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Monday, September 26, 2011

Night of 1,000 Tables

I am finally starting to understand and speak some Hebrew. Today, I succeeded in ordering burekas and making small chit-chat tonight without the stand’s proprietor switching into English as they usually do the moment I open my mouth. I also understood my yoga teacher when she instructed us in Hebrew to do downward dog with our backs “more straight.” Waved hello to the rosewater malabi man and received a smile of recognition. Granted, that takes no Hebrew skills, but it means I’m a now a familiar face on the main drag of Jaffa!

Last week, I had the privilege of attending an incredibly inspiring event organized by several leaders in social innovation, including Danny Gal- the founder of Hub Tel Aviv. “The Night of 1,000 Tables” was an enormous display of democratic civic engagement inspired by in the desire to continue the momentum of the social protests that were sparked by the makeshift tent camps on Rothschild Bouldevard in Tel Aviv, and swept the Israeli nation this summer.

On a Sunday night, two other Tikkun Olam participants and I opted out of of one night of clubbing (in Tel Aviv, this is no easy task as the city never seems to sleep and enticing music throbs from every open doorway downtown) to attend the gathering in the vast outdoor courtyard of the Tel Aviv Museum. Upon arrival, we were met with an unusual sight. Tables of Israelis, stretching as far as the eye could see, were arranged in a manner I’ve only ever seen before at large organized (and often expensive) conferences or benefits--never in a public arena open to anyone regardless of his or her social status. Strangers, or near strangers, eight or nine to a group were gathered around each table, respectfully discussing the social and economic reforms they hope for and expect for work toward in their daily lives.

Live video coverage of the event was broadcast on a large screen overlooking the square, and volunteer transcribers at each table submitted the transcript of these dicussions to a public website (unfortunately, not available in English as of yet). The facilitators were also volunteers, having signed up for the role on the facebook event or through the organizers. At one point, it became apparent that the mayor of Tel Aviv himself (Ron Huldai) was present at one of the tables, listening directly to his constituents and their ideas around new and better ways to ensure greater livelihood and freedom for all the people of Israel. He was eventually booed out by protestors (angry about his removal of the tent city remnants), which was frustrating since it seemed important that he be there, but his presence in the arena spoke to the significant influential potential of this model.

People answered three questions: “Why are you here?” “What are the top two changes you want to see from this?” And “What can you do to help generate those changes, either alone or in community?”

It all sounds very simple, but to me it was revolutionary. Why it’s so rare for people to gather in the streets of their communities to respectfully and intelligently dialogue with one another about what’s working, or not working, baffles and frustrates me. I don’t mean to discount the discussions that still happen daily in cafes, barbershops, and other “third places,” but in an age where more and more of us are more tuned in to the social media conversations happening at warp speed on our iphones, I do maintain that it’s extremeley uncommon to see a physical manifestation of democratic political engagement at such scale outside of universities. While I didn’t understand much of the content at my table (the language barrier has been frustrating at times like this), I could read from the energy and body language of the participants that something amazing was happening-- connections were being forged and people were truly listening to each other’s narratives. And a diverse set of people were reengaging with their right to use their voice for social justice.

Granted, there were fewer Arab and Black faces than I would have liked to see (in order to truly have a representative section of the population), but as I’m trying to remind myself each day...baby steps. The experience felt particularly relevant as the High Holidays approach, and we turn inward to reflect on how we want to be different and what we want to do better in the year ahead. I hope someday to see these round tables in the streets of San Francisco, New York, Baghdad, Ramallah, Mexico City, and all around the world. And in the name of Rosh Hashanah and a new start, I’m going to nurture my little flame of hope that “someday” might be sooner than we might think.

Shana Tova everyone!

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