Imagine

One of the greatest (to my mind, at least) of Judaism’s traditions is its reverence for learning, intellectual endeavor and debate.  So I was astonished to read this piece by Gabriel Katz, written on November 28th about events the previous July and August.

Katz had just graduated from college.  His upbringing was fairly religious (his mother is a rabbi) and filled with the type of intellectual disputation I refer to above.  In high school and college, he’d grown apart from Judaism and, after graduation, wanted to reconnect, so he entered Moishe House, a network of residences open to young adult Jews.  Quoting the Moishe House website, Katz describes the organization’s mission:

Moishe House’s website states, “We embrace and encourage a variety of voices, backgrounds and perspectives. We recognize that clear and open communication are key to cultivating community.” Moishe House’s Resident Handbook explicitly states that “Moishe Houses are intended to be spaces of community and comfort regardless of political affiliation” and that this is “really important to building a strong Moishe House network.” 

Now, Katz leans somewhat to the right politically.

I strongly believe that free markets, limited government, a strong national defense, the rule of law, and individual freedoms are the best means to ensure that everyone in a society can thrive--including disadvantaged minorities. 

On a more immediately personal level, “my politics begin and end with being kind to others, never being exclusionary, and welcoming all people and views.”

Within two weeks at Moishe House - that beacon of inclusivity – those points of view rendered him persona non grata.  Once his roommates learned of his very modestly conservative views, they

sat me down in our living room and demanded that I move out. They explained that when they agreed to accept me as a roommate, they did not know I was politically conservative. Michelle said that she felt “unsafe” around me, and that she would not be able to take her birth control or bring her queer friends around me. My other roommate, Sarah, said that she did not think to ask about my political views because I was the first young conservative she had ever met. They both repeatedly said that my political views made them “uncomfortable.”

In an email later that week, Sarah wrote me: “If you cannot unequivocally say that you are anti-racist and support gay rights and women's reproductive health and prison reform and defunding the police, among other important platforms, then we have an (sic) irreconcilable differences that would not lead to a harmonious living environment.”

Of course the organization Moishe House can’t be responsible for every bigoted viewpoint held by every one of its residents.  But it must be responsible for the behavior of its employees.  In Katz’s case, those employees, far from enforcing the inclusionary values stated by the organization, piled on.

Throughout the entire ordeal, I dealt with both regional and national Moishe House staff. They behaved throughout as though I had done something wrong, not as if I was the one being bullied. They never acknowledged that my roommates were asking me to leave because they did not agree with my political views. Instead, they portrayed my roommates’ behavior as taking issue with the supposed animus I had towards gay people, Native Americans, and other minorities. (I have none.)

Under that pressure and receiving no support from Moishe House, Katz moved out.  (MH completely reimbursed his moving expenses.)

At this point, what we have is an all-too-common story of progressive intolerance for any points of view that deviate even slightly from extreme-left orthodoxy, including intolerance for reasoned discussion thereof.

But here the story deviates from the familiar.  Unlike colleges and universities across the country, unlike corporations like Alphabet, Inc. (Google), Moishe House stood up for diversity.  Here’s MH founder and CEO David Cygielman writing just two days after Katz’s piece in Common Sense.

Our first step, on August 1, was to suspend programming at the Moishe House pending further review. As the most recently-arrived resident had already begun the process of relocating to another city, we stepped in to cover all the financial costs associated with the move. We also communicated clearly to the former resident that we hoped they would continue to participate in Moishe House’s programming and opportunities. Throughout the rest of that month, we discussed the situation with the Moishe House residents, focusing on their violation of Moishe House policy even as we assessed the suitability of this house continuing to be a part of the Moishe House system. 

The residents engaged fully with the Moishe House team, acknowledging that they had mishandled the conflict and taking responsibility for their policy violation. We made it clear that if they wanted to continue to be a part of Moishe House, they would need not only to acknowledge their responsibility but also commit to a series of actions. We required them to re-sign and recommit to the resident handbook; sign a Memorandum of Understanding in which they committed to building a home where a wide spectrum of political beliefs and backgrounds may thrive; and receive ongoing training in constructive dialogue development, to build the skill set necessary for successful learning and growth. The residents agreed to all of the above stipulations verbally and in writing.

While all of the potential outcomes were considered – including closing the house and removing the residents – we ultimately decided that as an organization focused on developing young adults, we should offer the residents an opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve on their Jewish Leadership journey. With this opportunity comes the responsibility and expectation to become better, stronger Jewish leaders.  

In short, MH leadership demanded that residents live up to the conditions of their residency or leave and threatened the house with closure.  They weren’t kidding around.

And they went further.

Early in the fall, we began the process of identifying the most appropriate training not only for the residents but also for the organization as a whole. Though we fully expected these residents to take responsibility for their actions, Moishe House itself needed also to learn from the circumstances and take responsibility.

The residents of the Moishe House in question have begun their work with OpenMind, an educational platform designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences, and we have made the training mandatory for Moishe House’s program team as well; a version of the training will also be brought to resident training conferences.

It wasn’t just the intolerant residents, it was MH staff and MH itself that needed to change in order to align its behavior with its rhetoric (and with much of Jewish tradition).  The organization recognized all that and made the necessary changes. 

With apologies to John Lennon, imagine.  Imagine other organizations doing what Moishe House did.  Imagine campus life if colleges and universities stood strongly for the ancient tradition of open inquiry they supposedly represent.  Imagine if they trained their students to be open to alien points of view, to listen respectfully, to argue, perhaps passionately, but without rancor.  Imagine large corporations and governmental entities that refused to fire people based solely on their opinions on science, politics or history.  Imagine primary schools teaching kids that all people have value.  Imagine a world in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  Imagine.

Moishe House did more than imagine.  It rejected progressive intolerance and embraced – truly embraced – kindness, openness, inclusivity and robust debate. 

May others - so many others - take note.

 

 

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