Sarah Bassin

rabbi I temple emmanuel of beverly hills • interfaith advocate

Prior to joining the clergy team at Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills, Rabbi Sarah Bassin served as Executive Director of LA-based NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Under Rabbi Bassin's leadership, NewGround was named one of the 50 Most Innovative and Inspiring Organizations in the Jewish Community by the Slingshot Guide. Governor Jerry Brown named the high school leadership program developed by Rabbi Bassin as California's Faith-Based Organization of the Year in 2013. In addition, Rabbi Bassin was named as one of online magazine's Splashlife's list of 30 people under the age of 30 to watch in civic leadership.

An avid leader in Jewish innovation, Rabbi Bassin is a member of the ROI Community of Jewish innovators, and she is an almuna of the prestigious Joshua Venture Group Fellowship. She currently serves on the Boards of Upstart, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. She has also taught community relations in the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College.


Drew Kugler: So, as some of you may know, I am a fan of podcasts. I like mine; it's truly been an enjoyable process. But there are some really, really, deeply interesting ones out there and one that gets to the top of my list–and you'll you'll understand why I'm going into this here in a minute—is a show with a host with the name of Krista Tippett. And Krista has a show called On Being. She fashions it in what you would call a spiritual exploration; asking the guest, for example, what was their spiritual upbringing, etc., as a beginning to the show. So there I was in February getting my weekly fix of On Being and this familiar name came up very quickly, and it took me about a second to recognize and be excited that this person was on such an important stage.

Our guest today is Rabbi Sarah Bassin. After Sarah's performance—it was interesting in that she was joined on the stage with a gentleman who was referred to as Imam Abdullah Antepli, a Muslim chaplain at Duke University. And it was a fascinating discussion that they had with Krista about the whole notion of something that I know Sarah—and she'll talk more extensively about it in the talk here today—but this notion of interfaith between Jews and Muslims. So, as I thought about that, I came to see Sarah, and not only congratulated her on the performance, but through our conversation, it struck me that she had something certainly to bring to Tell Me What to Say. So here we are today.

One more quick story to set the context though. The reason I know Sarah is she was in a class that I taught in what I believe [was] 2010, the summer of 2010, which was is a communication course at Hebrew Union College, on the campus of the University of Southern California. And Sarah was one of the rabbinic students who was in the class. Now what's most important about that story, was it was a originally the class itself—was originally designed as a public speaking class. My job was to help the participants become more confident in public speaking. For anyone who wants to search YouTube under Sarah Bassin or listen to her on On Being, or anything else, you will be struck by what I was struck with the first time Sarah stood in front of the class—is she needed no really fundamentally—no public speaking help. But where I believe, where I intrigued her was in this notion of in communication it is not just good enough to be a dynamic public speaker. There is so much more to it, especially when it comes to hard conversations, which brings us to the irony of the interfaith challenge. So, with that long context setting, Sarah, thank you for coming today.

Sarah Bassin: Thank you so much for having me.

DK: And we are here to set to set the context a little. Why don't you tell them where we are.

SB: We are in the Belle Chapel at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, and it's a beautiful space that has wonderful acoustics, and we're sitting right in the center of a circular room, where—if we weren't recording for a podcast—we would need no microphones because it's a beautiful echo around us.

DK: That it is. That it is, and so here we go. I—as the listeners know—this show is a conversation about conversations. And as I've already commented, Sarah very deliberately chose, as part of the path of her rabbinate—to go into—which I'm going to ask her to talk a little bit about—to go into the work of interfaith. So there might even be a better term for it, but why don't you take a couple minutes and talk about why interfaith and the unique challenges that have excited you in it. How's that?

SB: I got into in our faith because it's an inherent part of who I was brought up as. You know I was always raised as a Jew, but my mother came from a Catholic background in a small town in Missouri. And she became a Jew by choice but I was raised with this exposure to my Catholic family in a way that was really positive. And I got a lot of my sense of what was just and what was right in the world from stories about how my grandfather took on the world as a small town physician, and the justice component that was part of his work as a doctor. And so for me, all of my experiences around interfaith as a kid, were very, very positive.

