Week 8: New Jersey

 

PHOTO: With the Diller Teen Fellows, a group of social justice-minded high school students completing a 14-month leadership program that includes independent service projects for the wider community.

 

 

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
― Mahatma Gandhi[1]

On the first day of my first semester at UNC, a professor in an Ethics of Religion class asked us, “How do you know you’re here in this classroom?” Some answered they knew because they remembered coming, because they had a history that brought them here. Others recognized the name of the room they sought matched the description on the door. Still others referred to an intuition or belief in their current consciousness.

You’ll receive a wide variety of answers if you ask a Jew, “How do you know you’re Jewish?” For some it’s about ethnicity and heritage; for others it’s about law; and for others, a choice or belief.

Jewish identity is thus an excellent source of exploration for how we might form “us” without first forming “them.” During my week with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, I delivered leadership workshops to three different groups of high school students, spoke to a group of young adults and facilitated an identity workshop with Israelis on a gap year after high school. All of the above groups have members who identify as “Jewish,” and all these members are committed to serving the wider community.

The week began at a retreat for the Diller Teen Fellows, a group that combines leadership development and service in a demanding 14-month program. After running a summer camp for Ethiopian refugees in Israel, the members are coordinating their own service projects in the US addressing the environment, education, disaster relief, children’s self-esteem and other causes.

For Rachel Forman, the program helped her find identity as an agent for social change. “The program has helped me reach my potential, giving me the opportunity to stand up and realize who I am,” she says. “My identity was non-existent (before joining the Diller Fellows). I didn’t know who I was and more importantly who I can be.

“I started to stand up for what I believed in, and I became very interested in what other people had to say. I couldn’t be more thankful for the person I’ve become.”

Something that bonds Jewish communities around the world is their historic link to oppression, slavery and genocide. During the week I joined a group that serves lunch to Holocaust survivors twice a month. It was humbling to sit with them and hear many of their stories, and every bit as shocking as it was the first time I learned about the Shoah as a child. Here are excerpts from two conversations I had with survivors:

Else Roth, German

In 1938 we were deported to Poland, I was 18. (Motioning around the room) “There are some people here I have known for 50 years – one lady was in Auschwitz – she has a number (Else introduces me to her friend Sonia Samuels, who grimly touches the cloth covering the prisoner number on her arm). She was undressed and taken to the gas chamber, they were ready to go, but they ran out of gas! Imagine! Her whole family went there; she is the only survivor. … My sister paid for me to come to the US in 1946 – she took care of us. I was with my husband and I was pregnant. It wasn’t easy. I saw Lady Liberty, and then I saw there’s many cars, many food on the street. I couldn’t take it. I wouldn’t go outside. I had to stay inside. We had so little to eat and all of a sudden it was in such abundance. My stomach couldn’t take it. We suffered so much in the six years. … I can’t believe it – how could you believe it? It’s so unbelievable.”

Beatrice Glotzer, Poland

“At first we lived in my father’s friend’s basement. There were only 200 people in the village, so they started to snoop around. My father said ‘if we’ll be killed, we’ll be killed, but I don’t want my friend to be killed.’ So we crossed the border of Russia and the secret police wanted documents we didn’t have. So they said they were sending us home, but on the train we realized we weren’t going home, we were going into deep Siberia. We arrived and worked with a displaced person camp in Siberia. We were in the deep woods, men were drafted to work – the older people all passed away the first winter. They burned their bodies. To this day I have that smell when I light a candle because they couldn’t be buried. When the war started they wanted to make them citizens so they drafted my father to a war factory. My brother was young but he worked. My mother and I didn’t know where they were, until my brother wrote a note: ‘If I stay here I will soon die.’ My mother left me alone and walked three days in the deep snow – I was eight years old. She found someone you can bribe – she came back and went house to house to beg, and then brought him back. When he came back I didn’t recognize my brother – he was dying. But when we went back (after the war and saw the German death camps) we saw we were the lucky ones. … My husband saw his mother and two brothers shot. He ran away from the ghetto and he was among eight survivors out of 138 – all eight were at my daughter’s wedding. … My grandson will have a baby in December. I feel like victory over Stalin and Hitler.”

Susan Schechter, who runs the program, says the group has dwindled from about 130 to 100 over the past decade, and as we move away from World War II it will be important to remember the lessons learned.

