It's Just the Beginning

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By Stephanie Black, American University

It’s hard to articulate the gift that is the Relationship Building Institute. From being in the same space and mindset as 60-plus eager interns who are also working toward the same goals, to the chance to learn and hone applicable skills and map out how to use them in the future, RBI 2018 was not to be missed. And as a National Student Board member for the upcoming year, I can’t wait to take what we learned and run with it.

Miraculously, this was not only my first RBI, but my first ever off-campus, David Project run event. Somehow after three semesters of interning, I was just now officially being taught how to build relationships. And while I had already been using so many of these skills, I now have the language, tools, steps and guidelines to employ them in full force this fall.

The skills that we were taught are invaluable and the structure of RBI lent itself to the work we will be doing in the fall. Moving from understanding the facts about Israel, gaining context to why Israel matters, adding our own personal narratives to the conversation, and working towards achieving a deeper understanding of our ‘why.’ Why are we doing this work? And how do we convey that to our campus partnerships?

Day 1 began with Israel 101: the history of the land, the conflict, and modern society. We had the unbelievable opportunity to hear from Yossi Klein Halevi, author of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” and Huda Abuarquab, to whom he read excerpts of his letters. This conversation, which included an in-depth framing from Huda about the Palestinian view of the conflict, beautifully set up and framed our goals. The goal of our work is never to win a debate or argument. It’s not about convincing non-Jews or non-Israelis that Israel should matter to them. It’s about trusting another person enough to come to the table to have a conversation about why Israel matters to me and finding common enough ground to respect that.

 Day 1 of the conference discussed the history of Israel, and providing context to the larger discussion on campus. 

Day 1 of the conference discussed the history of Israel, and providing context to the larger discussion on campus. 

Day 2 of RBI was our chance to define, specify, and articulate exactly what it means to say Israel matters to me. Through what became a long day of introspection, we unpacked our relationship to Israel through understanding ourselves and our values. Then, we were able to connect our own values to the values of the communities we are involved with on campus. For example, as a feminist, I spent a lot of time making the connections between the rights I fight for in our country to the women who are fighting for their rights at the Kotel.

We also learned the heart of what relationship building is all about: reflexivity and allyship. How can we ask non-Jews to stand for us and for Israel, if we aren’t also personally engaged with and invested in the success of their communities? How can I, as a Jew, ask a Muslim to care about my story if I am not doing the work to show that I care about hers? We met with local community activists and had hands on volunteering.

 Bar Galin (left) and Stephanie Black (right) enjoying a fun night at the 2018 Relationship Building Institute. 

Bar Galin (left) and Stephanie Black (right) enjoying a fun night at the 2018 Relationship Building Institute. 

And lastly, we unpacked the next steps about how to go forth and have these important conversations when we return to campus. From exploring the best ways to reach out to key community partners to creating a mutual, respectful relationship, we left no stone uncovered.

Though I don’t have anything to compare it to, I can definitively say that RBI was not only useful for the work I do on campus, but simply fun. It was heartening to chat with other interns and listen to the work they do on their campuses. It was amazing being able to discuss what programming has worked well and what could work better with a community of people who know exactly what you’re talking about. I know that I will take the skills I learned and conversations I had at RBI and apply them to the work I do on my own campus this year. The work doesn’t end at RBI; it’s just beginning.