About the ability to listen
By Ayana Ardal | 12/11/2009
After years of facilitating groups of many different kinds: secular and religious kibbutznikim, people from the north and the south, Gush Katif evacuees, the Bedouins of the Negev, sometimes each group on its own and sometimes together, Sharon Leshem Zinger is not the same woman she was at the beginning of the journey. How a daughter of Kibbutz Urim in the Negev became a secular believer
In the expanses of the Negev, in the place where the heavens touch the earth and people are only people – which is what they draw their strength from – I met Sharon Leshem-Zinger. A highly articulate woman with a gentle voice, her excitement is contagious. I wait for Sharon across from Sapir College and after she arrives, she suggests that we sit and talk in the café in the gas station near Kibbutz Kfar Aza that in the days before the disengagement, all the people that took part in it frequented – soldiers, journalists and people of Gush Katif. We sit in two black leather corner armchairs and start to talk.
Sharon Leshem-Zinger was born and raised in Kibbutz Urim in the Negev, where she lives to this day with her husband and two daughters. Sharon was involved in the establishment of the Kolot Banegev [Voices in the Negev] organization in 1995, and currently, together with Moti Gigi, runs the school for the training of group facilitators in Kolot Banegev College in Sapir College, and teaches in the Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies.
Sharon: “Before we opened Maboa, the school for the training of community and social activists, I had a dream. In the dream, I was standing together with Biblical women around a well during a full moon. We met there to hold a ceremony: Each time we lowered a different woman into the well and as we raised her back up again, we sang ‘Rise well, rise well, raise up the water.' The dream was magical and filled with promise. I told my fellow facilitator about the dream and we both felt that it provided us with a key to the creation of a suitable model for working with social activists and leaders. In the first part, the person, the journey they are undergoing and the relations within the group are at the center, and in the second we learn various texts. We added yet another layer to this, and each week we lower one of the participants ‘into the well' and help them draw insights out of it. The social activists that we meet with often suffer burnout as a result of the enormous amount of work that they do, and looking inward renews their strength. Discussing a dilemma or difficulties related to a social project enables that person to be helped by the other participants, enables them to contend using the tools provided by psychodrama or through the learning of various texts, and thus to resolve the problem they are involved in.
“In the group that I facilitate together with Dr. Ariel Picard, we combine the personal and emotional discourse with the study of texts. We discussed the tractate Yoma, and a story there about a scene in which from the Holy of Holies suddenly emerges a lion of fire, which is identified with the urge for idolatry. The sages tried to silence the lion by filling its mouth with hot lead. After the study and discussion of the text in pairs and in the plenary, the participants are invited to look at the things in their lives and communities that are silenced.”
The dreams, which are distanced beyond consciousness and speech by some, are revealed here as a force that can be openly confronted. The echoes of what we do during the day are embodied in our dreams at night and the private melds with the public. Here, an attempt is made to allow the lion to speak, to allow the dreams to speak and to extricate speech that occurs in the present from the coerced silence of the past: a movement from helplessness to freedom.
A tool of self-liberation
“In 1992, I returned to the kibbutz after studies in Oranim College, and I began to work as an educator and literature teacher in the Eshel Hanasi regional high school. But the Negev seemed dry to me, and that was a feeling that I had never had before. I wanted to something to change that feeling. A group aimed at establishing an educational-social center for the empowerment of the various communities and the connections between them in the south got together. Its members included Dudi Natan, Hannah Raanan, Dr. Daniel De-Malach, Dr. Ariela Be'eri Israel-Ben-Yishay and Yehudi Bar-Hai-Kovacs. We realized that the first thing that needed to be done was to train facilitators. This was an opportunity to be pioneers, to set up something new on our own; it was a very moving experience. During that period, I was invited to facilitate a group in the Beit Midrash that was established in wake of the Rabin assassination, in the Herzog Center of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. To my surprise, I immediately felt at home there.
“I myself grew up in a secular-socialist home. My father, Shlomo Leshem was very politically involved. He was a teacher, and for a short period served as Rabin's spokesperson. My mother, the late Nurit Leshem, grew up in Kibbutz Shaar Hagolan, married my father and moved to Urim. There, she worked at first as a literature teacher and educator, and when she got older she become involved in family therapy. She wrote a book about communal sleeping arrangements for children in the kibbutz, and at the time, it caused quite an uproar in the kibbutz movement. In the book, Grass Talk, she interviewed women who had been among the first children raised in kibbutz children houses. For my mother, who had grown up in a kibbutz of the Hashomer Hatza'ir movement, giving a voice to other women was a means of self-liberation. My older sister also grew up in a children's house for two and a half years, but my brother and I were born after they were dismantled. The heavens looked out for me.
