Resisting the temptation to walk away

This week: a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich

Earlier this summer, in a sterile and overly air-conditioned Jerusalem hotel conference room, we gathered with our cohort of 13 Boston-area Christian ministers for an early morning meeting, on the final day of our Israel Study Tour. We met representatives of The Parents Circle Families Forum, a group which describes itself as “the only association in the world that does not wish to welcome any new members into its fold.” Founded and sustained by a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, their mission is to stop further acts of violence.

As is their practice, The Parents Circle was represented that morning by two presenters: one Palestinian and one Jewish Israeli. We heard from Bassam Aramin, whose ten-year-old daughter Abir, a bystander to a clash between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers, was killed by an Israeli soldier who hit her in the head with a rubber bullet. Robi Damelin’s 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while he was guarding a checkpoint in the West Bank during his army reserve service. We were struck by the deep and trusting relationship between these two bereaved parents as they supported each other in sharing their excruciating stories to yet one more audience, and as they teased each other lovingly throughout.

An anecdote that Robi shared took our breath away. She described visiting a classroom – one of many she frequents in Israeli and Palestinian schools – in which she spread her message of peace and non-violence. When she told this class of Palestinian students about losing David, one teen-aged girl stood up and shouted, “Your son deserved to die!” Robi paused, while contemplating her response. She said that giving in to her temptation to simply walk out would accomplish nothing. As a survivor, she recognized the deep pain behind the girl’s unthinkably cruel statement, as the mark of someone who was undoubtedly bereaved herself. So, she gently asked the girl about her family. As Robi suspected, the young student had in fact lost family members to violence. As the conversation unfolded, they shared their experience of loss. And the girl apologized for her brutal remark.

Robi posed this simple yet profound question to all of us: “How do you find a way of talking to someone and still leaving them with their dignity?” That question has reverberated for me ever since. How, in the face of deep divisions and emotionally fraught conflicts, do we relate to others not as enemies, but as human beings created in the image of God, whose dignity we cherish? How can we even begin to know how to do that, when we’re relating to people we don’t always understand, whose lives and experiences may be radically different from our own? How do we enact the teachings of our rabbis, in making the honor of others as dear to us as that of our own? And how do we ensure that this sacred principle informs all that we do?

This is a season of reflection not only for us as Jewish individuals, but also for us a Jewish organization, as we prepare for our annual dinner, when we tell the story of our work and invite the community to join us in our efforts in the coming year. There are many ways to describe the various, seemingly disparate avenues through which we involve our community; volunteer service, legislative advocacy, community organizing, and Israel engagement. But the uniting principle behind all of them is the affirmation of human dignity.

When we facilitate volunteers to help children discover the joy of reading, we affirm dignity. When we advocate for adults to attain skills and receive the support they need to obtain jobs with family sustaining wages, we affirm dignity. When we support Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers on the ground, we affirm dignity. When we mobilize our community to provide safe shelter, legal representation, and freedom from detention for our foreign-born neighbors under attack – we are saying that their honor is as dear to us as that of our own.

When we are at our best, cherishing the dignity of others doesn’t only inform what we do – but how we do it. In the complicated and sometimes thorny world of interfaith and community relations, we aspire to make the dignity of our partners paramount as well. When we are hurt by the words or actions of partners with whom we’ve built long term relationships, like Robi, we resist the temptation to vilify them and walk away. Rather, we draw nearer, and invite difficult conversations; ones leading to new understandings and deeper insights, encounters enabling us to appreciate each other’s humanity and reaffirm our shared values.

The ancient rabbis taught that Elul, this month of introspection leading into the High Holidays, is an acronym for the familiar phrase from the Song of Songs, Ani L’dodi Vedodi Lli – I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. The work of teshuva or repentance demands that we relate to others through loving eyes, and that we value the honor and dignity of all people, as we do our own. As we ready ourselves to enter 5779, let us resist the temptation to walk away, and instead challenge ourselves to affirm the dignity of all those we encounter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma