The six of us sat in a circle in a student lounge last Friday afternoon on the kind of easy chairs that that make you want to fall asleep or nurse a hot drink for a few hours. But those were the last things on our minds. We were not relaxed. The first person spoke.
"I can't tell you exactly why I believe it's wrong, but it is. And I think the decision will bring pain to those who become rabbis and cantors, only to find that they can't get a job because congregations don't want gays and lesbians to lead them." Silence. No one moved.
"I'd like to respond," said the woman next to him, also a student. "I have gay friends who tried to commit suicide because they were told they had no place in Judaism. Change has to begin somewhere. But I'd like to know why you think this way," she added. "What made you reach your decision?"
The other four people, two students and two facilitators, one of whom was me, sat in rapt attention. We were participants in a dialogue group, a structured conversation about Jewish life. Most of the groups run by this particular organization focus on discussions about Israel; this one was about an equally thorny issue, the recent decision of the Conservative movement to ordain gays and lesbians. I'm learning how to facilitate these groups. I never before did anything of the sort, but read about a training session and was intrigued--for selfish reasons as much as by a desire to do something useful for my community. I'm not always the greatest listener. Yes, I'm open-minded and tolerant--with those on my same wavelength. I have a tendency to lose patience with, and want to strangle, those with whom I disagree. When we're talking about leaders of countries I'll never meet, I'm happy to vent my frustrations by grumbling loudly and voting for the other guy. When it's a client, however, I can drive myself nuts, responding with with high blood pressure or complete denial that a problem even exists. ("It's easier to attract bees with honey," said my mother. Not always the best advice.) This dialogue session, with a trained facilitator modeling how to set fair, neutral guidelines, interrupt gently but sternly, and navigate charged waters, was a great reminder that people on opposite sides really can sit in a room together and not kill each other. We reached no conclusions, but that wasn't the goal. We did listen with respect and kavannah--mindful intention, presence, awareness. So many good things can begin from this place.