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Libby and Len Traubman: Their journey of cross-cultural dialogue

Goldenroom, a blog about cross-cultural living, recently published this interview about this interfaith CEN Member couple's life of sustained peacebuilding.

Libby and Len TraubmanDown to earth with warm, ready laughs, and parents to two grown children, Libby, a former social worker and Len, a retired pediatric dentist, might seem an unlikely couple to be leading cross-cultural dialogue in some of the world’s most acute communal conflicts.

Fortunately, near the onset of their 47-year marriage the Traubmans embarked on lifelong self-reflection and outward personal journeys across cultures. They continue generously sharing their lessons learned and communication tools with individuals and communities whose lives might otherwise have been torn apart by violent cultural divisions.

Listening to Libby and Len talk about their beginnings, it's clear that their path of bridging cultural divides could have taken another direction.  Libby explains:

‘In a nutshell I was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a very WASPy (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) neighbourhood with a lot of prejudice towards different groups. I was raised in a Presbyterian household, although I never considered myself deeply religious or connected to the church. I had a lot of Jewish friends, and it worried my parents that I might be seen as Jewish, end up Jewish, or end up marrying a Jew.  As you see, my father’s fears came true!’

‘My parents were born in 1904.  My father was from the south.  I think they grew up at a time when there was this incredible fear of Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Communists, Jews, and Blacks.  Dad grew up in the segregated South. He did business with some Jews yet was preoccupied with this image of them as nouveau riche and tight with money and blah blah blah. They were not bad people but were conditioned with stereotypes and small world views.’

Len describes how thoroughly Jewish he was when meeting Libby in  the summer of 1966:

 ‘I was born at the beginning of World War Two in Duluth, Minnesota, and all my ancestors had immigrated in the eighteen hundreds from the old country—Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Tsarist Russia. My mother’s Orthodox Russians fled right after the first pogroms of 1881.  As a pre-schooler walking by the synagogue, I asked: “Grandma, is everyone in Duluth Jewish?” Everybody in my world was Jewish.’

‘In 1945 after the war, we took a train west to live in Los Angeles, California. I had good Gentile friends, but most of my affiliations were Jewish—B'nai B'rith Youth, Alpha Zadek Alpha, Sigma Alpha Mu, and Alpha Omega Jewish dental fraternity, of which I became alumni president. These identified me. This was my primary, trusted circle.’

First Encounter: Jewish-Presbyterian

Len's strong identity was attractive to Libby when they met at a tennis tournament during the summer of 1966.  ‘He knew where he was going, with his strong identity which I subconsciously needed. I saw in Len what I hadn’t found in other potential partners: a guy who knew what he wanted and how to get there. Len was kind of serious, and I was sort of shallow and silly with this limited world that was mostly about having fun. Meeting Len—he was Lennie then— strengthened me and opened me up to see there was more. I was very attracted to his confidence.’

‘She was hot!’ remembers Len.  Amidst raucous laughter, Libby adds, ‘Yes I was. We were sitting in the back, in the cheap seats, watching a tennis tournament in 90 degree weather. It was hot!’

Remembering first love, Len recalls, ‘Libby had this fabulous spirit and it just felt great to be around her.’

‘I knew what I wanted’ explains Libby, ‘but I did have this pressure about marrying a Jew. Would I?  Should I?  My parents saw where dating was leading and would say, "Okay, maybe it's time to move on."  Mom suggested, if I married Len, to raise our children in some non-denominational tradition without committing them to Judaism and thus a life of suffering prejudice.’

To their enormous credit, and a lesson to other in-laws, Libby’s parents came on board when the couple married the following summer. ‘My mother took me shopping for a wedding dress. We got married by a judge in my parents’ living room, and they gave us a lovely wedding, party, and gourmet food.  They took Len in and loved him.’

‘It’s true,’ confirms Len. ’Libby’s family were really for us, embraced us. Throughout our marriage her mom sent us articles that she thought would benefit us and support our volunteer activities. The world of aging people often shrinks, but hers kept expanding.  It was impressive and instructive.'

The Traubmans joke that their training for peacebuilding and conflict transformation began with their 1967 marriage, which they now call "the gymnasium of the spirit" where they learn and exercise most of what they know.  Differing personalities and religions created workouts for the couple especially during their early days.

Moving to San Francisco, in parallel they awakened to a larger view of life and purpose that set the couple on their avocation.  For Libby, ’My whole world opened up hugely. I left a safe environment with family and friends, a narrow-thinking world, an old paradigm. Suddenly a whole new existence of diversity, possibility, and purpose opened up to me.’

