Shira Hoffer -

Apr 21, 2024

Through the Prism with Shira Hoffer

shira hoffer

Shira Hoffer is the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Multipartisan Education and intends to graduate from Harvard College in May of 2025 with a degree in Social Studies and Religion. She served for two years on Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana’s Intellectual Vitality Committee, advising and presenting new strategies for promoting curious and constructive disagreement inside and outside of Harvard’s classrooms. She is a former fellow and research assistant at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Program and a practicing mediator in Massachusetts courts. She has extensive experience in interfaith and Israel/Palestine dialogue and is particularly passionate about helping schools with issues related to religion and substantial political disagreement.

What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?

When I was in the eighth grade, I signed up for an interfaith trip to the Middle East, and there I met Omar (name changed for confidentiality), a Palestinian participant about my age. I didn’t speak any Arabic, and Omar didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop us from becoming fast friends. We sat in the back of the bus together, using Google Translate (hard if you don’t know the Arabic alphabet) and hand signals (what hand signals do you use to describe your favorite holiday?) to communicate. In retrospect, I’m sure we drove everyone else crazy by laughing for hours on every bus ride.

One night, Omar’s family invited us to their home in East Jerusalem for dinner. His mother cooked traditional food, and his extended family joined us for the meal, performed dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) for us, and told stories late into the night.

I met Omar’s sister, and I don’t remember how this happened, but at one point, she and I disappeared into her room to pick out scarves for her to tie as a hijab on my head. Significant giggling ensued, and when we emerged into the living room together, we were greeted with laughter, proud smiles, and cries of “masha’Allah,” an Arabic invocation of God’s name to describe something of greatness or beauty.

Looking back, the significance of our innocent and easy friendship, which lasted a few years after the trip, is not lost on me and has since served as a reminder that humanity can transcend all divides.

What values guide your personal life and your work?

There is a concept in the conflict resolution space called positions and interests. If I have a carton of eggs, and you want that carton of eggs, it appears we have arrived at an impasse; my position and your position are the same. But if I ask you why you want the carton of eggs, and you say you are making a wedding cake that requires 12 eggs, and then you ask me why I want to carton of eggs, and I say it is because I want to use the cardboard to do arts and crafts, a solution is suddenly obvious; our interests are completely different.

I care a whole lot about interests because I think they are the key to curious engagement across perceived differences, a cornerstone value of mine. There is nobody with whom I would not break bread, because more important to me than our respective positions are our underlying interests, which spell out the story of our shared humanity.

I want to know why you do not support the police, or why you think that certain types of speech should be prohibited. Why do you believe in unrestricted gun access, and why do you think we should abolish the electoral college? What was your childhood like? What communities are you a part of? What are your most formative memories?

Ultimately, we may conclude our meal with the same positions as when we began, but I don’t see that as a failure. I see it as a success because we walk away having learned something about each other’s interests, and by extension, each other’s humanity.

When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?

I asked my boyfriend what he thought my answer would be to this question, and he replied, “Well, I don’t think you have that many strongly held beliefs!”

After feeling momentarily offended, I realized that he was right, insofar as what he meant was that my views, largely speaking, don't define my identity. This is because, with a few exceptions, I am prepared to change my perspective if and when I am presented with a compelling argument. When people ask me if I am a liberal or a conservative, I tell them I am a pragmatist with a liberal disposition. My opinions are not set binaries of political ideology but rather are dynamic and informed by the perspectives and experiences of myself and others.

So to answer your question, I don’t have a great answer because my perspectives are always shifting.

However, one question I am grappling with at the moment — and on which I am writing my senior thesis — is whether the religious motivation for a belief affects its perception and moral standing. To give an example, if a society unfavorably judges Person A for supporting abortion bans, how does - and should- the members of that society's judgement change, if they find our Person A's stance is religiously motivated? Baked into this question are concerns about intent versus impact, the sincerity of beliefs, the merit of the importance of religion in the U.S. Constitution, freedom and discrimination, and free speech and its limitations. Ask me how my mind has changed in March of 2025!

What are you working on right now?

In the aftermath of October 7th, I started a project called the Hotline for Israel/Palestine. It's a texting hotline dedicated to responding to inquiries about the region — not with definitive answers, but with resources from multiple perspectives to empower the user to develop an informed position. Our volunteers, who come from different national, political, and religious backgrounds, have responded to over 300 inquiries from across the country. They act as a sounding board for open inquiry into one of the more complex issues of our time.

A few months after the launch of the Hotline, an inquiry inspired me to think bigger, leading me to establish a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting educational institutions in cultivating curious and constructive disagreement on campus. The Institute for Multipartisan Education, of which the Hotline is an initiative, partners with schools and universities to run workshops, gives talks, creates resources, and helps create sustainable cultures of respectful and rigorous inquiry across lines of difference beyond Israel and Palestine. We just wrapped up a three-day workshop series in Texas and are now taking a step back to conduct research into the intellectual underpinnings of this work in psychology, pedagogy, inclusion, conflict resolution, and more.

If you’re interested in volunteering for or supporting the Hotline for Israel/Palestine and the Institute for Multipartisan Education, or inviting us to your organization, please contact me at shoffer@multipartisaned.org!

What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?

When people text the Hotline, they often begin their questions with “I have always been curious about…” or “Can you tell me more about….” These introductory phrases stand in stark contrast with the way many college students begin their questions in class: “I know that…” or “Given that….” One introduction conveys intellectual humility and curiosity, while the other suggests a desire to prove one’s intellect and surety. But nobody knows everything!

I feel so hopeful when I see questions that begin in the former manner because they remind me that the spirit of curiosity is not gone. I love it when people simply say they don't know and want to learn more. Engaging with curiosity and generosity in this way helps us learn, grow, and be in community with the diversity of humans living in this world.

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