“The message is one of survival and one of resilience,” she says. “What are your values? If you see prejudice anywhere what do you do about it? At what point do you stand up and say this is wrong?”

I met with a group of young adults who carry that mantle as Jersey Tribe, a service-oriented group that has volunteered at a food bank, a nature preserve, a blood drive, an animal shelter, and a senior center to name but a few. Christina Broussard, the assistant director at a K-12 religious school, also tries to incorporate service learning into her school’s curriculum.

“Giving money is great but what better way to teach a kid that their community isn’t just their bubble but to get them out of their comfort zone and into the communities their parents are too scared to go to,” she says.

The pathway she employs is to educate privileged students first to expand their notion of “Jews” – e.g., not all Jews look like them or live in wealthy communities – and then to use that as a springboard for embracing humanity.

“We’re trying to help them understand not every Jewish person is like them,” she says. “Once they understand that concept they can understand there are others in need.”

It is certainly commendable to serve communities you’re a part of, which is an important building block for the transcendent pursuit of an ultimate community (just like moving from immediate family to extended family or local community). Noga Maliniak, the Director of the Israel Program Center for the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, offers the following assessment of her service to Jews around the world.

“Good community takes care of each other,” she says, “and sees themselves as needing to take care of each other. If you’re hurting, I’m hurting. They are part of the same people.”

I would challenge the reader to consider those words first from the perspective of a family; then again as a community formed on religion, race, nationality or gender; then a third time as an embodiment of ubuntu that can be employed toward the notion of all humanity.

Kimberlé Crenshaw[2] established the perspective of intersectional identity, which is the notion that individual experience is shaped synergistically by all of his/her identities, not the sum of each category. Group identity, when viewed through an intersectional lens, establishes that we aren’t all the same, but we do have something in common – this is a vital and very human step to take before an all-encompassing oneness. Maliniak points out, “In order to be open to everyone you need to know who you are.”

The week therefore helped reinforce the notion that the pursuit of ubuntu must be anti-reductionist; that is, it’s not helpful merely to deconstruct identity into a universal “us.” Instead the goal must be to challenge groups to define their identity as loving, compassionate and considerate of others.

Judith Butler[3] revolutionized gender and race studies with her idea of “performativity” – every identity is a collection of prior discourse, or all the actions and words that have preceded this moment to create our agreed idea of, for example, what it means to be a “man.” This is constructed through repeated performances, but any new action (whether or not subversive) helps redefine that identity.

I went to a burger place during the week where I was asked, “How do you want it cooked? Our medium is medium-rare.” Then why not just call it medium-rare? The only explanation is the pursuit of redefining what it means to be “medium.”

This is an empowering concept, because every day is a chance to redefine all the categories (race, gender, class, hometown, religion, ability, age, etc.) you represent. It’s not easy to accomplish the positive pursuit of community, though, and we often fall victim to the trap of forming “us” through a common enemy, which inevitably leads to us vs. them.

I met a kind middle-aged woman during the week whose career is dedicated to serving others, often communities of Jewish people. She told me she is Catholic, but feels strongly that we should all get along. “The problem,” she says, “is the devil – a.k.a. the Muslims.” She backtracked slightly (perhaps after seeing the horror on my face) but this was a crystal-clear depiction of that trap. Not only is this reduction of the world’s problems ignorant (most Muslims are loving, selfless and peaceful) and arrogant (no conflict in the world is solely the result of one person or group’s interests or actions), it’s fruitless: We get nowhere when we bond with someone by identifying other people as wrong and evil.

Instead, we should follow Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example of identifying evil forces, affirming a group’s identity, and challenging the people of a group to define themselves in a loving way. After the first day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was even more successful than Dr. King had hoped, he gave what he called his “most decisive speech,” delivering this invigorating message[4]:

“When the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”

Dr. King called on the African-American community to rise above the hate they faced, to seize their chance to shape history and to define their identity for the future as a great people. Any group can rise to the occasion, and every day you redefine every group you represent.

Just as Dr. King declared, this is both a challenge and a responsibility.

 

 What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!



[1] According to Wikiquote, this quotation is unsourced although commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Accessed 22 October 2012 here.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.

[3] Judith Butler (1990) “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” Routledge: New York.

[4] Gunnar Jahn (1964) “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 – Presentation Speech.” Nobelprize.org. Accessed 24 Oct 2012 here.

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