‘In 1969 two events forever changed us: Our first child, Eleanor, was born.  And we first saw that awesome photograph of Earth from space.  We were affected for life,‘ Len recalls.  In 1971, their son Adam arrived into a family well-embarked on a search for meaning.

Len continues: ‘Established in San Francisco, our expanding circle included diverse, creative people deeply interested in the planet, marriage, parenting, living cooperatively on Earth, and becoming contributing human beings. We began studying how to mature from ego-centricity to unconditional love. Together we learned from the symbolism and wisdom of Torah, prehistory myths, Biblical narratives, insights from Jesus the teacher and from Jung and other geniuses of the human psyche and spirit.  With this remarkable community of colleagues, our prime allegiance became to the planet and all humankind.‘

The 1970s included dedicated studies—even week-long seminars— for self-understanding, marriage, parenting, spirituality, and social responsibility.  ‘We gained important self-knowledge that helped us understand why we were like we were, and how to become our very best. Most of what we know today is learned from our marriage and family relationships,’ admits Len.  ‘We assure you we've been garden-variety people coaching soccer, surfing, fishing, camping, and frolicking with our wonderful children and grandchildren. ’

Len explains their early attraction to their new life. ‘After studying the teachings and principles, what interested us most was how they work in everyday life. We are practical people and don’t mess around with ideas that don’t work. One of our teachers reminded us that "faith is not about sitting on a chair that isn’t there."  Our life together kept validating that high principles and idealism are what work in real life, in successful relationships at home and internationally, the same.’

Libby has top tips for a successful cross-cultural marriage: ‘I have to be a really good listener. And it helps to have self-knowledge to see where my own conditioning is causing this anger, this hurt. At the root, it's usually not Len doing it. It is something old from my childhood. Oh, how much we are pushed around by our early life experiences! Yet a lot of people don’t choose to self-reflect because it is much easier to blame another. The blame game easily destroys relationships. So I try to take a lot of responsibility for my own spirit and not jump into blaming. Too, we always say the key to a good relationship is to experience joy; we have a lot of fun together and share activities that we enjoy.’

‘Marriage seems strengthened by sharing a very big, beautiful purpose,’ adds Len, ‘deep meaning beyond one's own family, job, or recreation to commit to and work for together. For us it is engaging with people and bringing humankind into this blessed community that is discovering one another and its family-hood around the planet.'

Second Encounter: Soviet-American Dialogue

After the 1970s, the couple's educational and introspective explorations went on the back burner. ‘In the 1980s we needed to abandon our more personal pursuits and respond with all we had to the Cold War and potential nuclear catastrophe that threatened to wreck the planet. So we and several hundred other families started a movement called Beyond War.’ explains Len.

The 1980s became for Libby and Len a fabulous decade which would culminate in their extraordinary, life changing visit to the Soviet Union. In 1984, as part of a delegation of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, they visited the "enemy" Soviet Union for three weeks. Len explains: ‘Libby and I were very interested in meeting Soviets and I'd taught myself Russian. They were fabulous people. From that experience we forever knew that nothing replaces face-to-face relationships.'

Travelling in small groups, Libby describes ‘Really quite a life-changing experience. Just seeing that the enemy was really so approachable and compatible. Later we heard that “an enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” Looking back we realise that was the Soviet experience we had. Those beautiful, cultured people we had been taught to fear had similarly been instructed to distrust us. Being altogether at last, they and we could see what a stupid waste those earlier years had been. ’

This trip ignited in Libby and Len determination to build more bridges between citizens. As Len explains, ‘In those pre-Internet days, we started writing letters to Soviets. I continued teaching myself Russian and returned to my childhood hobby of short wave "ham" radio. We constructed a big tower and rotary antenna enabling us to meet hundreds and hundreds of Soviet citizens from our home radio station. Some information and opinions we exchanged pushed the limits of strict Soviet communication law as did putting our wives on the microphones to talk with one another. Yet we and they insisted on talking like "family." Without laws and governments ever changing, we citizen-communicators were pushing windows ever-wider open and possibilities forward.’

Len and Libby maximized their relationships of trust by mailing Soviet ‘hams’ family photos and articles about co-existence written by themselves, Beyond War colleagues, and local American newspapers.   Libby describes how  ‘We found radio operators in the Soviet Union  who would walk these American articles to enthusiastic Soviet newspaper editors who'd publish them in their local communist journals.’ An incredible archive of these Soviet newspapers and journals remains in the Traubman home today. One such publication features the headline, ‘Hello America’ accompanied by photographs of Libby and Len beneath that of Lenin. Life beyond war was on the rise.

