Consider and Converse: A Guide to Chavruta

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Chavruta / Transformational Partnerships

Introduction

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 chavruta” / how different sorts of partnerships can transform us and our experiences. Traditionally, chavruta is a learning partnership where two people study a text together. I was especially intrigued by the triangular nature of chavruta — the understanding that each person and the text itself (deemed one of the partners) is valued and valuable. The process of chavruta learning creates an atmosphere and experience where a text is understood in new ways, more deeply, and with the potential of being transformative. I wondered whether we could apply this disposition of chavruta — curiosity, listening, openness, empathy — to the relationships established within and among Jewish nonprofits. How might we build stronger, more collaborative relationships based on deeper insights gained from listening, caring, being patient and vulnerable, and sharing from a position of trust?

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 SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

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 Zac Kamenetz introduces readers to the idea of partnership learning through his own experiences with his chavruta. He draws on a verse from Proverbs, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the wit of his friend,” (27:17) and the discussion of this verse in Talmud, “Just as one [piece] of iron sharpens another, so scholars sharpen each other in legal [debate]” (Taanit 7b) to explain the power of partnered learning. He writes, “In a world that often values both singular intellectual acumen and an over-friendly pluralism of ideas, principled chavruta learning produces new, cooperative knowledge and layers of experience, rather than merely affirming the self and its preset assumptions.” We are living in a divisive, polarized America. How might some of the principles of partnership learning be used to bridge the divides among us—especially among Jews? How might they be adapted to nurture conversations among people with drastically different viewpoints on the future of democracy in America?
  • Aliza Kline & Sarit Wishnevski draw on their experiences working with OneTable, a Shabbat dinner-centric initiative, to examine a model for Jewish organizational partnership. They are hoping that their “collaborative enterprises lead to new insights and solutions, and higher quality engagement and learning opportunities for participants. With chavruta as a conceptual guide, we hope to avoid transactional relationships and create collaborative partnerships that grow our organization and equip a new generation with the skills and tools necessary to create and share Jewish ritual and community.” What are the skills and tools you need to make collaborations more viable and profitable? How do you best learn those professional skills? What examples of successful partnerships do you use as models?
  • Joshua Avedon draws on the work of community organizer Saul Alinksy to examine the potential successes and failures of collaborative partnerships. Looking from a birds’ eye perspective, he writes that “collaborations are not just a logical response to complex problems; collaborations are required to adequately reveal a given constellation of issues and how they relate to each other. The obvious benefits to working collectively (scope, skills, shared responsibility) and the obvious challenges (coordination, conflict, shared responsibility) are only part of the picture. Just as important, the collaborative process creates an exchange of knowledge, connections, and social capital, as a multi-stakeholder network coalesces to address specific issues.” He applies the maxim, “How we learn is what we learn,” to nonprofits: “How we go about creating social good is just as significant as the work itself.” He concludes: “A field effect emerges when organizations work together on common agendas. And connected organizations allow new and spontaneous collaborations to burst into being. In turn, innovations and micro-collaborations boost the energy of the entire system. This kind of ‘planned serendipity’ is one of the more arcane yet truly powerful side-effects of chavruta ” Can tools used in one arena be readily adapted to other arenas? How so? Which obstacles undermine collaborative partnerships and what are the necessary tools to address those obstacles? How might the discipline of chavruta be applied to your projects?

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

  • Orit Kent and Allison Cook write about the “Pedagogy of Partnership,” a method they’ve developed to strengthen and deepen learning opportunities. They see chavruta learning as “a process of building relationships, or partnerships, with one another and the texts we study.” They have identified several fundamental ingredients to the process, including “a stance of openness,” and the capacity to listen and have empathy. As well, “an ethic of responsibility toward our learning partners and toward the learning endeavor as a whole undergirds the entire enterprise.” How do these principles of chavruta learning apply to your experiences in formal and informal learning environments? Can you imagine using them as you guide a conversation about a fraught topic? How might you rein in animosity during a difficult conversation by remembering these pedagogical lessons?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine a line from a talmudic story about unexpected outcomes of arguing — how constructive engagement and debate can bring us closer together: “And the sages said: ‘Whenever they sit, involved in the words of Torah, they would seem as though they are vengeful of one another. And when they part, they would seem as though they were lovers from their youth.’” Avot D’Rabi Natan (1:1) Arik Labowitz questions whether it is “really possible that two people could argue with heated vengeance and then part as lovers” and explains that our sages could feel “impassioned about a point and, at the same time, be able to see the goodness in each other.” Arik’s brother Marc Labowitz responds that when “we put speech to Divine use,עוסקין בתורה , our words can melt or break down that which has been carved into stone.” He goes on to write “The process of learning Torah is a noisy one; students become heated and agitated. Just walk into any beit midrash and you will find the discussion deafening. But these heated arguments are vastly different from the shouting matches.” And Maya Bernstein shares an essential learning — that “no act of transformative creation happens on its own. The Torah risks one of its foundational principles, the oneness of God, God’s very singularity, to emphasize this concept.” When have you begun a conversation opposed to your partner and ended feeling surprisingly changed and open-hearted? What contributed to the change in your attitude and experience? And when have you walked into a conversation expecting warmth and understanding and left feeling betrayed and misunderstood? What contributed to the change?
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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Chavruta

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