But when I got to college moving from the Midwest to the East Coast and surrounded by a more traditional Jewish community, there was a sense that interfaith meant negative; meant less than in the Jewish community. And that activated a sense of rebellion and a sense of—almost motivated out of anger—to carve a space how try my self in the Jewish community and to show that this was something that could be an asset and could be positive. So I was motivated very much by my own personal story, but kind of stumbled into this greater societal need for intercultural, interfaith conversations, and getting across divides of perception, right—that people build a story about those who are different than them and become too afraid to interact or to confront or to ask, and back into their own corners. And the more I got involved in work in the Jewish community, the more I started to see how really destructive that could be at the local and at the national level, when two groups aren't willing to sit at the same table together for a larger purpose.

DK: So can you describe as you begin to get into it here in Los Angeles—I always ask about the hardest part of work—but you describe something there that you approached with with great passion, obviously, you call that a sense of rebellion. But describe a representative moment that was uniquely hard and what that happened as you were trying to do your work.

SB: The hardest part for me was right at the beginning when I accepted this job working for NewGround—a joint Muslim and Jewish organization that was getting its restart after being a project of a Muslim org and a Jewish org. I was hired by a nascent board to make it its own separate entity. And I remember that as I was getting geared up and getting started laying the groundwork, I engaged a number of mentors asking for advice and recommendations on how to go about this. And one of my mentors sat me down and told me that I was wasting my career, that I would never be hired by the mainstream Jewish community again, and that this was going to be a career killer for me to start my rabbinate down this trajectory. And that was terrifying. I mean that was terrifying to walk out of graduate school with that level of student debt and to be told that this would be my last job in this realm. But that conversation activated that same sense of rebellion that I felt in college; this this sense of “OK, I think I can prove this wrong.” And just because this has been true for this person, that this has been this person's experience that Muslim-Jewish relations are so toxic that they can't be fixed, that they can't be rectified; it doesn't mean that it has to be true for me. And I turned that into a fuel for for my career moving forward, because dammit I was going to prove them wrong.

DK: And you remember, almost literally, I bet you can hear yourself telling yourself that. We learned in the class the power of the internal dialogue, the power of self talk, and which direction it takes us. Yours was I'm going to prove them wrong and then you set about to bring that exactly to light.

SB: So it wasn't the last time that I faced a naysayer or or somebody who was really skeptical about the work. And I always went back to that kind of first moment of real motivation around it. But part of what that moment also was for me was understanding where he was coming from. It wasn't coming from a prejudiced place, it wasn't coming from a place of anger, it was coming from this place of real-lived experience; that he had tried this for decades and decades over, and negative experiences and felt betrayed, and felt like it wasn't possible because of his lived experience.

DK: So how did you persevere? What—would give me the—what aside from this rebelliousness within your system, through the way you were raised and exposed—what are the actions that you, not only took, but let's be selfish or for the show; that maybe the listener when they face as we do in a lot of organizations skepticism or lack of hope, how do—what were the ways you went about keeping it going?

SB: I think that this idea of self-talk is really important, and you have to tell yourself that a different outcome is possible. And my mantra for myself was just because that's the way it has been, doesn't mean that that's the way that it has to be. And I just kept telling myself that over and over and over— and any any time I had a small win—there was one project where working with a Muslim day school, in a Jewish day school, there was a lot of skepticism about whether they could build a partnership. A couple of teachers were really motivated to build a partnership in an exchange program, but there was also a lot of fear about how parents would react, about whether this would turn too political. And as part of that, we actually head-on addressed those fears, and that the administrations had on both sides, and went to actually speak directly to the fears you don't avoid those hard conversations. Then people start to trust you more, right? And so that that day school exchange program—it's still running five, six years later. Tremedous credit goes to those communities for taking that initial risk.

