How we got 450 people excited about consent at The Collaboratory

Originally written for The Times of Israel, June 22, 2019

When you go to a gathering with people you don’t know, are you a hugger, a waver, or a high-fiver?

Over the last decade, movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have brought the issue of consent and physical touch to the forefront of the conversation around “how we gather.” At the same time, the gulf between Orthodox/traditional models of Judaism and more liberal streams continues to widen… making it harder for these communities to connect or relate to one another.

This is the context that made the theme ‘Reimagine Gathering’ so salient and relevant for this year’s Collaboratory, the largest annual conference of Jewish activists, visionaries, and catalyzers of change in North America. Two Jewish organizations supporting these visionary leaders, UpStart and ROI Community, partnered with host convener UJA-Federation of New York to reimagine the ways in which Jewish communities come together, explore who is gathering (and who isn’t), and dig deeper into why we gather in the first place.

So, how to handle a group of 450 participants coming together in Brooklyn, with a wide range of Jewish identities and practices? How to make every individual feel included, safe, respected, and valued? How to honor the values of inclusion and consent throughout the convening?

These are challenging questions in any context, let alone a large, three-day event. And as the UpStart team member charged with designing the “user experience” for attendees, I wanted to address these issues in a way that positively enhanced the convening. Enter consent buttons, a tactile and colorful way to engage participants.

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As participants arrived, they were met with two walls of buttons that asked, how should we greet you? There were four choices: hugger, hand-shaker, high-fiver, and shomer negiah (waver). Participants were welcome to choose any number of options to wear.

Some chose hand-shaker, sharing with us that in professional settings they prefer to keep a modest mode of greeting between colleagues. Others wore two buttons, such as ones that read hugger and one shomer negiah, indicating that they were open to hugging those of the same gender. Still others chose high-fiver, whether just for the fun and the high energy, or because they simply don’t want much physical contact.

We overheard conversations throughout the first evening about which form of greeting to use when two people have different buttons. People mused that consent is a lowest-common-denominator situation: if you’re a hugger and your partner is a high-fiver, it would be best to keep physical contact to a high-five.

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Grounding gathering in Jewishness

In conjunction with the consent buttons, we also created The Ten Commandments of Gathering, a creative take on the guidelines we provide for interactions at The Collaboratory. We learned from Priya Parker, The Collaboratory’s keynote speaker and author of The Art of Gathering, that establishing boundaries and expectations for your event is key in creating an intentional, equitable, and inclusive space.

Drawing on Jewish wisdom and texts, we developed commandments like foster equity (amplify the voices not being heard, Shemot Rabbah 28) and be mindful of consent (know before whom you stand, Berakhot 28b). These provided additional context for how and why we were bringing inclusion to the forefront of the gathering. Participants were encouraged to take risks in reaching out to folks they don’t know, and to recharge not only their cell phones but themselves throughout the three-day event.

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What we learned

Giving our participants the language and the permission to be upfront about their preferences in a bright, non-verbal way made many people feel at ease in a room full of strangers.

Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach wrote in the Jewish Standard that simply seeing the shomer negiah pins made him feel explicitly welcomed into a space as an Orthodox Jew, when he too often feels like an outsider in pluralistic Jewish spaces.

Tamah Kushner, an executive director of a synagogue who was in attendance, said about the buttons, “[they] were an excellent way to gently, effectively, while still being cool–demonstrate and remind us of the diversity of Jewish practice. They were affirming: all of these are good Jewish options. They were practical: hm, I don’t have to guess what this person’s feeling about personal space and touching is.”

Tamah also explains that one person told her she chose shomer negiah for practical reasons–she didn’t want to come back from a conference with a cold.

The consent buttons were purposeful in giving attendees a new tool for consent, and The Ten Commandments of Gathering were useful in setting expectations and parameters for an intentional gathering.

Bradley Caro Cook explained the resonance of the Ten Commandments this way. “Every year at The Collaboratory is like gathering at the base of Mt. Sinai. We gain wisdom–the same wisdom that was passed to Moses and has kept us as an eternal people. Framing principles of this conference with intentionality and through a Jewish lens deeply touches my soul in a memorable and long lasting way, every time, but especially this year as we Reimagined Gathering.”

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Takeaways

When I approached UpStart’s leadership with the consent button idea and the Ten Commandments, I was met with an enthusiastic “yes!” I was encouraged to embody UpStart’s core value of risk-taking, and to prototype a solution in a creative way.

My takeaway? Buy-in from senior leadership is an essential step in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Making a bold statement requires the willingness and the backing of leadership to step out of what has been done and to embrace the “what might be” (something we talk a lot about at UpStart).

Part of living into the “what might be” in the midst of movements that focus on accountability (#MeToo, Time’s Up) is giving people the tools to navigate the nuance of everyday interactions. This is just one tool and we’re grateful that Collaboratorians across the spectrum of observance met the initiative with openness and excitement.

I believe that continuously measuring the ethical issues of the day against enduring Jewish values, and grounding our solutions in Jewish wisdom is a mantle we must encourage the entire Jewish community to take up. The wisdom of our tradition is timeless, and the creative expression of that wisdom is what will continue to make Jewish life thrive.

It is my hope that by sharing the creative tools we used to meet the needs of our constituents, we will encourage and support Jewish communities to do the same–leading to a more vibrant, just, and inclusive future for all.

Elisheva Thompson is UpStart’s Communications and Content Manager, spearheading its digital marketing and UX efforts. She has an extensive background in marketing and communications, specializing in brand strategy, social media, and graphic design. A Los Angeles native and a Jewish spirituality enthusiast currently living in Denver, she is passionate about giving Jewish communities a voice and an online presence.

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