When asked what motivated them to take these extraordinary risks and initiatives, the Traubmans pause a while before Len answers simply, ‘I think it's the soul. You know we've come to realise that our soul’s oldest memory is of union, and the soul’s deepest longing is for reunion. There was hardly anything more thrilling than helping people engage, especially after being assured it was impossible.‘

Libby remains incredulous at being part of this exciting journey. ‘I was this Hoosier hick with a very, very small world, and I kept thinking this is so fantastic, so amazing, so possible for everyday citizens. I had no idea that this larger world was out here and that this life could be possible, so full of meaning. You know, I can be a fearful person. It's a personality type. But grand purpose makes fear fade when we're creating community.’

In the '80s was an increase in citizen and government endeavours to reject violence, coexist, and acknowledge those who refused to be enemies and insisted on engaging.

During 1983-1990 an annual Beyond War Award honoured great efforts of an individual, group or nation as humankind moved to build a world beyond war. Co-recipients in 1989 were to inspire and shape the Traubmans' future actions and lives.  During Apartheid Koinonia Southern Africa brought brave Blacks and Whites together to share meals and personal stories in one another's homes—sometimes in public at risk to their lives. In Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al-Salaam (Oasis of Peace), visionary Israeli Jews and Palestinians lived, learned, and raised their children together to change the nature of their relationships.

Libby and Len began to time-test these models in their own living room by finding two White couples and two Black couples to encounter locally in one another's homes.  This one-year experience of sharing meals and personal stories provided unprecedented learning, intimacy, and mutual dignity. Again validating the power of story and face-to-face engagement propelled the Traubmans into their next epoch of action.

Third Encounter: Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue

The compelling year-long meal sharing and earlier Soviet-American successes prepared Libby and Len to begin facilitating dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, thus catapulting the couple into another of the world’s serious communal conflicts. Libby explains, ‘By the late '80s and early '90s we were meeting some Israeli and Palestinian citizen-leaders who aspired coming to the United Sates for talking with each other—illegal where they lived. We, with others in the Beyond War community and Stanford University said "yes." ’

The Israeli and Palestinian women and men were brought to the California redwoods for a powerful week-long conference resulting in writing and signing the historic 1991 Framework for a Public Peace Process.  Len cancelled his patients and the Traubmans travelled to Jerusalem to help gel the new team. They assisted participants circulating their Framework document to their individual governments and peoples.

Back in the USA, the couple promptly applied the new strategies.  Len recalls:  ‘Libby said, "You know we've done this globally, now we have got to figure out how it works where we live."' The year of interracial dialogue in their home had laid the groundwork for the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue beginning in July 1992 in their home.

Len recalls early difficulties: ‘Libby spent a year looking for brave local Jews and Palestinians—Muslims and Christians—willing to sit together. It was not a popular thing to do.’ Libby agrees about their biggest hurdle.  ‘We searched tirelessly for people willing to face one another. It was almost unheard of. They'd say, "This is the enemy, are you kidding?" The Arabs and Jews were taking a risk by just sitting together, a taboo for many.’

Len explains that the Living Room Dialogues revealed that ‘the real fear is often not of the other side, but of one's own people's rejection as naive, sympathizer, unfaithful. That’s where the terror is:  "What will people say?"‘

Libby adds, ‘So some feared their own people. Some feared the Other. And many questioned what good dialogue would do.  Some said, “I’ve moved to America, and I don’t want to think about it anymore.” Palestinians' and Israelis' lives had become so comfortable in America.’

At first participants came to vent and then left.  Later arrivals exhibited more dedication to deep listening and empathy. After 18 months a reliable core of respectful yet passionate women and men were dedicated to quality communication. ‘That was twenty-two years ago,’ says Libby. ‘Now eager would-be participants must be asked to wait until a rare opening occurs and the group needs a new member to restore balance.’

Len remembers key ingredients for Living Room Dialogue success: ‘We were dedicated and didn’t give up. Always there for the people, we kept respecting that at first most people dearly want to be heard. So the participant with the will and skill to listen is really the one with the power to transform the relationship. Listening dignifies both listener and the person whose story is being heard. Again, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” We experience story as the shortest distance between two people. It is story and not information that goes to the heart and is best remembered. With this connection of hearts then brains, people experience each other's equal humanity and begin wanting the best, not only for self but for the other person equally. Magic results from being together and connecting at the heart that then messages the brain that it is safe and the relationship is working properly. This face-to-face connection is simple yet the most effective human experience to redirect relationships.’

