Evangelical churches are turning to a Jewish nonprofit to help them have hard conversations


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – Jeff Nitz, a social worker and lay leader at his church, sees himself as a trained listener.

But beginning in 2020, his congregation — Mosaic Church in the evangelical Christian hub of Lynchburg, Virginia — started becoming riven by fierce COVID-era fights over masking, distancing and vaccinations.

Used to bridging divides among his fellow parishioners, Nitz was at a loss. “I’m used to doing active listening, but there were times where it felt like I would much rather just avoid this person than having the deeper conversation,” he said.

For help, Nitz turned to a Jewish nonprofit, Resetting the Table, which has spent nearly a decade teaching Jewish groups to have more productive and meaningful conversations about Israel. The group offers a modified version of its program to churches and other groups grappling with polarization, so last year, Nitz’s church held two sessions facilitated by Resetting the Table staffers, focused on how to talk about COVID.

Congregants on opposite ends of each issue presented their cases — and then the other side would repeat back the arguments they heard. By the end, Nitz said, he had come to understand his congregants better — and, he believed, they had come to understand him better, too. “He absolutely heard my heart,” he recalled about an anti-vaxxer congregant who had articulated his own ideas back to him.

It’s a breakthrough that Resetting the Table believes it can help happen more often in churches. Founded in 2014 out of the worry that American Jews’ arguments over Israel were tearing apart their communities, the group expanded its work beyond Jewish communities several years ago, expanding its reach even wider during the pandemic era.

“We saw the U.S. descending into its own intractable conflict,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Resetting the Table’s co-founder.

Last year, Resetting the Table worked with more than a dozen Christian umbrella groups representing tens of thousands of churches and several million church members affiliated with Mainline Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, African-American, Pentecostal and Orthodox traditions. And in the coming year, just half of the organization’s work will be with Jewish groups. The other half is with non-Jewish houses of worship, companies in the entertainment industry and other organizations — work that Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation started funding last year.

According to surveys, the expansion is responding to a significant concern: A study last year found that 28% of U.S. adults named political polarization or extremism as a top issue facing the country.

“There is perhaps more trepidation and anxiety about this work at this stage in Christian communities,” Weintraub said. “But there is also comparable relief and fulfillment once people have done so successfully and seen it makes their communities feel closer to each other.”

Topics more likely to come up in non-Jewish settings include the status of LGBTQ people and women in the church, COVID restrictions and the 2020 election. A series of sessions last spring that were geared toward evangelical leaders, including professors from Liberty University in Lynchburg, covered a laundry list of hot-button political topics, including the role of government, guns, free speech, voting, the death penalty, police, race and abortion.

The group’s sessions in real life, and virtually, begin in large groups. The lead facilitator spells out that the point of the exercise is not to change minds, but to allow conversations to take place, whether or not they shift people’s opinions.

“Some people might want to be having this conversation for the sake of a relationship, right?” Michele Freed, a facilitator, said last year at a session for Or Hadash, an Atlanta-area congregation. “You really care about a person and you just cannot talk about the elephant in the room anymore.”

Those attending split into smaller groups and undergo the exchange Nitz experienced: Listening to someone with a different or opposing opinion, summarizing it, then listening to feedback about that summary. Once the speaker feels the listener has fully summarized their outlook, Freed said, that’s “hitting the bullseye.”

Another smaller-session activity the group offers is called “Life Maps”: Participants compile a list of moments in their lives that shaped their outlook, and then take questions from others. A workshop packet asks participants to “Consider some of the experiences, the interactions, conversations, moments of epiphany – the things you saw or heard that had an impact on your morality or your politics.”

Weintraub said that the Jewish world, “polarized as it is,” is more willing to have those difficult conversations — a readiness she attributes to “the deep tradition of arguments … built into every page of Jewish text.”

A screen capture of a Zoom session of a Multi-Faith Convener Cohort for Faith Leaders in the South. Michele Freed is at the upper left, and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is second from the upper left, Nov. 5, 2021. (Resetting the Table.)

While recruiting for one of the group’s multifaith cohorts last year, she said, “The rabbis were lining up out the door,” while “Southern Baptists and evangelical leaders were like, ‘How do you know this isn’t going to tear my community apart?’ I think in the Jewish world at this point there’s a recognition that this work is possible and desirable and leads to good outcomes  in a different way.”

Some evangelical leaders say they’re coming around to the value of tough conversations. Chelsea Andrews, who participated in the spring sessions for evangelical leaders, said it was the first setting in years where she felt she could engage in dialogue outside her milieu of evangelical Christians without being judged for her conservative values.

“I think that the feeling of belonging is very difficult for evangelical Republicans, like myself, who also are deeply committed to peace-building and reconciliation work,” Andrews said in a testimonial Weintraub shared with (JEWISH REVIEW). The Resetting the Table sessions, she said, were “the first time in many years that I have felt like what I have to bring to the table is welcome. I don’t feel judged and I don’t feel like an error someone needs to correct.”

Christian groups also approach the dialogue differently once they’ve entered the sessions, said Eyal Rabinovitch, Weintraub’s husband and co-founder, who was the lead facilitator for the 2022 sessions at Mosaic Church, which took place via Zoom. He cited the adage of “two Jews, three opinions,” and said Jews walked into sessions with their views at the ready.

Evangelical Christians, by contrast, he has found, have a “cultural norm of ‘don’t-rock-the-boat’ niceness.” But he feels that that culture is inhibiting the airing of divisions, and that as a result “churches like Mosaic are falling apart.”

“We’re mindful of the norms at play. So oftentimes, at Mosaic, for example, people just go slowly towards differences,” he said. “They don’t want to upset each other. They don’t want to overstep, people don’t really want to get into escalated dynamics and they don’t want to feel like they’re intruding on other people’s spaces.”

Jews’ eagerness to engage and argue was evident in a series of video sessions Resetting the Table allowed (JEWISH REVIEW) to attend last summer at Jewish institutions, on the condition that the participants not be named unless they gave their permission.

A typical Jewish participant was Howard Lalli, a marketing specialist who, in a session last May with Or Hadash, wondered aloud whether being Jewish made him too excited to speak out.

“I know you gave us the option of not weighing in on a question, but I confess that I found myself in the questions about Israel scrambling mentally to come up with a position,” he told the moderator, Freed. “And I wonder if that’s a problem/challenge in our culture: that to appear to be engaged you have to have an opinion — versus asking questions, being curious.”

The group’s work with Jewish institutions has also stretched beyond Israel. In addition to that topic, Or Hadash members discussed funding the police and whether to privatize social services.

The work with churches has also ended up bridging religious divides. Nitz said Resetting the Table made him feel secure enough to ask questions that might otherwise be awkward. At one of the group’s training sessions, he asked a rabbi he met a question that had long intrigued him: why do Jews vote for Democrats, given that, in his opinion, “Republicans tend to be stronger on preserving religious rights, and very pro-Israel.”

The rabbi said they should set up a one-on-one so he could explain at length but offered as a first insight that as descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, Jews have traditionally sympathized with poor and disadvantaged people, an approach that has historically been associated with Democrats.

Nitz said the exchange was “delightful.”

“I just felt it was just so instructive and open, transparent,” he said. “I would have had a two-dimensional viewpoint when it came to understanding a Jewish voting bloc, and he added so much more nuance as a result of that conversation.”