But I also credit this idea of not avoiding the hard stuff at the beginning; because it's going to surface. It's going to surface if you don't take it on. So it's better to get it out in the open right and let people actually articulate what their fears are.

DK: I can't believe I'm about to quote Henry Kissinger, but he said when he was dealing in the whole Vietnam debacle, he said, “It's either going to come out later, or it's going to come out now. You have a choice.” So, you took the early, more direct—found yourself taking the more early direct route.

SB: And by the way, this was not a natural disposition. For me, I discovered about myself during the middle of rabbinic school that I was very much a conflict avoider. And I mean my Midwestern background affects my personal relationships; it was not something that I was predisposed to. But working with NewGround and seeing the value surfacing in the hard conversations— that I started to reprogram myself.

DK: Now as you have grown stronger and more confident in that mileu of difficult conversations, the coach in me wants to ask what's left for you? Because a lot of people can't even get there, right? As your old former mentor would say, “It's not going to work; don't even try.” So, they only get better at not trying and therefore, at best, become mediocre; but mostly live in their fear. There is the essential problem. You have moved beyond that. You have carved it out, you've received national, international recognition for doing it. But in the nighttime or something, what's your self-talk telling you now that will hopefully continue to spur your development?

SB: As every good feminist believes, the personal is political and vice versa. So I think my next challenge is living this really profoundly and deeply in my personal life. And you—I had had a conversation about my relationship with my partner; I'm going to be married in August.

DK: Mazel Tov.

SB: Thank you. And my partner is a committed Modern Orthodox Jew, and I am a woman Reform rabbi. And for those who aren't in the Jewish community, I will let you know that that divide is much larger than it might seem just by saying two Jews are getting married. And we have we come from very different places within the Jewish community, and very different commitments. And so the hard conversations that I'm having now are in my personal life and figuring out how how do we make some real compromises in order to make this work, because we love each other profoundly and deeply, and there's going to be some hard choices that we have to make in order to to be with each other. But we're committed to it and, for me, it's some semblance of putting what I've done professionally into lived experience in my personal life.

DK: You said that this is hard to—especially on the personal life—in my experience as a as a father in law and a husband—my term Constructive Candor certainly at times, once you make the choice to jump—it tends to make a difference and flow pretty smoothly. At work do you find a difference between hard conversations in the interfaith approach, as you do in basically stealing yourself to do the same work, but in personal?

SB: Without question.

DK: And what do you see is that?

SB: It's much harder in the personal. But I think one of the things that I love most about my partner Jordan, is that for all of my success in doing this in the professional realm, I'm sometimes stilted in it in the personal realm. And it takes me a lot longer  to find my thoughts—to be able to articulate what I'm thinking—and he does a really extraordinary job of drawing that out of me and helping me to actually articulate what's at stake for myself.

DK: So in the absence of hard conversations and constructive candor, where do you believe—just to put it out there bluntly—where do you believe that relationship would be?

SB: It wouldn't be possible—I mean—

DK: You went out on a the date the first time—you dated early—when did it start to make a difference—when you started to see more of a future I assume...

SB: Well, our story is also a long story. We dated more than a decade ago and had a first go at it, but didn't think that it was possible because of these religious differences and these religious divides. We reconnected seven years later and started feeling out the possibility of whether this could actually be real. And both of us realized that it wasn't going to be possible, unless we put everything on the table and talked about all of our worries, all of our concerns, all of the things we knew that we needed to face. And so we did and we started our relationship after we had that conversation of laying out what is actually possible possible.

DK: So have you brought—to come back into the professional world—has the Jordan life affected how you approach your work in essence— we, for example talked last time, and I'd love to hear more of your thinking on the whole #MeToo notion—you preface the whole Jordan story with the personal and political. Let's come back—has the personal started to inform your courage in the— if you will—the political or spiritual world?

