Mishpatim – Creating a Culture of Empathy

I had a moving moment last month that is continuing to reverberate. Let me give you some background before describing the moment. I was at […]

I had a moving moment last month that is continuing to reverberate. Let me give you some background before describing the moment. I was at the initial meeting the Jewish Muslim partnership that I have taken a leadership role in fostering.

This meeting resulted from a couple years of efforts to address the reality that there are not strong ties, and in fact deep misconceptions between our communities.  Imagining a different reality, we pulled together every synagogue, day school, JCC and Jewish organization on the North Peninsula, together with Muslim organizations with whom we had begun relationships.  Our goal is to coordinate activities designed to get to foster relationship and connections – classes, visits to each others places of worship, study and social action together – whatever bubbles up from the emerging relationship.

Sitting at that first meeting talking about governance, potential programs and sifting through all the different visions of what should emerge – there were some elephants in the room.  One was that in the few weeks preceding the meeting, Islamophobic hatred had been unleashed in ways none of us could imagine. Mosques were being attacked and burned.  Muslims were being banned from travel.  Hate acts against Muslims had grown in unimaginable numbers. And so we addressed the elephant in the room and asked Maha Elgenaidi, the CEO of Islamic Networks Groups, who co-chairs the partnership with me and came to our synagogue to speak three weeks ago, “What can we do?”

And then the moment happened.  Tears welled up in Maha’s eyes as she simply said, “You’re doing it.”  She shared that her organization has received scores of letters and calls from Jews and Jewish organizations saying that “We stand with you.”  “We will not tolerate hate.”  “We understand – Hineni – Here we are.”  She shared that each letter brought tears to her eyes as she felt our care and concern.  Her words and emotions are sitting with me.  It helped me understand the power of a small acts like a note or a card, a word and an extended hand in the face of hatred.

When I said at the beginning of the sermon that the moment is still reverberating – growing, challenging and defining me – it is with more than deeper awareness of the power of small acts.

I am connecting to my sacred literature in a different way.  When I reflected on this morning’s portion, a verse that has always pulled at my heart in ways I had not previously experienced. Exodus 22:20  (p. 468) – “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The word ger – stranger – refers to a foreign born permanent resident.  Look at the commentary in the Etz Chayim: “Because the ger could not fall back on local family and clan ties, he or she could easily fall victim to discrimination and exploitation.”  And then it gives a reason – our historic experience as slaves gives us empathy for what it is like to be a stranger. Hearing Maha share what it meant to receive such an outpouring of empathy drove home to me in a new and deep way, our core Jewish value – God wants us to create an anti-Egypt, a society in which the vulnerable are protected rather than victimized, loved rather than marginalized. Little things: notes, calls, reaching out, stepping forward, shifting attitudes, challenging misperceptions, speaking out – bring our history into the present. We were slaves and it calls upon us to act differently.

And as Maha shared this, an idea came to her – what about a solidarity event?  Imagine the healing that could come if we created a setting where the Muslim community joins us as we say: We are here for you. We understand what it feels like to be vulnerable and mistreated simply because of our religious identity.  It sounded like such a good idea – so a small group got busy planning an event that will take place tomorrow afternoon.

As the event was being planned – more unimaginable hate continued.  And the target was, and is, us.  There were more bomb threats to JCC’s and Day Schools – including the Ronald C. Wornick Day School in Foster City.  We had to talk to our children about hatred and anti-Semitism. They had to be evacuated from their school.  Just this past week, a Jewish cemetery in Missouri, was damaged by vandals.  What a painful violation of holy ground.  And what has happened?  Kindness has come to us from the Muslim and the interfaith community.  We are not the only people whose sacred texts teach kindness to those who are vulnerable.  It is a core value of the religious and social fiber of our country and community.  In Missouri, Muslim groups launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of raising $20,000 to repair the headstones.  The effort has raised over $75,000.  It is that support from the interfaith community that reminds us that there are many people of good will and kind hearts who live the sacred scripture: Love your neighbor as yourself.

And the event has changed from Jewish communal solidarity with the Muslim community, to mutual solidarity and standing against hatred.  Watching the power of love has been overwhelming to me. And it is happening right here in our community.  After the evacuation at Wornick, the Head of School Barbara Gereboff shared that she has received dozens of  messages from the Muslim community.  Listen to a couple of them:

I write to you to express my solidarity and prayers for what the school staff, admin and students went through yesterday. I would like to extend my hand in friendship and let you know that my community and I are there for you.

We are sorry to hear that some cowards have chosen to create a climate of fear and divisiveness. Know that you are in our thoughts and prayers. We pray for the safety of your staff, students and families. People across the Muslim community in the bay area are praying for you.

I thank God that the threat was not materialized, at the same time recognizing the agony and fear that it instilled in the hearts of staff, parents and children alike. No one deserves to feel scared about going to school.

As American Muslims with children attending an Islamic School in South Bay, that has been threatened this past year, we can understand the fear and apprehension you must be feeling. We offer our support during this confusing time. Please know that we stand with and respect our brothers and sisters of the Jewish community.

Right here, in the North Peninsula, our historic experience is driving us to empathy – Jews for Muslims, and Muslim for Jews.  We are reaching out and caring.  We are listening and acting.

Last week, Dr. Gereboff received a note from a principal in a Muslim school in San Jose. She and her students have created cards and a banner expressing support for the Day School. So the students at the Day School are preparing their own banner to support the Muslim community and they have arranged a time to exchange banners.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (22:20).  We need to feel for those who are vulnerable in our bones – because we know what it feels like. There are lots of vulnerable strangers in our community right now. Empathy and compassion drive us to care and to act in life-changing ways. The best way of curing hate is to feel the suffering of another.  We transform our historic  memories and practice role-reversal to begin to act is ways that respond to the darkness that pervades our world.  Healing is right in front of us.  Let’s act.