Narrow Bridge Project:
Jews Reaching Across Divides on Israel, Activism & Antisemitism
Rebbe Nahman famously said: "The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid." At a time of significant fear for Jews and so many others in our country, Narrow Bridge Project (NBP) is about reaching out across divides, in spite of - and because of - our fears.
NBP is an application-based student cohort experience, which meets to discuss the past, present and future of Jewish peoplehood, Zionism and antisemitism, our differing definitions of each of these, and how these differing understandings impact our Judaism, activism and life experiences as Jews today. NBP is a radical strategy for addressing a diminishing sense of Jewish peoplehood, rising bilateral antisemitism and the flammable subject of Israel/Palestine on campus. It is rooted in a belief that positive developments in any of these realms necessitates Jews discussing the interconnectedness of all of three subjects, together, across divides.
NBP is an initiative devoted to impacting how students think, talk and behave with regard to the Jewish past, present and future, not shaping what students think, say or do. It is designed not to shift the type of activism in which students engage, but how they engage in that activism, and with fellow Jewish students who are active in apparently opposing ways. The learning draws from Shalom Hartman Institute curricula, current events and students' lived experiences as Jews on College Hill in dramatic times.
The initiative launched Spring Semester 2018 as a collaboration between the OCRL and Brown RISD Hillel. It has come to include a Winter Break Seminar at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and also an advanced program, Narrow Bridge Fellows (NBF). In all, more than 80 unique students have participated in Narrow Bridge to date.
2019-20 Academic Year Cohorts, At A Glance:
*Cohorts are by application only and participants are selected with an eye toward achieving as much political/ideological Jewish diversity as possible. Weekly homework includes assigned readings and frequently response papers; cohort participants additionally commit to having weekly 1:1s with one another, outside group time, to deepen their relationships and understandings of one anothers’ stories, particularly around Judaism and Israel.
- NBP Fall 2019 Cohort*: 20 students meet weekly to explore and discuss the past, present and future of Jewish peoplehood, Zionism and antisemitism, their differing understandings of each of these, and how these differences impact their Judaism, activism and life experiences as Jews today.
- NBF Fall 2019 Cohort: 6 students—all former NBP participants—meet bi-weekly to produce “Antisemitism: Contested Narratives,” a sourcebook of differing definitions of antisemitism, which serves as a launch-pad for the work of NBF Spring 2020.
- NBF Spring 2020 Cohort*: 12 students meet weekly throughout the semester to examine and debate contemporary examples of anti-Zionism in efforts to come to consensus on where anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism. As a diverse group of Zionist and anti/non- Zionist Jewish students, the cohort endeavors to develop collective definitions of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and, eventually, a more universally accepted module for identifying antisemitic anti-Zionism.
In Their Words: Testimony From Fall 2019 Cohort Participants:
- “I definitely learned a lot — not just factual information or historical events, but how others contextualize and synthesize their opinions. I felt that NBP helped me to better understand how different perspectives (especially those dissimilar to mine) are shaped.”
- “The 1-on-1's I had with cohort members were amazing. They were perhaps the most influential aspect in opening my mind up. Coming into the NBP space knowing other cohort members as complex people rather than unknown entities made it so much easier to take on different perspectives. The last 2 sessions in particular, those hour long periods where we broke into our "micro-cohorts" allowed me to hear the voices of more students than when we were together as a large group. Between the 1-on-1's and the free-form discussions in hevruta and these groups, I got to hear many voices which I wouldn't have heard otherwise. This is what helped me unlock the door to new potential thoughts, feelings, and ideas.”
- “I came to NBP with little to no knowledge of Judaism/Zionism/Israel-Palestine and I am leaving the cohort with a preparedness to discuss topics more intellectually based on facts rather than opinion alone. Particularly when it pertains to Zionism, I am much more knowledgeable of it as a concept and its relation to Judaism and Jewish people-hood.”
- “The environment created by the organizers and the students is one that relies both on critical discussion and education. Often when discussing Israel-Palestine, one of these two aspects is missing; however, taking both into consideration has been a key part of the group. The willingness of everyone to share their entire opinion, knowing that others will disagree with it, is an amazing dynamic that I haven't experienced in other places, but the fact that everyone is down to argue ideas and ideology is amazing.”
- “Before this program, I never had the opportunity to study Judaism in an academic context. But over the course of a few weeks, I was exposed to the diversity and strength of the Jewish experience. In my local community, Jewishness is relatively homogeneous - everyone goes to the same synagogue and thinks about Israel in similar ways. NBP helped expand my horizons and form solidarity with the Jews on Brown's campus. I now feel better equipped to articulate my own relationship with Judaism, as well as understand other's.”
- “I appreciated having a space to explore questions about Israel in a deep way where I knew it was okay for my answer to be "I don't know." Rabbi Dardashti encouraged us to ask "real questions," or questions that didn't just prove we were smart or knowledgeable, but rather that actually made ourselves vulnerable because we were genuinely trying to figure out the answers. I also really enjoyed the 1:1s. It was fun to get to know Jews with different political views who I would not have otherwise crossed paths with. It brought together a group who had a range of ways of engaging with their Jewish identities.”
Testimony from Spring 2020 NBF Participants:
- “I love Israel, I took a gap year in Israel and spent it with Israelis who are all serving in the IDF now. I feel that NBF has served as a sort of ground zero for mixing the Jewish community in the spirit of IDF units being a melting pot for Israeli Jews that my friends describe. … I felt heard in NBF, and I was able to really listen.”
- “From the first meeting to the last, I felt much more articulate in my views. I learned to speak my mind, respectfully listen, challenge others, and be challenged. Each meeting was a little bit different, but I always felt mentally exhausted when it was over. This was perhaps the only constant to the experience. You never got the benefit of maintaining prior beliefs without someone asking you why. This was the room of 'why.' The experience was one that inspired learning, purely for the sake of learning. Even though we're at college, this can be very difficult to achieve and is something that students normally do not find in the classroom.”
- “Often I feel boxed in to my position in these discussions, or I feel that finding nuance is somehow compromising my beliefs. This space was different - this in and of itself was huge for me. The space really encouraged meaningful conversations and has given me the tools to have more of them.”
- “NBF helped me to grow both in my Jewish identity and my understanding of Israel/Palestine. While the main focus of the program was on the intersection of Antisemitism and Zionism, the conversations about Jewish identity and internalized antisemitism were also incredibly rewarding, and made me interrogate my Jewish identity in a way I had not before. As I’m sure was intended, these conversations about Jewish identity and values also helped me to contextualize my personal relationship to Israel, allowing me to better understand my own assumptions and investment in the state, land, and people.”
- "I really value the relationships I built in NBF and the people I got to know who I never would have known otherwise. ... I also feel like all of the bad-faith conversations I was seeing about antisemitism over the last year were leading me to approach any discussion of antisemitism with cynicism/suspicion, and engaging with other Jews who wanted to hash these issues out in a good-faith setting helped me shed some of that cynicism and re-invest in fighting antisemitism when I see it."