Consider and Converse: A Guide to Ally-ship

Image by Artwork by Image by David Wander
Image by Artwork by Image by David Wander

Must we agree on everything to be allies?


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of areivut, ally-ship. With so much recent discussion about who we can and cannot build coalitions with, I was curious about how we construct broad and workable bridges and collaborative platforms when we don’t agree on the full political agenda. Inspired by my friend and colleague Yavilah McCoy, I set out to find someone who would match her smarts and integrity in the public arena. I found that person in Jonathan Greenblatt, and throughout their exchange they respectfully pushed each other to think more deeply in the crevasses of political maneuvering.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

#How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at

#Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Barbara Penzner brings our readers into some of her favorite stories and texts about ally-ship. She anchors her piece in the teaching of the sage Hillel, who wrote the famous aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” She writes that being an ally is to be curious about another, to be vulnerable in our approach, “to connect our care and concern with an honest admission of what we know and don’t know about the other. …Allies listen wholeheartedly to each other’s needs — even when that listening is uncomfortable.” What is the relationship of ally-hood and curiosity? Does some of the Jewish wisdom that speaks to respecting the other — such as the notion that we are all made in God’s image, or that we are commanded to love the stranger — also speak to the idea of being allies? What’s different? Where — and why — does the Jewish community, and Jews individually, fall short in their desire to build coalitions of social justice?
  • Yavilah McCoy, CEO of the diversity consulting group DIMENSIONS, and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, exchange a series of letters about the parameters and red lines of coalition building. Fundamental to their exchange is the question about the extent to which one needs to agree on all things in order to be an ally. Yavilah’s experiences with an array of social justice organizations have given her confidence that she does not “have to agree on all things while remaining committed to developing our muscles for standing together on the things that we do agree on.” She wants to develop an infrastructure that crosses divergent interests and addresses this “intersectional” moment. Jonathan stresses the importance of building relationships that “allow us to express fully the burdens our people carry while also listening to others in the same way. Ally-hood means using our access and privilege to help advance another’s cause.” He goes on to say, “Different models of ally-ship require me to sometimes lead from the front, other times quietly from behind, or silently lending support from behind the scenes.” Is it possible to build coalitions with groups that do not share your beliefs about Israel? What fosters allied relationships? What are the ingredients to building strong coalitions? How do you understand the need to engage in intersectional and interconnected struggles in service of justice for all in the current moment? And how can we serve as allies to others while not shying away from advocating for our own needs in this time as well? ** **

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators riff on the middle question of the well-known aphorism of Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?’” Our commentators explore who we are, and who we become, if our primary concern is for our own — even if beleaguered — self and community. Rabbi Doug Kahn suggests that the three verses cannot be separated: “In honoring Hillel’s second of three clauses, “If I am only for myself…,” we cannot abandon the first: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That clause requires us to select our allies wisely. Can we work with a group on a specific issue even when we have passionate disagreements on other issues?” Acknowledging that there are red lines, he notes: “There are groups on the far left and far right whose extremism poses a genuine threat to Jews and whom we cannot work with. But, our energies are best spent looking for how to expand our 2 percent, also knowing that, when we stand with others, they are more likely to stand with us.” Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, who is a program director with Repair the World, suggests that we must show up for allies “by serving alongside members of communities that are negatively impacted by the policies we are fighting to change. We need to build relationships with our neighbors by listening to the voices within those communities. This, in turn, can better inform the change we are advocating for.” How can we possibly know what to advocate for if we are not actively in relationship with and listening to those who will be most affected by the change? And the historian and associate editor at Mosaic, Andrew Koss, suggests Jews should work as allies with evangelical Christians and their “unflagging and generous support for the state of Israel. Based on their belief in the eternity of the divine covenant with the Jewish people, these Christians travel to Israel, advocate on its behalf, and, at least in the U.S., pressure politicians to pursue pro-Israel policies.” How do you assess and make decisions about when to show up and with whom to partner? How do partnerships change you – how do they influence your attitudes and group behaviors? Which of the three questions in Hillel’s teaching do you most resonate with? Why do you think they are delivered together?

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Ally-ship

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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Ally-ship

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