On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:
Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.
These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah. I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence. I began to reflect on my own live and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”
As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.
Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however, when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center
The EOC, a division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist, after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field. I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.
In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.
But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets. When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”
Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.