“When my mother and father got married, his parents refused to come to the wedding. It remained a very big open wound. The reason they did not come to the wedding was because the bride had come from a kibbutz of the ultra-secular Hashomer Hatza'ir movement. My grandmother and grandfather had grown up in Hassidic homes, they lived in Ramat Gan and maintained a traditional lifestyle, and as far as they were concerned, Hashomer Hatza'ir was beyond the pale. They hadn't even met my mother, but they were opposed to the marriage. That was something that was always part of our lives, although they ultimately accepted her. My mother always said: Never become religious and never leave Israel. She provided therapy to religious people, she had religious girlfriends, but for her, religion always remained a kind of threat. There was a barrier there. I knew that if I wanted to rebel against and spite her, all I had to do was become religious.”
And did you?
I didn't become observant, but today I roam freely between the worlds and sanctity occupies an important place in my life.
As Sharon relates it, she first experienced sanctity in her unmediated encounter with nature, when she guided tours as part of the staff of the Mt. Negev field school located on the edge of the Ramon crater.
“I was astonished by the wide open spaces. We had studied geology, and I recall the experience of standing on the ground and realizing that I was standing on layers of millions of years. I felt that there must be something greater than us, but I didn't yet talk about it. It was inside me. Later I experienced sanctity at moments of intimacy. When I was facilitating a group and someone dared to reexamine some kind of automatic perception or remove the thick shell separating us from other people, I experienced sanctity that is a kind of thrill, a trembling, a sense of very great excitement. Today I would define myself as a secular believer.
Conflict and encounter
I watched a film that documents the group meetings between Gush Katif evacuees and supporters of the left, established at the initiative of the United Nations Department of Ongoing Conflicts, which began six months before the disengagement. On the right-hand side of the political map, the group was facilitated by Hagit Yaron of Neve Dekalim, and on the left, by Sharon Leshem-Zinger.
The meetings of the group were recorded on film by the director and cinematographer Amir Hasfari. The film, Rifts, which has not yet been released, opens with the vote in the Knesset that endorsed the disengagement from Gaza, the words of Ariel Sharon, pictures of parents placing orange protest ribbons on their children's arms, graffiti: “Arik, Hitler is proud of you.”
We are then introduced to the members of the group, who dialogue with each other in a dignified and pleasant manner. As the meetings become more frequent and the moment of evacuation draws closer, they become increasingly angry, desperate, blunt, clear about their views and about their expectations of the other members. They draw closer to one another despite their opposing views, perhaps thanks to the fact that they have been given the opportunity to express how they feel. They exchange roles. The clear positions with which they arrived are tested. They start to need – some need forgiveness, others acceptance, empathy or the admiration of the other. They travel together to Gush Katif and to the urban kibbutz Tammuz in Beit Shemesh. They meet at the Kisufim checkpoint before the evacuation. Now, a picture of empty chairs arranged in a circle appears. We see the destruction of the homes of Gush Katif, which we had seen earlier whole.
While watching the film, I felt that we were exposed to pain, fury and friendship in all their intensity. Sharon believes that the dialogue held in the context of the group ultimately influenced the way in which the evacuation was carried out. Its participants were leaders and people of influence, and the fact that they had had the opportunity to meet with people willing to listen to them on the other side contributed to the feeling that they were facing human beings rather than the enemy.
Sharon: “Facilitating this group caused me to take steps that I never thought I would ever take. One day, Hagit told me that the secretary of Neve Dekalim tried to set up a tent city in Beit Hagedi and moved a few meters into its boundaries. He was immediately arrested and they were going out to demonstrate. I felt that it was so unwise to arrest him because during that period, no one in Gush Katif would agree to talk about the day after, and finally someone from Gush Katif was willing to recognize the fact that the evacuation was going to happen. What insensitivity! I told Hagit: ‘I'm coming.' I took my car in the direction of Netivot and I felt that I had to cross layers of air. All the founders of the left were standing in my way and trying to stop me, but I kept going. I crossed through the layers of air and felt independent. As if I was being reborn.
“As a tour guide in a field school during my military service, when I would introduce myself, people would often ask me: ‘What ethnic community do you belong to?' I was surprised by this question. When I began to be a facilitator, my perceptions were very universal, but today I realize how much I didn't see. During that time, I thought that it was very open-minded to see everyone as ‘the same.' Today, I have a great deal of respect for both similarity and diversity. Besides, I understand that those that belong to the majority group don't generally see, they think that everyone is like them. That is part of the refusal to hear painful stories.
“It was important for me to participate in that demonstration, which turned out to be a very small one, because I felt that people on the left needed to wake up, not in order to oppose the evacuation, but in order to take a stand against the injustices being carried out today. In my opinion, something very difficult and fascinating occurred in the entire story of the disengagement or evacuation: The people of Gush Katif personally experienced the difficulty and humiliation of standing and waiting at checkpoints and of being uprooted; the people on the left experienced the group accusations hurled at them, that they were aggressive and power driven, insensitive and ruthless. In fact, what happened was a reversal of roles. If each side can be sufficiently modest so as to be able to learn from the new reality, there is a chance that we may be able to create a softer, more compassionate and tolerant society.”