Libby continues, ‘At first we didn't appreciate story as an entry point to Dialogue. We'd begin with political issues and hot topics, provoking ranting, blaming and battles over versions of history. Yet we failed to discover the personal and family stories of the human beings in the room with us. Slowly we discovered the primacy of personal intimacy and spending generous time with people telling their own narratives - sometimes bottled up inside a whole lifetime until then. That is really what we did that first year together of going round and round telling our own histories, ever more deeply learning more about each other. Familiarity, trust, and friendship grew.  In time we could begin to approach more difficult issues.’

If listening ensures dialogue, then what makes someone a good listener? How can you make someone into a good listener? Len says simply, ‘You first listen to them.‘ 

‘You provide them that experience,’ explains Libby ‘And when they come into the dialogue circle, you have to be clear about the rule - what dialogue is and is not.‘

With skills from the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue, Len and Libby then facilitated and filmed Dialogue at Washington High in which Miriam Zimmerman, a Holocaust Jew, and Elias Botto, an original 1947 Palestinian refugee from Jerusalem, shared their poignant stories. Used for instructional purposes '...that film then touched hearts and passed on skills to citizens in Africa and worldwide, helping people to relate differently’ explains Len. ‘It reminded us not only to enact the dialogues but to also tell the story of it. The power today is in story and the choice of stories. Today people are fed mostly human failure stories that we see on the five o’ clock news. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and teacher, says: "People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell." We have to decide what is for life and what is for death, what is for relationships and the health of the planet, then tell the stories of people who live exemplary lives.'

Fourth Encounter: Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Nigeria

Throughout the ’90s and these early years of the 21st century, Len and Libby have expanded their intense engagement in Jewish- Palestinian dialogue encounters to include other communities and cultures. Inevitably the breadth of their activities and the availability of their teachings attracted facilitators in Africa. Thus in 2010 they were invited to facilitate Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Nigeria.

‘The way we ended up moving into Africa,’ explains Libby, ‘we made a film about one of the sessions of our Palestinian-Jewish  Peacemakers Camp. Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba, this young man in Nigeria was an educator of youth and searching for new tools to train young community builders. He found the film, started emailing, and eventually said, "This is what we need in Africa. Would you be willing to come to Nigeria and do for our Christians and Muslims what you have done for the Palestinians and Jews?"  We promptly said "Yes." Then after more thought, to ourselves "No, we don’t think so; it’s a long way; we have never been to Africa, it’s violent; there’s a lot of disease; we'd have to take all those injections and pills... and at our Peacemakers' Camp we had a whole team we worked with who made all the activities happen; now it would be just two older foreigners in Africa trying to do the whole thing ourselves." Then we just decided "Yes."  You know, we had been given all these tools and life experiences.  What else is life other than to give it away?’

In October 2010, Len and Libby spent ten days in Nigeria working with Emmanuel and his staff. The conference of 200 brave, young women and men was filmed in order to create the experiential and instructional 2012 DVD, ‘DIALOGUE IN NIGERIA: Muslims & Christians Creating Their Future.’ Over 5,000 have been ordered by militaries, governments, educators, and peacebuilders in 85 countries on every continent.

‘One of the biggest hurdles,’ recalls Libby of facilitating in Africa, ‘was to get the people to be quiet, to listen. You know they were used to talking, getting up and walking around and so we had to get them to settle in, focus, and be receptive to hear the instructions. That’s probably the same challenge here although maybe we are a little more trained in going to events like this.‘

‘Also, they were used to having keynote speakers deliver long lectures and read prepared papers for thirty minutes or more. It is their tradition of giving elders and leaders their place. Were we to come, we clarified with Emmanuel that we wouldn't spend the whole first morning with attendees passively sitting while the papers were read. We made an agreement that the special guests would have five minutes to express highlights of what they wanted to share. And then the participants would assimilate in small groups before being given voices to share feedback about what had meaning for them.’

Len explains the unfortunate paradox that ‘even conferences about dialogue are often not dialogical. They are not community building. They do not discover new, collective intelligence from the attendees. When people ask us to come and give talks, we say, "We don’t do that. We will come and provide them an experience. At the end they will have new communication skills, new connections, and a sense of community.”’

‘The quality of listening on the planet is terrible,’ Len continues.‘Everyone wants to be heard and louder, hoping things will change. Everyone wants to speak, yet fewer wish to listen. The skills for listening-to-learn are just terrible. So this is the great challenge for all of us.’

