To Change One's Self - December 4, 2020

The final $17,000 from our community COVID-19 assistance fund was allocated last week. You will recall we raised over $900,000 in March and have allocated funds over the past 8 months. The final grants went to:
Beit Am Mid-Willamette Jewish Community (Corvallis) -- $1,800 for technology needs
Cedar Sinai Park -- $4,200 for additional personal protective equipment
Jewish Community of Central Oregon, Congregation Shalom Bayit (Bend) -- $1,000 for technology needs
Oregon Board of Rabbis -- $10,000 to provide food gift cards to community members in need
I am so proud of our community for not only raising these needed funds, but also for the leaders who volunteered their time to responsibly allocate them. We have been transparent every step of the way so you could see how these dollars were utilized. In total, we granted $901,243 to 42 Jewish organizations across the State of Oregon and SW Washington.
To be frank, when we first launched the special campaign, our intent was to aid organizations through June. Unfortunately, as we all know, we are still struggling with the pandemic. No one and no organization is immune. That is why your support of the Jewish Federation’s Campaign for Community Needs matters so much at this time. That is how you can support our community agencies. Every gift makes a difference -- make your commitment here.
Two weeks ago, we welcomed Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, President of The Wexner Foundation, as our speaker for Federation’s Thoughtful Thursday series. She spoke about the importance of and challenge of “civil discourse in our society” today. I took my comments this week from her excellent talk that you can watch here. Make sure you listen for her question, “What kind of food is corn?”
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I re-watched the program and she posed two important questions -- How can we embrace and foster respectful debate and dissent in our community during this time of increasing polarization? How do we bring diverse cohorts together and generate productive discomfort in order to uncover common purpose and connection despite deep differences?
The Talmud represents a dense record of disagreements: 63 tractates, thousands of pages of differences of opinions chronicled for all time. We can follow both the majority and opposing opinions on hundreds of decisions shaping Jewish law and life. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are, as most of you know, among the Talmud’s most popular 2nd century leaders. They engaged in some 350 Talmudic arguments and Hillel almost always prevailed. But the way in which they engaged is offered as a long-standing model for civil discourse. They are our mentors that framed for all time how to disagree.
Though they disagreed about the law and how to live by it, they remained connected and trusted friends. Differing on almost everything did not impede a genuine relationship.
Rabbi Abrahamson outlined three key qualities of civil discourse that our tradition teaches:
  • Civil discourse emerges from deliberate practice and not only programs and panels. Learning through doing.
  • Civil discourse is fueled by patience. Its purpose is not debate but sustained conversation.
  • Civil discourse rarely just happens. It unfolds through intent.
She mentioned “motive asymmetry” -- the phenomenon of assuming that your ideology, your position is based in love -- but your opponents' ideology is based in hate. 
Think about it. People are sitting around the same table feeling, "You know, my view is based on kindness and truth, I want to help people, but you are spiteful and mean.” We cannot progress as a community with this asymmetry. It is impossible. Many of us are stuck in those asymmetrical positions on any number of issues (politics, Israel, taxes, etc.). We must work on changing ourselves, on striving to be more symmetrical in our attitude toward others.
One of the most striking comments Rabbi Abrahamson shared was, “The goal of speaking across difference does not require you or anyone else to change your mind, only to open it. Ideological flexibility requires you to inquire and understand where the other is coming from. Allow your inner voice to scream at them while your spoken voice says: Help me understand what leads you to this thinking? Then sit and hear, really hear another’s answer. Ideological flexibility compels us to develop the character trait embedded in our Jewish story -- empathy.”
Rabbi Abrahamson shared that in one of Elie Wiesel's last interviews he recalled a visit to Berlin in 1985 where he met a group of young Germans. He said, "I had never before considered that it could be as painful to be the children of those who ran the camps as to be the child of those who died in them. You cannot imagine the affection I have for them. I want to help them.” Just imagine the singular ability of Elie Wiesel to cross such an unimaginable divide. His remarkable response revealed his empathy toward others.
This is what charts a course for civil discourse -- Empathetic people of good will curious about where the other is coming from. It is not about changing the minds or opinions or positions of the other, it is about the ability to meaningfully change one’s selfWe can all work on this.
With Chanukah starting late next week, click here to find all the Chanukah happenings in our community.
Finally, and you will hear more about this next week. The Jewish Federation is sponsoring 8 Days of Giving during Chanukah. This is something new -- an opportunity for the Jewish community to support worthwhile charities in the general community, both financially and through volunteerism. We recognize that the Jewish community is a part of the Greater Portland community. We are partnering with these 8 organizations to show that the Jewish community cares, that Jews are impacted by these same issues, and that we can help do our part during this holiday season. You can learn more about the eight organizations we are partnering with by clicking here.
Shabbat shalom.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO


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