At the same time that Sharon was working with this group, she was also facilitating another group, together wit Rokia Marzouk Abu-Rakiek. This second group was established in cooperation with the Bedouin organization of Ajik, and its participants included Bedouins, Arabs from the north and Jews. Rokia was born in the village of Ararah in the Triangle, is married to a Bedouin from the Negev and lives in Be'er Sheva.
Sharon: “On Wednesdays I would hear stories from Bedouins who were dispossessed of their land and uprooted from their homes, without anyone knocking on the door, without anyone compensating them, without an entire society talking about it. They felt transparent. And on Sundays, I would meet with the group of residents from Gush Katif who were about to be uprooted but who were in denial most of the time, hoping that it would not materialize.
“From many respects, the Bedouin experience was harder, because what was involved was contempt for their human rights. But as far as they were concerned, the ones perpetrating it were the enemy. In contrast, the people of Gush Katif, who were given public attention and were going to receive compensation, felt terrible because the ones doing it to them were members of their own nation. It was very moving to hear the Bedouins talking about the people of Gush Katif who were about to be uprooted. On the one hand, they identified with them and on the other, considered it justice.”
In the role of the aunt
I joined a meeting of the group being trained as facilitators, whose members include residents of Sderot, Be'er Sheva, Gush Katif and kibbutzim from the area. Sharon gives the participants a task: to think of someone in their family who is important to them and to become that person and speak in their voice.
One participant speaks about winter as she strokes her wool scarf and recalls an aunt who used to come to visit them in their community each winter. She lowers her head, looks down, almost closing her eyes completely, and moves her hands mimicking knitting movements. She has become her aunt. The aunt used to visit in the wintertime, coming to the home of her sister, who had 11 children, and sit quietly knitting wool sweaters in bright colors all day and sometimes all night long. She could feel her aunt's warmth and attentiveness as she sat and knitted. Unlike all the other adults, she did not dismiss her with a wave of her hand and send her away, and instead sat quietly knitting another beautiful sweater as she listened to her.
The roles change. Another woman takes the role of the aunt, and the first woman turns to talk to her. She tells her how dear she is to her and how each winter she remembers her, how happy her visits made her and how she treasured them, so much so that she didn't leave the house even when her mother washed the floors, not even to go visit her girlfriends.
A rare ability
After observing the group, I emerge overcome, burning with emotion because of the beauty of the ability to bring what one is to others, because of the courage to touch painful, raw moments in life, because of the ability to yearn and express appreciation for another person, even from a distance, even after many years.
As someone who has facilitated many groups, I can appreciate the rare ability I find in Sharon to facilitate a group so that the core of the individual is exposed, her ability to awaken a feeling of strength of truth in the participants, to the point that they are able to reveal what lies in their hearts, to feel that what they are doing is of crucial importance, that they and their friends can make a difference, can change things. I learn how important the facilitator's ability to listen, understand, feel is, the ability to help the occurrences develop as she stands on the side, keeping the content that the group is discussing, the relations between its members at the center
To become water, to become light
We drive to the bus stop and linger in the car a few minutes longer. The sky has become very dark and the fields are very green, and Sharon tells me about a dream she had two months before the evacuation from Gush Katif:
“I dreamt that I had come to a gathering of VIPs in the Ramon crater. Down below in the crater, which was smaller than in reality, a group of children and teenagers that had been designated as ‘children and youth at risk' were playing and splashing in the water. The distinguished public figures sat on the edge of the crater and filled with self-importance, discussed among themselves how to resolve the distress of the children and youth. It was very hot and I wanted to dive into the cool waters of the Ramon stream flowing in the crater. I jumped into the water to swim and began to play with the children. I told them that I was a fish and they began to swim with me like fish. It was a lot of fun. Gradually, some of the important people began to climb down to the crater and come into the water. While we were all splashing and spraying water, the water began to rise, until it began to take the form of a huge tsunami. It was very frightening. Suddenly, I saw delicate etchings of brilliant light with the names of all the settlements in Gush Katif engraved on the wave. The beauty was captivating and for a moment, I forgot that we were in the midst of a huge wave. I lifted my eyes to look and catch a bit more of that beauty. To my surprise, I saw my sister inside the huge wave. The wave continued to surge and grow, threatening to crash upon us and upon all the people at the edge of the crater. Then my sister shouted: ‘Don't be afraid! Turn into water!” I listened to what she said and I turned into water. After a few moments, I reached the shore and became a human being once again. I tried to see what had happened to the people on the shore. Then I recalled that my sister was still inside the huge wage and that her life was in danger. I shouted to her: ‘Don't be afraid! Turn into light!' And she turned into light and then returned to shore as a human being. Finally, the water receded and the quiet was restored.
I think about Sharon's dream when I am shivering with cold, wearing wet shoes at the Hodaya junction. Behind be is high grass and trees whose branches stretch out under the darkening skies, and before me is a long road on which cars speed by, and I know, like in the dream, there are cases in which one needs flexibility and an amazing ability to change and adapt in order to survive, to be saved.
Ayana Ardal is a poet and teacher in Jerusalem