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A woman to lead us

Dorit Shippin begins two years as Chair of the Community Association

Sunday 3 August 2008

In a village election on March 27, 2008, the residents elected longtime member and current Director of the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre Dorit Shippin for a two-year term as head of the village’s Community Association (Agudah). She is the first-ever woman to lead the community of Wahat al Salam / Neve Shalom. We interviewed Dorit on June 22nd to hear about her agenda and her aspirations for the community during her tenure.

Why did you, as a yoga teacher and director of the spiritual center want to be chair of the municipal society?

During my years here in the village, I have learned that I can integrate the philosophy of spiritual development and the way of life that I adopted many years ago into social and political activism, both in the community and in the educational work at the Spiritual Centre.

Do you think your election suggests a new receptivity in this community to a philosophy of combining the wisdom of body and mind?

This is for the community to say, not me; I can only talk about myself.

In the last few years I have been involved in a process of introducing planned change at WAS-NS. The initiative began by looking at several areas. First, we wanted to reexamine our organizational structure so as to operate more efficiently. Second, we wanted to have discussions about issues of ideology and education. Third, we wanted more emphasis on the "community" part of being a peace community: to develop our shared village life and promote meaningful relationships between our various educational programs and the residents. This was an ambitious agenda. What we have achieved, so far, has been an in-depth discussion of organizational issues, and changes in organizational functioning.

Being involved in this initiative, meanwhile, taught me a lot and helped me achieve a new understanding of the village. It gave me clarity about what I’d like to do and some of the changes I’d like to help promote.

I monitored the implementation of the organizational change in its first year. To carry on with what we’ve begun would mean to go beyond the technical separation of Agudah (the Municipal Society) and Amutah (the Association of Educational Institutions); to learn to work more efficiently; to improve the quality of our work; and perhaps most importantly, to help build relationships of trust and cooperation between the people who work here and the institutions and members of the village.

Is the organizational change working, or is the question premature?

I think my having this position is one result. There’s a clearer distinction now between people who work here in the village administration, functionally running the municipal society and members of the general membership assembly like me. My job is not to administer; the people who work here do that. My job is to make sure that the collective vision and the wishes of the membership are actualized in the work.

Can you be more specific about that role?

Yes, I can clarify a bit more. Before the reorganization, the position of General Secretary of the village was almost an impossible job. Why? Because the person wore so many hats: as Chair of the educational institutions, as general manager, as the chief operating executive, etc. – it was chaos. That’s one reason why no one wanted the job. And there was no differentiation between public elected office, and professional appointed office. My job now is to represent the interests of the membership, but this is not my profession. How much I invest in the job is up to me. The functional leadership is now professionalized. My leadership is unpaid.

I know I can’t address everything. But what’s most important for me is to try to improve communication - between the village, its institutions and its members.

How do you plan to improve communication?

One of the tools that I will be using is transparency: making sure that people are well informed about what is going on, about what the board of the municipal society is discussing, and what the outcomes and decisions are. People will have more opportunity to submit items for the agenda. This process will help with the village’s residential expansion – making it faster and more successful. Increased complexity demands improved communication – particularly about people’s status vis-a-vis the land their homes are built on, etc.

There is a backlog of difficult issues waiting to be addressed in the community: gender, power, decision-making processes. Are you going to address these?

The reorganization that was agreed on included two important positions: a professional general manager and a position for community leadership. Due to the limited budget, only the first position was implemented. I still think a community manager position is a good idea; I think we need this. The challenge is how to fund it.

The vision is for a paid position for someone to foster a constructive alignment of the social, ideological, and community aspects of our life in this village. The focus would be on relationships within the community and between the community and its educational institutions, promoting the ideological actualization of the community’s aspirations. The founding of the Nadi (Youth Center) has provided a supportive structure for the younger people. What about the rest of the community? The way the community is led, the behavior of the adults who run it and live in it, are major influences on the young people, of course. If we work in a more focused way to walk our talk, this will have a positive and supportive impact on residents of all ages and on the village collectively.

A community leadership person would address the community’s needs in relation to various social, cultural and political activities. He or she would have an oversight role in the area of children and young people (Nadi). S/he would represent the village in political and humanitarian and NGO work. S/he would oversee our volunteers and interns, supervise their program content and see that they are integrated into the community. There should be a structured learning program for volunteers and interns. This person would also oversee the social aspects of the integration of the new group of village residents. And there’s more!

"Walking our talk" is about living the principles and values we proclaim. Can we turn for a moment to the subject of mediation in this context? It seems significant that this year, the Spiritual Centre has launched its first mediation course – and that more than a third of the participants were people from WAS-NS.

Yes, at the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre, we have promoted the idea of mediation programming. This is something that can be useful to the community. The more we encourage ourselves to walk our talk here, the more positive the influence that will radiate outward to our colleagues and to our supporters. A lack of attention to the process of building peaceful community, internally, radiates badly to our stakeholders, as well as being less than optimal for us.