Libby continues, ‘The news reports can be very scary and paralyzing, so we do our best to discover and tell others the hopeful human success stories of exemplary people and initiatives that others can make happen in their own communities.‘

With the availability of Skype and the Internet, Len and Libby have been able to mentor facilitators in Asia and Africa who are bringing together adversarial tribes and faith communities, whilst continuing with the Palestinian-Jewish Living Room Dialogues. All their endeavours are non-profit and all-volunteer. Funding is from individual citizens and rarely from grants to pay for free how-to materials and their instructional films on DVDs, which are gifted and mailed worldwide and streamed online. That is part of the strategy. ‘Most of what we do,’ explains Len, ’is designed to be more people-intensive and less money-intensive thus easily replicated anywhere on Earth. That’s why we put all our communication tools and video blogs on the Web to be freely watched and downloaded anywhere on the planet. Everything we do is given away. The 18,000 DVDs requested from across the world have all been given away. We don’t wait for money exchanging, because of the planetary urgency.’

In addition, Libby and Len learned from a Nigerian colleague that neither lack of money nor HIV/AIDS are the biggest causes of misery and death in West Africa and globally.  Explains Len, ’The biggest killer is not HIV but HRV, Human Relationship-deficiency Virus—our poverty of relationships and famine of communication skills. Fortunately we know the antidote and a preventive - Sustained Dialogue. The participants’ communication begins with a new quality of listening-to-learn, with some facilitating and much practice.  A gathering might begin with "Let's hear from everybody.  What touches you and has meaning for you?  What’s going on with you and your people back home?"  Facilitating, we have learned, is not about having the answers. The facilitator just makes it easy—facile—for people. The power is just in being there to ask good questions and help people share time, stay on track, and be personal rather than pedantic or authoritarian. ’

Len says more about life beyond war.  ‘Instead of humiliating, neglecting, and harming adversaries, do the opposite. The real first step is to dignify the enemy. It is a surprising paradox that simultaneously dignifies yourself too.  If you humiliate the other person, you dehumanize and diminish yourself at the same time. This evolutionary requirement is like a genetic change at the level of the human psyche and human relationships. It takes courage, faith, and replying from the soul, one’s highest, becoming the best human beings we can be, moving beyond fear and beyond war. It’s wonderful. It is not enough to study about it, you have to have the experience. It isn’t that tough.  It’s actually a universal longing inside us.‘

Libby continues: ’We experience similar hurdles to leap, doors to open, and training to provide wherever on Earth we engage people.  Russians and Americans; Armenians and Azerbaijanis; Palestinians and Israelis; Muslims and Christians in Nigeria; tribes in Cote d’Ivoire; Albinos and non-Albinos in DR Congo; Koreans and Japanese; diverse citizens in Singapore; U.S.A. classrooms and families – people do not know one another. Everyone hungers to be heard, yet few can listen.  There is an urgency for communication skills and experiences of re-engagement in new kinds of relationships so inherited conflicts can heal and be replaced with cooperative communities. It’s our time to shorten distances and get together to figure out how to move forward to make the world a safer, better place.’

The lessons from their own 47-year marriage of intra-personal exploration and inter- personal listening skills have translated into facilitating dialogue between the world’s most conflict-ridden groups. Their family life—proof that personality and cultural divisions can be overcome— motivates Libby and Len to continue sharing their skills with others. But so too, their avocation as cross-cultural dialogue facilitators for changing and moving fellow citizens beyond war is motivated and inspired by a more universal and transcendent force.

Libby explains that ‘People sometimes tell us our life is too idealistic.  Len always says that idealism is what actually works in everyday life.  It would be so life-changing if people could deeply understand our interdependence, our interconnections, our inter-relationships that would allow us to make decisions to cooperate and preserve the beauty of the planet and leave a safe and secure and meaningful life to our children and grandchildren far down through time. Right now, I feel we are on the edge, at a time of choice. We can plunder our relationships and earthly inheritance, or choose to reunite and treat each other and the planet well. My wish is that people choose the high road, the harder empathic path, where we learn how to love in every situation so that there is a future.’

To which Len adds, ‘My vision of the world is simple: people are listening to each other and communicating. The solution is in having relationships, as if we are one, as if we are neighbours forever.’ 

Links and Resources

Useful resources the Traubmans have gathered over the course of their encounters are available at: http://traubman.igc.org/global.htm

Video of the deep history and continuing global outreach of  Twenty years of the Palestinian Jewish Living Room Dialogue

View the new documentary film: ‘DIALOGUE IN NIGERIA: Muslims and Christians Creating Their Future’

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the second Beyond War Award. It was presented to the co-founders, Dr. Bernard Lown of the US and Dr. Yevgeni Chazov of the USSR, see the simultaneously televised awards