SB: I think it has done less to inform my courage and more to inform my empathy, because when you've been working in the space of difficult conversations, after a while the idea of difficult conversations becomes easy, right? And it's hard to really feel firsthand for people who are first diving into difficult conversations. It's hard to feel that level of fear and anxiety and trepidation that they feel. But the process of going through this in my own personal life, has reminded me of how much can feel it at stake—when you're stepping into these difficult conversations. So, I think it's been a good refresher for me to help feel a deeper sense of empathy for people who are taking some of these risks the first time that for me, at this point, might feel more natural.

DK: Do you find women in any of these settings in the professional settings where you obviously employ a set of, not techniques, but a certain framework of conversation. How do you assess most of the people that you interact with, in their competence and their confidence to go forth into these? Do you have to get out—and I've always wondered about that—I've I've had a comfort in it because I think about it all day long. But what do you find to be the readiness and willingness levels of most of the people you're running into, to go there.

SB: I have discovered that for the most part people are willing if they trust you. And if you are effectively able to communicate a safety net, that it might be hard, they might hear some difficult things, but they're not going to get hurt by walking into one of these difficult conversations or difficult spaces. So some of the work that I've done it Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills around these difficult conversations and bringing in people from across the political spectrum on real hot-button issues in the Jewish community from the Iran deal, to [a] vision of Israel to the settlements, right[?], real hot button issues where people are very clearly in their polarized stances.

Before we ever have any of these public conversations, I spend about ten minutes at the beginning of these sessions outlining what the ground rules are about what they can expect in terms of the conversation they witness up front. What the expectation is of audience behavior and participation. How their question should come across. And at the end of that ask if people can agree to that covenant before the program starts. And if they can't, they're welcome to step outside of that room. But we, in that moment, are trying to create a sacred space for difficult conversations and that requires everybody to be uncomfortable. And if you set people up to expect that they're going to feel uncomfortable, if you set people up to know what's expected of them, then they can go with you for that hour and a half. And then they walk out and they've had this first taste of yes, being challenged, and maybe being angry or triggered, but not feeling attacked or under siege in a conversation that was really difficult. And I think that that's the first trigger of how I perceive my rabbinic mission now; is reframing in how we engage with conflicts as a society.

DK: So how many times have you given that ten minute preamble of ground rules?

SB: Five at this point.

DK: And out of the five times, how many people walked out?

SB: Four.

DK: Four.

SB: Yeah.

DK: About one for one.

SB: So you know—

DK: Good for them.

SB: Yeah, exactly. And for the rest the group it also reframes when they walk out, right, because then that person is taking up an invitation. It's not them storming out, even if that's what it actually is. There is an expectation that's set this is a possibility.

DK: Well I shan't possibly take enough time here to just imagine—just my clients—just to be selfish again what a difference I know that it makes when teams who are trying to move toward a mutual goal, which they've established, take the time up front to—one client calls it “set hygiene”—meaning how are we going to make this. When they do that just like you did and keep it open and keep it as an invitation and as the path toward the best outcome of the work. Very powerful. And all lack of it—can you imagine in your setting—let alone the dysfunction in these teams and groups the that I've seen by not setting rules?

SB: Yeah.

DK: That's a real valuable—among a lot of things you've said today—a real valuable take away. Speaking of political. Let's go to #MeToo. You and I—I'd love to have you talk a little bit more about this concept for I believe the summer after the summer. I'll let you pick it up very soon, but you have undertaken that challenge as well. Related certainly to difficult conversations but also I'm sure you've you've learned a lot about this issue, both in in your office and now the community. How are you seeing that it this whole reckoning, the popular word taking place, and how are you going about as a leader creating conversations deliberately, of course, one of my rules, to help. What are you doing?

SB: I think the need to conversation is hashing out on two different fronts and it's—that there are things that are getting conflated, and there are things that need to be separated. So you know everybody is able to agree that the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys—there's a level of behavior that is appropriate and right to be called out, and that must and needs to stop. But there's also this middle gray area where there has been a culture of quiet discomfort for women in the public space that good men have been unaware of how they have been part of contributing to that culture and are starting to be made aware of that. And there's a real disconnect for a lot of people around their positive intentions and yet the perception that those intentions are not well received. So what I have experienced is frankly a lot of men who are nervous and too are scared about the way this #MeToo conversation is happening, and that they are going to get called out or they are going to get lumped in and be thrown into this space of Harvey Weinstein. And I understand that fear. And I have—I think that that fear is real.

