“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” — Tony Robbins
This January, a group of student leaders from New York University departed on a flight bound for Israel. Together, they represented more than fifty diverse campus communities and had assembled to learn about one another while visiting a nation full of historical nuance and continuing complexity.
The planning for this pilot program began in August of last year at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, where I am a student staff member. While NYU, despite its immense size, does a phenomenal job assisting students in creating micro-communities around their interests and passions, there remains a lack of substantive communication between the various groups. In the spirit of coalition building and in recognizing the importance of solidarity, the Campus Influencers Seminar was created as an opportunity to bring together unique student leaders, create space for a more intentionally inclusive community, and engage in stimulating discussion, something that has become crucial in the last several months.
In recruiting for the program, we sought to assemble a group of influential campus leaders, diverse in race, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, and political beliefs. After interviews and applications, twenty-five student leaders were selected, including budding poets, Christians, students of color, Jews, members of the LGBTQ community and representatives of various political groups.
The programming was unique, intentionally put together to offer the influencers a comprehensive and honest portrayal of Israel in all of its triumphs and struggles. Together, we explored Christian, Muslim and Jewish sites, as well as spoke with journalists, writers, refugees, and political leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Traveling to almost every part of the country, we heard history and current events told from several different worldviews and perspectives, challenging ourselves with often-conflicting opinions along the way.
In Tel Aviv, speaking with Deputy Mayor Asaf Zamir, we learned about public education programming designed to create consistent opportunities for all children to learn together, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Jewish, secular or religious. In Acre, meeting with the founder of the Arab Jewish Community Center, we witnessed the tremendous strength and devotion an Israeli Arab Muslim man has to bridge the divide in his community and successfully create space for unity. In Jerusalem, listening to diplomat Dr. Tal Becker and author Matti Friedman, we learned about the importance of empathy in conflict and the need to enlarge our understanding of a complex region with an even more muddled history.
Sharing his perspective on the greatest difficulty affecting the Israeli state today, prominent LGBTQ activist Imri Kamlann expressed, “Our challenge now is to be a real community. To strengthen the feeling of solidarity between us, to strengthen the structures that will help us make decisions together, and to put aside the political differences when it comes to taking care of each other and fighting together for our goals as a community. I believe that if we can be strong as a community, we can achieve everything.”
In between listening to and engaging with speakers diverse in profession and opinion, we turned to one another. As participant Oscar Adelman noted, “We were constantly debating, questioning, pushing one another to consider another perspective.” In doing so, we learned about one another and ourselves, fostering greater understanding. We willingly and openly confronted immense challenge head on, striving to understand the people, the region and the conflict beyond the few powerful sound bites we had previously heard in the media.
Ultimately, we created a community between us, united by a shared experience and a clear willingness to engage in dialogue even when it was challenging or uncomfortable. Now back on campus, we continue to work diligently to ensure that this community remains strong and expands beyond its original group. More than ever, there is a tremendous need for communication between those seemingly different from one another. This program represents one effort towards achieving this aim, and we actively commit ourselves to continuing its work, determined to cultivate unity in moments of uncertainty and division. As author Yehuda Berg poignantly notes, “Every little action creates an effect: we are all interconnected.”
This piece originally appeared on March 7, 2017 on forward.com