Yesterday I was invited to a meeting in Toledo, where I used to serve as a rabbi and was co-founder of “Erase the Hate,” a program aimed at building bridges and eliminated hatred and bigotry.
Long story short, one of the school districts in metro Toledo has been dealing with some issues of bigotry directed at students from other students. In one case, a Jewish girl (and there are very few in this district) had the image of her face superimposed on the face of a person in an historical photo of inmates in a Nazi Concentration Camp. It was shared on social media and was devastating. Those responsible were caught, but this occurred in a class that had already heard a Holocaust Survivor speak. How can we best address the hatred? How do we build empathy? The meeting’s goal was to figure out next steps and strategies.
One of those in attendance at the meeting shared that when she was asked to come to a previous meeting in the district, she met up with a local pastor beforehand. When she arrived at the church, she came to the door and was surprised to find that it was unlocked. When the pastor showed up, she asked how that could be? How do you leave the doors to your church unlocked? It was he who was surprised now. Of course the doors to the church are unlocked; they’re always open. She went on to explain to him that in the Jewish community, every building is in lock-down–many before the tragedy in Pittsburgh. There is hardly a Jewish institution without an armed guard, cameras, etc. It is a part of the Jewish reality in the US (and in large part in Israel and throughout the world) that doors are not open for those who wish to enter.
How many in the non-Jewish world know that this is our reality?
For that matter, I only know my own experience. I do not know what it is like to be an African-American male in this country being pulled over for a traffic stop. I do not know what it is like to be a woman passed over for a job that is given to a man who is less qualified. I do not know what it is like for many families of Hispanic origin to live in fear of possible deportation or separation from family. I do not know what it is like to come out to loved ones as GLBTQ, nor the special kind of harassment many in that community have to endure. I do know what it is like to live with a handicap or to be on the Austism Spectrum. I only know my own experience.
That does not mean that there is no hope. On the contrary, there is something holy and compelling about sharing our narratives. Too often we think we know what the other is all about. Too often we judge without really knowing.
At that meeting, our advice to the district administrator was two-pronged. First, pursue one of the many excellent programs out there that deal with diversity and how to deal with the inevitable issues that arise in a heterogeneous school setting. Second, invite members of minority groups (and even those in the majority) to share their stories. Every one of us has a story, an experience. They shape who we are–our hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments. When we hear the other, perhaps it will build empathy and a sense of connection. With time and with practice, maybe we can focus not on what makes the “other” other, but rather what it is that we share in common.