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Shabbat in the “Homicide Capital of the World”

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This story comes to us from TableMakers, a Schusterman initiative that helps young Jews to create and host dynamic Shabbat experiences for their peers.

Debra Gittler is Founder and Executive Director of ConTextos, an educational organization based in El Salvador and Chicago. ConTextos’ transforms the quality of education so that students go beyond mechanical, rote learning to develop literacy and other skills, including deep-thinking, analysis, interpretation and creativity. ConTextos was recently asked to bring their program Soy Autor, which targets gang-affiliated youth detainees in El Salvador, into Chicago’s Cook County Jail to bring education to violent offenders awaiting trial. Debra is also a REALITY Global 2015 alumna.

My work with ConTextos is inspired by Jewish values. Not only Tikkun Olam, but the way I was raised to understand reading and writing. In ConTextos, we don’t teach how to read, but we encourage reading as a tool for discussion, interpretation and debate. So when I was invited by TableMakers and Schusterman to host a Shabbat Dinner in El Salvador, I jumped at the opportunity.

In January of this year, I attended Rekindle in San Diego, a Shabbat initiative sponsored by the Schusterman and Leichtag Foundations, where I was inspired that the dinner table—and specifically the Shabbat dinner table—could be a place not just to separate work from rest, but to honor and build community through intentional, difficult, well-facilitated conversations.

El Salvador, where I work, is desperately in need of these kinds of conversations. This year, it became “the homicide capital of the world.” This tiny country of just six-million has 20-30 murders per day as a result of rampant gang-violence that targets young people. In ConTextos, we work in public schools, juvenile detention and prisons, providing literacy programming to some of the world’s most vulnerable young people. As a result, I’ve seen how powerful conversations can promote tolerance and reflection.

But we struggle to engage our local donors and supporters in the same kind of dynamic, so they can understand why conversation and dialogue are so important to creating civic values and participation. El Salvador is highly-polarized with severe class and social segregation. Different sections of society don’t interact, let alone discuss.

So on May 20, with a TableMakers grant, we held a pop-up Shabbat at Nuevo Cuscatlan Library, a municipal library that ConTextos helped establish. We sent out 40 invitations to attend a “difficult conversation,” reaching out to leaders from left- and right-wing politics, from press, private business, NGOs, universities, religious institutions, the arts and government. With their invites, guests received three articles to facilitate a dialogue that would allow us to explore difficult topics without getting weighed down by our differences: 1. A dystopian fictional short story 2. A scientific article about rehabilitating violent youth and 3. Writings by local youth detainees. We were clear: this was to elicit ideas, not funds.

And 30 people RSVPed to attend a Shabbat dinner and difficult conversation about how to address the rampant violence and social disintegration in El Salvador (we had hoped to reach 20!). Most of these people had heard of each other but never met.

We began the evening with Shabbat rituals. I admit, I was nervous to come off as “prosthletizing,” and blown away by the audiences enthusiasm to understand and participate. I’ve celebrated Shabbat my whole life; to see the unifying, calming effect was inspiring. There was a visual shift as I explained that now, we would separate work from rest, labor from reflection. That this conversation would be safe and anchored, based on a common understanding to build community and understanding.

For the next three hours, as a local chef served a three-course meal, two facilitators—myself and a colleague—facilitated dialogue that explored Salvadoran history and society. We talked about individual responsibility and trauma, the sense of obligation versus frustration. The desire to help others but the very real fear for self-protection.

As a result of the Shabbat dinner, people really talked to each other. In the weeks following, two guests were invited by a third to write Op-Eds in local papers. Participants orchestrated visits to one guest’s factory, where they employ ex-gang members, to learn how to bring those practices to their own businesses. Artists who attended had their work exhibited.

And ConTextos has been asked to have more Shabbat dinners. And the guests are holding difficult-conversation dinners amongst their own circles, pushing their friends and colleagues to gather and have discussions that are uncomfortable but necessary, to share the pain of what’s going on in their country. And to also share the responsibility—for what’s happening and for solutions.

We will do some things differently in the future. We’ll have Shabbat dinner first and then launch our difficult conversation—it was awkward to eat so well as we discussed such difficult themes. We’ll have only two readings, not three. We’ll have a smaller group, with a rotating rolodex of guests. And I will dig deeper to present Jewish rituals and values as a platform for these difficult conversations.

I’ve always known that my work with ConTextos is deeply inspired by my Jewish values. But I never thought that the Shabbat table could be such a powerful venue to engage my work.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.