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In the wake of the horrific attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the subsequent deaths in the kosher deli, there has been much talk on television, in print and online about the xenophobic and anti-Muslim reaction that followed in France and around the world. I have fielded angry and scared questions about how to punish those responsible and how we can maintain our sense of faith when we see so much violence in the world. And unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we have been exposed to such violence born of hatred and fear in our lifetime and certainly over the course of human history.
The Jewish community has known more than our fair share of this strain of human nature. Yet each time it happens, one very loud reaction seems to focus on the same call for violence and hatred pointed at the perpetrators. It seems only natural that we direct our rage and hurt and fear in the direction of those responsible. However, this rage we feel can darken and dull our sense of real justice and so many of us end up hating and persecuting those around us who in appearance or only in our minds have some tangential connection to the perpetrators. We too are often bound by fear of the other, that which we do not fully understand and the cycle of mistrust, of misinformation and blind hatred continues.
I understand the worry and even the hopelessness that we all felt when we received the first breaking news email about the attack in Paris and turned on the news to watch the events unfold—another instance of the worst of humanity. I imagine so many of us spent time asking why and then how. I cannot understand the intense anti-Muslim rhetoric, the assumption that all who believe different than we are responsible and should be exiled or worse.
We have come so far in the world, have so much more than our parents and grandparents; the ability to reach across the globe and communicate, the ability to access information at speeds unheard of a mere 10 or 20 years ago, the deep celebration and appreciation of diversity and struggle for complete equality in so many places that seemed impossible in generations past. Nevertheless, we are still plagued with the most basic of human reactions, revenge and hatred of what we do not know.
The work that we do at InterfaithFamily is about celebrating and embracing diversity, about opening our communities and ourselves to the possibility that there is more to gain than fear from “the other.” I try to live my life by this message because I want to live in a world where true and lasting peace in the broadest and the narrowest lens exists between family members and between nations. It saddens me when all of the remarkable strides we humans have made are diminished by violence and by the reactions to violence.
So let us remember and honor those who were killed in the choices we make every day, how we treat the strangers we encounter and what we teach our children about those with whom we disagree or just don’t understand. A Muslim man, Lassana Bathily was working at the Paris kosher grocery that day and saved several people by hiding them in the store’s walk-in freezer. Tell this story and find hope every day in all the individuals who make a difference, who act with bravery in the face of fear and who teach us that although we may at times witness the very worst of humanity, we can also, every day, see the spark of the best.
Our diversity is our strength and our future and I hope we will not allow our anger to weaken our commitment to it. Let us seek peace and pursue it, even in the face of those set to destroy it, even amid our justified fear and concern as we have done time and time again. Let our compassion and hope guide our reactions as we search for the light in humanity to dispel the darkness.
I spent a recent autumn Sunday at the Topsfield Fair, in Topsfield, MA. I was expecting a day of food and rides and perhaps a huge pumpkin or two. I didn’t expect to gain a bit of perspective on diversity. As it happens, I got both.
The road to my grandparent’s house seemed never-ending, over many rivers and through several woods we drove. But, when we got off Interstate 95 onto Route 1, I knew we were close. No matter what time of year, this smaller two-lane road was beautiful. In the spring, the trees were just starting to bud and the colors in the fall were spectacular. Every time we drove to my grandparent’s house for a visit, I would feel the excitement in my stomach while driving along Route 1. And every time we made this four-hour journey, we would pass the Topsfield Fair grounds as we edged closer to Ipswich. And every time we passed the Topsfield Fair grounds, it seemed that the fair would be coming up soon or had just ended. I missed it every time.
So when I moved to Boston earlier this year and the trek to visit my family was a mere 30 minutes rather than four hours, I passed the fairgrounds many times and decided that finally, after decades of being deprived of the experience, I was going to the Topsfield Fair.
The Topsfield Fair has been in existence since 1818 and was and remains today an experience in Americana. I saw a gigantic pumpkin and award-winning vegetables, huge and wacky looking chickens, pig races and a petting zoo. I played carnival games that looked like they were from a bygone era and watched someone deep fry butter. I marveled at beautiful quilts and some lovely local photography and was amazed at the sheer volume and variety of food, everywhere. I was especially delighted by the B’nai Brith food tent offering everything from matzah ball soup and homemade noodle kugel to potato pancakes and hot dogs! I sipped on perfect apple cider and just walked around finally enjoying my Topsfield Fair experience.
