jewish nation. But then she looked at me and said, ‘I would like you to listen to what it is like for me at home. You don't have to agree with everything I say, but you don't have to defend yourself against it either. I would like you simply to listen.’ And, for the first time, I began to allow myself to lose my sense of certainty about this issue.
As I listened to this woman's experience I could feel myself letting my guard down. She described the helicopters flying overhead, the sleepless nights waiting for the sound of explosions, the helpless anger she felt every day. I felt that I could see and hear her situation, and felt that this natural empathy could exist side-by-side with, rather than in contradiction to, my political views. And by the end of the conversation I was able to hold the truth of her experience without needing to defend my own. My view of the political situation had not changed — but my view of her humanity had increased unimaginably.
After that simple act of listening, a whole world opened up. I let my guard down around many of the people whom I had been avoiding. I played soccer with the Tunisians, took walks with the Lebanese man, and woke up at four in the morning to attend Muslim prayer service with the Egyptians. I quickly found that these individuals could now form part of my community, that I was standing in their shoes rather than judging them, and that I was free from self-certainty. I never forgot that we saw the world in very different ways, but at the same time, I no longer saw that fact as a threat.
At the same time, all this relating did something curious to my own sense of identity. I was the first Jewish person that some of these new friends had ever spoken to at length, and as we got to know each other I found myself more and more taking on the role of religious ambassador. I described Jewish values to them, shared my views on the legitimate security concerns of Israelis, and invited some of them to break bread with me on a Friday night while I sang traditional Shabbat blessings. I had never before been seen so strongly as a Jewish person, and this in turn encouraged me to see myself as Jewish in a way that I never had.
Thus, over the course of the summer, my sense of religious groundedness and interreligious relationship grew hand in hand, until the moment when this growth reached full public expression. On the last day of the summer, there was an opportunity for participants to make a statement about their conference experiences. And as I listened to one of the Tunisians speak, I realized that I needed to follow his lead. I began to talk about the fear and guilt that I had held on to and the sense of relief that I had begun to experience. Speaking to my new Muslim and Christian Arab friends, I asked their forgiveness for having built up such walls in myself instead of having tried to connect with them.
As I spoke I felt two sensations run through my body, so strongly that, to this day, the experience still sits in my sense memory. The first was the feeling of my heart seeming to burst as I spoke about the openness that I had begun to feel that summer. The second was the sensation of my feet pressing firmly into the floor. I knew then, as I never had known before I left my cultural comfort zone, how deeply rooted I was in my own spiritual tradition, my cultural heritage, and myself. Looking out at all of the conference participants, I felt that I would never again need to build walls of suspicion against people who were different from me: that the journey away from self-certainty and pessimism, towards Hillel’s values of empathy and connectedness, had finally begun for good.
Zeke Reich works at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and is in training to become a psychotherapist. He has worked with Initiatives of Change on three continents as an intern, conference organizer, facilitator and mediation trainer. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and daughter.