Returning to the plans for village expansion: What about the 20+ families of candidates who are in the final stages of acceptance? What about their fabric of community within their group and as part of the larger whole? What tools can you use to create optimal integration for them?

One: effective management of the technical aspects. Two: good communication - ongoing. Three: Integrating them socially, both informally and formally, which the Applications Committee has already begun doing. These new members are a very talented group with a lot to contribute.

You were elected for a two-year term. Is there anything else you want to touch on?

Well – I have my own way of viewing the community and the existence of the village as an idea. I believe, and I feel, that NS/WAS was and remains a revolutionary idea. I really want to promote, for example, the idea of a conference to mark our 30th year, to be held sometime in 2009. This would give us a useful opportunity to look back and to look ahead – in terms of what we have contributed and where we are going.

Another thing I’d like to help promote involves developing the educational programs. I think the community should be helping promote more and more educational projects and programs. Community members can make a contribution, as can outsiders.

And there are ideas we’ve talked about in the past: a center for study of the Arabic language; a community mediation center that would provide dispute resolution services to people within the community, and beyond; a peace museum. The sky’s the limit in terms of projects we can propose.

What about the dilemma of the bubble here in the village versus the reality out there?

Well, over the years, our community has been involved in many political initiatives… For example, when we as a community stood up and opposed the most recent Lebanon War. In addition, the existence of the village is itself a political statement, but I don’t think we can be satisfied with that. We as a community must continue to influence the political and social situation in Israel, especially Jewish-Arab equality, which is our original raison d’être and remains our top priority. From this standpoint, we need to take the initiative more; we must initiate cooperative work among the NGOs. That’s another thing that I would like our general manager or community leader to oversee.

What about the violent and oppressive escalation outside versus "business as usual" at the Oasis?

I think it’s good to keep the context always in mind. We are not on some island in the Caribbean. We must always take the larger context into account. The larger context evokes feelings in us, of course - in me as a Jewish member, etc. We must be active in this context in a constructive way. As the situation not only does not improve, but continues to deteriorate, the question is: How can we best contribute?

For example, at the top of our agenda as always, is the question of equality here in Israel – pursuing this vision does contribute.

Then there are the discussions we initiated in our community to talk about and support the Future Vision process [an initiative of Palestinian citizens of Israel to articulate, collectively, their national-cultural-political rights and aspirations and how they can be addressed most constructively].

In any case, there is no escaping reality. I asked [my son] Yotam how the school year went at Tsafit [the regional high school that he and many WAS-NS children attend], in his class of 12th graders. He said his contacts with Jewish kids at Tzafit who are not from WAS-NS are not so good – for two reasons: One, he stopped going to activities at the p’nimia (boarding school - where most of the student sleep at least a few nights a week); and, two, he says the kids only talk about the army now: which units they are considering joining, yes or no to a combat role; etc., etc. Of course the Arab kids [from WAS-NS] are not invited to these discussions. It began in 11th grade and continued this year. In my opinion, this is a catastrophe. Among the Jewish kids, friendships do not survive this process, and the Arab kids are left out entirely. This is something our community has to get involved in. The current initiative of a group of parents from here who are working with the principal of Tzafit on these kinds of issues is the right direction; but without someone dedicated (paid) to do this, the initiative will eventually taper off, because no one has time.

I think we should be doing more proactive outreach work within Israeli society. Recently, for example, I was invited to a meeting of women in a neighboring moshav (village) to talk to their group about Jewish-Arab relations. I’ve thought for a long time that we should have an open house evening for neighbors, explaining what we do and what we believe – as a way of starting to widen our circle. The community manager could organize events like that.

We need more of this and we also need to communicate it better when we do it.

What else?

Abdessalam [Najjar] and I are involved in an international project called "Making the Impossible Possible," led here in Israel by Shatil and with the participation of Rabbis for Human Rights. The goal is to create a new discourse, a new language about the conflict, by training participants in nonlinear leadership techniques. The project is directed by an Austrian consultant, Miki Walleczek, who for some years was an adviser to Nelson Mandela. Walleczek is leading a parallel effort on the Palestinian side (in Palestine). We want to draw into this process people on the leadership level on both sides. The aim is to help them go through a process of self-transformation that will lead to transformation on the social-political level.

In one exercise, he asked us to imagine ourselves at age eighty-plus, looking back on the things we had wanted to do and had been able to do successfully in our lives. This kind of technique lets you pursue your goals by working creatively from the future instead of continually reliving the past.

Dorit, are you really the FIRST woman to head the Oasis of Peace community?! It seems hard to believe that for all these years, it was always led by men.

Yes, but remember, the position before was huge – general manager, chair of the municipal society, chair of the educational institutions. For the last decade or so, the position has always been filled by a Palestinian man.

Before this last election, a group of women residents held a series of meetings to talk about raising people’s awareness about gender and the link between gender and leadership style. We wrote a paper about it – about our mode of dialogue here, and how to make it more participatory. We don’t just need more communication; we need a different kind of communication. This will be a very high priority for me over the next two years.

(Interviewer: Deborah Reich)

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