But as part of my commitment to these hard conversations, I think that what we need to do is create more constructive conversations for men to be able to speak about those fears and simultaneously for women to be able to articulate their experiences. And to see where those conversations can intersect and for people to really hear each other, and to not only be acting out of fear. So it's in early, early stages of formation but what I'm intending to do next year is to build a men's group and a women's group to have facilitated conversations around their reactions to this #MeToo movement. To talk about what's positive. To talk about what they're scared of. To offer critiques of where it's gone too far. And once they have their separate interactions to be able to come together and speak to each other about what they have learned and about what they have experienced. And again to provide a safety net for people to be able to do that.

I don't think that this is happening in the larger culture. Right now it's just this mass of people being called out and public reckoning. And I think that there's something that's much more positive that can happen in the wake of this movement. That some religious institutions are starting to experiment with and think about, and this is how we're doing and it at Temple Emmanuel.

DK: Well, obviously reflective—that the experience as you design it will benefit from your efforts and your sacrifice that you've gone through on your interfaith work, because they are analogous to—

SB: For sure. A difficult conversation is a difficult conversation.

DK: Except when it's at home, but that's another that's another thing, as we agreed. So I have one last question then. I mean, you pick interesting—I'll call them fights—where there is it is rife with conflict for the Midwestern person who, when they showed up to Los Angeles, was conflict-averse. I don't remember you that way in class, but so be it, conflict averse you were. And now here you are in the middle of these disagreements. Are you though, as you see what is happening in front of you and as you listen to so many disparate conversations, are you optimistic that it's going to be OK? What do you say when someone comes to you and they look at the world as it is, with the conflict, with the coarseness—that's the hot word—what do you tell 'em? I'm really curious.

SB: So my favorite accusation that I get is that I'm naive or that I wear rose colored glasses. But I honestly think that it's my greatest asset. and Because if you acquiesce to the world as it is, that's how it's going to stay. And I'm lucky enough that the story that I tell myself about what can happen in the world is informed by this transformation that I saw in Muslim-Jewish relations in Los Angeles. That I was hired by the mainstream Jewish community. I was recognized for this work. It wasn't a career killer, and that it is possible to transform the conversation. So you know I choose to be hopeful, no matter what the surroundings are, because I don't like the alternative. But I also think I have evidence for why I should be hopeful. I think that we have societally really reached breaking point and recognition of a breaking point at just how polarized we are, and at how our echo chambers have prevented us from working and building these muscles of difficult conversations. And so you see more and more podcasts and you see more and more public forums that are directed to how do we reengage with each other, and how do we find spaces to really listen. Not with the intent of convincing the other person, but just of understanding. And I think that there is going to be more and more building momentum for that type of work in the next few years in a way that is going to become more culturally normative. We're not going to fix everything but we're certainly going to chip away at this problem societally.

DK: Got it. Well, first off, thank you again for sitting with me in this lovely, very cool surrounding and talking about such critical issues. I was thinking of the way to conclude today and I was struck—I may have shared the quote back in class—but you know there are two kinds of people that you spend time with, and you can judge somebody by how you feel after you're done talking to them, somebody said. You either feel poisoned or you feel energized. And you are one of those types have been, since the day you were in class, at least for me, and obviously for many people, that is energizing to be around. I am so happy you agreed to be on this today. For those of you who want to hear more about Sarah and her her colleagues' views on this interfaith issue, please I'm happy to plug another podcast; On Being with Krista Tippett. It's a great show and back in February—and thank you for joining Tell Me What to Say.

SB: It has been my honor. Thank you Drew.

DK: You're welcome.