Shalom Bayit starts with Recognition

Since the horror of October 7, some American Jews might be wondering whether the battlefield is in Gaza or within their own families and communities.  Accusations of genocide, blood libel, anti-Zionism and self-hate (as Jews) are creating a type of “non-violent violence” among American family and friends. Since October 7, conversations invariably lead to talking about Israel.  These conversations include undercurrents that are ripping families and communities apart. Amidst conversations about politics, war, casualties, and trauma there is an erosion of Shalom Bayit, “peace within our homes.” I have felt this dynamic while watching close friends attempt to reconcile their love for a child regardless of extreme views about Israel and while watching other typically articulate friends self-edit (or self-silence) during Israel-related discussions with other friends. And when alumni from my children’s community Jewish day school published competing open letters that started a chain reaction of social media responses it was as if a pitched battle had erupted.  As both a parent and Jewish educator I am alarmed by these growing chasms.  It is high time to begin thinking about how to repair this divide and about what lessons can be found in our Jewish text to guide us.

The story of Joseph and his brothers highlights how a divide among siblings can break a family apart and what can be done to repair the damage. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, yet, years later, Joseph provided the family with much needed food. There is guidance in how to move from division to repair from what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. teaches about this story. First, it is important to look at what could have prevented the divide. It says, “when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him, velo yachlu dabro le-shalom” (Gen 37:4). Rabbi Sacks z”l, explained that this literally it means, “they could not speak him to peace.”  The brothers did not talk to Joseph to share their frustration that Joseph was the favorite, that he told tales about being better than the others and that he walked around showing-off his coat of many colors.  While a conversation may not have resolved the conflict, Rabbi Sacks z”l, shared that a “conversation means that we recognize one another’s humanity. At its best it allows us to engage in role reversal, seeing the world from the other’s point of view.”

Later in the story, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Gen. 42:8).  It makes sense that the brothers did not recognize Joseph. They did not recognize his humanity when they threw him into the pit, so of course they did not recognize the man dressed as an Egyptian ruler.  While there are a few more twists and turns in the story, recognition and specifically recognition of another’s humanity, is essential to repair the family division.

Central to family division is the inability to recognize and talk to each other.  When one group in our community talks about classifying Zionism as “settler colonialism,” that the Israeli military occupation is apartheid and that the war is fueled by genocidal intent, the other side retorts that this group is self-hating and that these accusations are blood libels.  The first group’s remarks are inflammatory and hit a deep emotional cord.  The second group responds with shock, anger and hurt.  And these conversations are even more painful when they take place between parents and children.  In each case the characterizations are so harsh that they immediately shut down conversation and prevent each side from seeing the other’s humanity,

In these charged times it is not easy to recognize the humanity in each other, but it is critical that we do so.  We need to find ways to bridge the divide and listen to each other with respect and curiosity.  We need to take the time to try to understand each other’s perspective. We need to find time for in-person dialogue. We need to be open to the idea that we share many of the same values such as a desire for peace and security.

Using the Joseph story as the example, not talking to each other can escalate the situation. I’ve heard of Jewish summer camps that are not hiring, and even retracting offers, because of what applicants – Jewish young adults – have posted on social media about the Gaza situation.  Others have shared with me that board members have strongly insisted that “extreme left leading” staff not work with their children. And some are removing comments on their social media platforms in the hope of quieting disagreements.

Rather than limiting discussion, Jewish schools, summer camps and other institutions need to add bridge-building activities to their array of community development activities. Typically, the bridges that our institutions try to build have been with those of other faiths or allied organizations.  The current situation requires that we focus on bridges within our own community to head off irreconcilable divisions. Not allowing certain Jews to work at Jewish institutions or not having open conversations about different perspectives will only increase the divide within our organizations and families. We need to look inward and toward repair and not let others rip our families and communities apart.

It’s important that we don’t establish litmus tests for Jews to be members of the Jewish community.  Sadly, this seems to be one result of the Gaza conflict. This does not mean that organizations can’t be unapologetically pro-Israel.  Jewish camps, schools, Federations and agencies should have clarity about their mission, and the centrality of Israel to those missions. But the mission of Jewish institutions also includes being welcoming, inclusive and pluralistic and we need to make sure our actions mirror our words.  We need to heed the warning embedded in the Joseph story and make sure that we don’t love one group more than another. We need to keep speaking to each other.  We need to recognize each other’s humanity if we are to restore peace in our families.  October 7 was horrific by all accounts; let’s not let it become the beginning of permanent fractures in our extended Jewish community.

About the Author
Lisa Handelman is a coach, consultant, and workshop facilitator. She has over thirty years’ experience in Jewish camping, education and in the area of disability inclusion. She is the former Director of Capital Camps, one of the largest Jewish, pluralistic overnight camps on the East Coast. Lisa has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Learning Consulting, and a certificate in Jewish Education Leadership.