Beyond all of the fair offerings, I was taken by the diversity of fair goers. Every type of person went to the fair, every ethnic groups and socio-economic levels, young and old, those with disabilities, first timers and seasoned veterans, locals and transplants and everything in between. Not only was the fair a true slice of home grown Americana but the people who populated the fair seemed to be a true representation of America in all of her diverse glory.
Welcome to America. This is who we are. This lovely quaint fair reminiscent of that bygone era is the melting pot, a place for fun and family but more important, a representation of how we all somehow fit together.
Whether interfaith or intercultural, whether you scarfed down that kosher hot dog or tried some chocolate covered bacon in the booth next door, the things that bring us together far outweigh those that make us different and it turns out, everyone loves a fair. What an unexpected pleasure to encounter this reality that we all live amongst but rarely get to truly admire. Our diversity is what makes us strong, what makes us interesting, what makes us, us.
Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:
As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.
The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds.
By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.
In looking for ways to help I did what many have done: I googled.
A JTA News Alert informed me that the Jewish community, largely based in Tokyo, was spared (due in large part to distance from the epicenter).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would help in whatever way possible.
According to the JDC’s site,
JDC is now partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.
Sadly, the number confirmed has now grown into the thousands, with the deaths estimated to be in the tens of thousands. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are now homeless, countless people are missing and entire towns washed away.
Please pitch in to the relief effort, as I have, if you’re able to.
The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew'”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.
You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.
I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.
Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:
The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.
Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”
Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.
Julia Gutman wrote two articles about her intercultural relationship for InterfaithFamily.com, Does OK Really Mean OK? and Momo and Matzoh: Our Tibetan-Jewish Marriage. She sent me a press release that begins:
I spoke with Julia on the phone. First she explained: Lhakpa is her husband! She said she was surprised at how supportive her Russian Jewish relatives were of his quest to publicize the plight of Tibetans. They saw a parallel between his people’s situation and what had happened to their families in the Second World War.
This is a good interfaith story for Passover, when Jews celebrate emerging from slavery to freedom. In this case, the 40 years in the desert are going to be eight months on a motorcycle.
The Jewish community of Great Britain is a cultural powerhouse, I can’t even summarize all the great stuff that has come out of it. It’s the Jewish community responsible for the first Limmud, Aviva Zornberg, Neil Gaiman, Claudia Roden, Harold Pinter, Julian Sinclair, Martyn Poliakoff, Susan Edni, and so many other amazing people in arts, entertainment, science, politics, literature and Jewish life. (Yes, I am aware that list was a little random–give me yours!)
Two of those people, the food writer Nigella Lawson and creative director of the BBC Alan Yentob, re-opened the Jewish Museum in London this past week. The Jewish Museum in London has a slightly different model than some of the ones in the US. It seems poised to use the Jewish experience as “one of Britain’s oldest minorities” to bring other immigrant and minority experiences to the foreground. Cara Nissman reported for us last year on how Jewish museums might provide neutral territory for interfaith families. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to a museum, and in fact the exhibits in a Jewish museum may provide an opening to discuss the non-Jewish partner’s history and culture.
If you’re going to London, check the Jewish Museum’s events list–it looks like they have a lot of interesting events there.
Last July, I blogged about Wyman Brent’s efforts to start a Jewish library in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was a center of Jewish life. Many Jewish families who live in the US are descendants of Jews from Lithuania. As Brent explains,
Brent, who is not Jewish, believes in libraries and the power of books and culture in general to overthrow bias. Now, people in the rest of the world have an opportunity to support his vision:
I was able to see the space which will hopefully house the library. This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years. The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings. Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library. There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices. I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms. However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.
Here’s my letter–it’s really short:
Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
February 25, 2010
Dear Mr. Brent,
I am writing in support of the creation of a Jewish library in Vilnius. As Jewish tourists seek their roots in Eastern Europe, the library could provide them with a space to explore Jewish culture. The library would also be a resource to Lithuanians and a source of pride for them and of connection between the people who share this history.
Please share this letter, among many others from interested parties around the world, with the Prime Minister of Lithuania.
If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.
A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.
A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith International, the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.