How Hillels are Changing the Conversation on Campus in Partnership with Resetting the Table



January 9, 2023

For Tori Thompson, a Jewish student at Maryville University near St. Louis, learning how to effectively have complex conversations through a workshop facilitated by Resetting the Table was both a positive experience and an educational one. 

Resetting the Table is an organization that works with campus Hillels and other institutions across the country to “depolarize” divides in the U.S. through difficult but constructive conversations about charged subjects, from racial justice to reproductive rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “What I learned from Resetting the Table will make me a better listener when I hear things that I disagree with. I am developing a better sense of empathy,” said Thompson.

As the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, Hillel provides a home—spiritual, social, and intellectual—for more than 140,000 Jewish college students. Home is a wonderful, warm place, and it can also be a complicated one. 

That’s one reason Hillel has been working with Resetting the Table since 2014. Through Resetting the Table and other like-minded initiatives, Hillel makes sure students are able to embrace and learn from their differences, rather than experience fear or escalation in the face of them.

At the Maryville University workshop Thompson participated in, for example, Resetting the Table trained the Hillel director, Joey Abeles, to facilitate conversations among students who disagreed on various topics. Abeles then supported his students to talk through their diverse views and experiences in a way that strengthened their relationships and shed new light on the issues.

Resetting the Table’s goal is not to eliminate differences, but to help people transform their differences into a source of connection, learning, and problem-solving, said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, who co-founded Resetting the Table. 

“Many of us are drawing our red lines too close to ourselves in this moment,” Rabbi Weintraub said. “It’s easy to see other people as beyond the pale and not worth speaking to before we’ve really tried.”

Polarization has become a major national and global challenge, and Resetting the Table works with multiple demographics and sectors to help overcome it. The organization’s programming has reached more than 53,000 participants, including clergy members of multiple faith traditions and professionals throughout Jewish life. The team focuses on change-makers positioned to influence others and transmit Resetting the Table’s techniques and ideas.

Elyza Veta and Rachel Bell, alumnae of New York University, said they were first helped by Resetting the Table during their freshman year, when the student government passed a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Resetting the Table visited the campus to facilitate a “town square” event amid widespread tension between Israeli and Palestinian student organizations on campus. 

“Everyone was super-angry and crying and emotional, but it was a respectful,  honest conversation,” said Bell. “And it was a really magical space, never before seen on campus. All of us were confronted with things we agreed with and things we disagreed with and became more empathetic and knowledgeable.”

The women—themselves from different sides of the political spectrum—became close friends through Resetting the Table. They were so inspired, they signed up for Resetting the Table training, including a “Dual Narratives” educational session, which they turned to when ideological tensions flared on a group trip to Israel that the two students took together. They stayed up late one night to get permission to offer their own Resetting the Table workshop and prepare to teach it themselves.

“Once we got through it, everyone felt like, Wow. Look how much growth we just had. Everybody learned that people who disagree with them are not evil or bad or wrong,” Bell said. “When I got back to campus, I felt so much more equipped to handle the conversation. Every Jewish organization—and everyone who has a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—should do this.”