12/31/2011 09:45 EST | Updated 02/27/2012 05:12 EST

Four People Who Changed My Thinking in 2011

By way of bidding farewell to 2011, I'm reflecting on the people I've encountered this year. If Jewish ethics through Pirkei Avot instructs us to "make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend," I am all the richer because of the people I have met.


By way of bidding farewell to 2011, I'm reflecting on the people I've encountered this year. Four individuals I met stand out as exemplifying how to engage in important and reflective conversations about change and progress in their own communities. If Jewish ethics through Pirkei Avot instructs us to "make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend," I am all the richer because of the people I have met.

In June, I interviewed Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch project of Peace Now, at her Jerusalem office. A few days after a Tel Aviv peace march we had both attended (and about which I reflected here), Ofran shared her frustration about getting the Israeli public on board.

A majority of Israelis support a two-state solution. But Peace Now is sometimes seen as being anti-Israel, Ofran lamented. "I can scream all I want that Palestinian rights are actually in the Israeli interest, but others see me as being on the Palestinians' side."

Not long after we spoke, Ofran became a target of frightening personal threats, including vandalism to her home and office.

I deeply relate to Ofran's conception of a necessary overlap between Israeli and Palestinian rights, a pair of philosophical commitments I hold and have written about.

A day before meeting with Ofran, I had spent the afternoon hiking around Jerusalem with a colleague and friend. Dr. Oded Löwenheim is a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University, and is writing a book about his daily bike ride from his home in Mevaseret Zion to Mt. Scopus. He calls it "de-commuting," partly to distinguish it from the car commute that typifies suburban life.

Hugging the Green Line for large swaths of it, the route provides Löwenheim a chance to stumble upon Palestinian workers or idlers, and remains of Arab villages, ever-cognizant of the deep contestation of land over a proto-border that is becoming increasingly invisible.

The afternoon we spent exploring the area was my 39th birthday. To make the occasion, I posed for a snapshot astride an old concrete marker left over from the British Mandate. But for the modest grey obelisk, no one would have known that this bit of grass and gravel hosts one of the most relevant boundaries defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Löwenheim's highly introspective writings -- as he examines the experience of everyday Israelis and Palestinians -- serve to remind his colleagues, and the wider public, of the micro-dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against a storied and hurting landscape.

Once home in Ottawa, fall brought the usual back-to-school routine, and for members of my spiritual community, a particularly unusual and high-impact Shabbat.

In early September, my synagogue (a Conservative egalitarian congregation) hosted Rabbi Steve Greenberg for a scholar-in-residence weekend. Greenberg -- an Orthodox gay rabbi who was featured in the 2001 documentary Trembling Before God, and who was named by Newsweek as one of the top 50 influential rabbis in America -- had already been on my radar as I had been striving to help my shul become more conscious and inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

Just before his visit, I had written in these pages about Greenberg's approach to recognizing and embracing gay difference.

But Greenberg's visit packed an emotional punch I did not expect, as he led us through his own searingly honest journey, forcing us to reflect on our own lives and experiences, if only silently.

His tireless efforts on behalf of Jewishly-committed gays and lesbians, and his grace under pressure -- particularly as he regularly faces push-back (and worse) from his own community -- is awe-inspiring.

Last month, +972 magazine broke the news that Greenberg had performed a same-sex wedding in Washington, DC. The reaction from many of his Orthodox peers has been unnerving. Greenberg has published an eloquent response here.

Finally, there was Seth Morrison, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) board member who resigned over the planned expulsion of the Sumarin family from Silwan. In a recent article, I shared my reflections on my conversation with Morrison, outlining how his decision to step down from the board would hopefully spur that organization to make change. Selecting change from without versus change from within can be a difficult path to navigate.

In political scientist Albert Hirschman's famous formulation, individuals within organizations regularly face a choice between exit, voice, and loyalty. While Morrison has been the only one of these four to choose to exit the particular organization, he continues to use his voice to try to better his overall community. (His recent bid for the J Street board, an organization that supports Israel, was unsuccessful, but I expect that Morrison will continue to be an active figure in Jewish institutional circles.)

All four of these individuals inspire me to rethink assumptions about the unspoken rules of communities, as they pull back the layers and seek to rewrite those rules for a better tomorrow. Happy 2012.

An earlier version of this appeared on