Talk To

Rosh Hashanah, Day Two
September 22, 2017—2 Tishri 5778

The late great Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, forever changed the Jewish world with a single idea.   Send a Chabad emissary, a sheliach, a rabbi and his wife and their children, to the four corners of the universe, to places where Jews did not live.  Precisely there the Chabad emissary would establish a Jewish community, both to repair the world, and also to provide a Jewish home for Jews who visited these remote locations.  Today there are 4,325 Chabad emissaries in 86 countries.  If you are in Thailand for Passover, you can go to a Chabad seder, the largest in the world.  There are Chabad centers in Azerbajan, in Angola, in Cambodia, in Vietnam, in China, to name just a few.

But for my money, the Chabad emissary with the single hardest job by far is Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, and his wife Devora, and their six children, all of whom live in… Ohio. Theirs is the toughest assignment because he is the Chabad rabbi at Oberlin College.  Rabbi Elkan’s story was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal.

They go off to rural Ohio, and things start off nicely.  They invite college kids who are far from home for a home-cooked Shabbat dinner.  Students come.  So far, so good.

But there is a problem.  Oberlin has a community of students who see themselves as “woke,” in today’s college vernacular, their awareness to injustice, especially to oppressed minorities, heightened.  In this lens, white Jews all too often are seen as possessors of privilege, which they did not earn but were born into.  In this lens, Israel is all too often seen as a state that oppresses Palestinians.  Nuance, balance, historical accuracy, the many times Israel tried to make peace but was met with terrorists exploding buses, the time that Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to give the Palestinians 96% of what they wanted, included sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem, and they said no, responding instead with the second intifadah, which claimed the lives of more than 1,200 innocent Israelis, slain by terrorism, that kind of nuance and balance did not have a home at Oberlin.  Rather, to prove their credentials as woke, Jewish students would either vociferously criticize Israel, or be silent when others did so.

To add to the volatility, there was a professor named Joy Karega, who created a perfect storm of negative energy.  This is what Professor Karega posted on Facebook.

She claimed that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were responsible for the September 11 attacks.  She claimed that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.  She claimed that it was Israel that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

All of this, predictably, created a firestorm.  At first the Oberlin administration defended Professor Karega on the basis of academic freedom.  But eventually it fired her for these posts that conveyed not academic freedom but old fashioned Jew hatred.  The decision to dismiss her, predictably, further inflamed the campus.  Professor Karega is an African American.  One popular narrative was that Jewish alumni pressure caused the school to fire a popular African American professor.  One Jewish professor’s home was vandalized.  Meanwhile, as the Journal noted, Oberlin became well known as one of the worst colleges in America for Jewish students to attend—not safe for Jewish students, especially for pro-Israel students—and Jewish donors pulled back on their donations.

That included a donor who had pledged $350,000 to relocate Oberlin Chabad to a spacious, modern residence on campus.  As a result of the roiling controversy, the construction project for the new Chabad residence was stopped in its tracks.  The whole building site is now covered in construction wrap.  Rabbi Elkan, his wife Devora, and their six children continue to live in one very small, very cramped house off campus that has one bathroom.

All in all, easier to be a Chabad emissary in Azerbajan than in Oberlin.

Why this sad, hard story, this tense, anxiety producing story, this story with all these tripwires just now?

Most of us do not live in the minefield that is Oberlin.  But the sad reality is that you don’t need to go to Oberlin to live in a minefield.  We live in our own minefield, right here and  now.

I have shared before my love of the books of Will and Ariel Durant, a married pair of historians who wrote epic histories with sweeping titles like The Age of Faith, The Age of Napolean, The Age of Voltaire.

If the Durants were alive and writing today, they would entitle their volume on our world The Age of Toxic Division.  Not only do we disagree on so many things, but the disagreements are so disagreeable.  We have lost the ability to disagree agreeably.

Imagine a large gathering of family and friends around your Rosh Hashanah table.   Then imagine trying to have a reasonable, agreeable conversation about whether, say, the President’s response to Charlottesville was appropriate or not appropriate.  Minefield.  Or whether hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the same month are evidence of global warming. Minefield.  Or what to do about the DACA legislation that protects immigrant dreamers. Minefield. Or a categorical ban on the ability of all transgendered human beings to serve in the American military. Minefield. Many of us would struggle to have a decent conversation on these issues of the day.

As a result, some families try to steer clear of any of these minefields.  Don’t talk about anything controversial.  Talk, instead, about, say the food.  This brisket is so tender.  How did you ever get it so tender?  It redefines tender in the brisket category.  This gazpacho is so tangy. And the temperature of the gazpacho is so interesting.  Did you serve it room temperature? Or is it chilled? You must have taken it out of the fridge, let it sit for an hour, and then served it.  That is why there is just a hint of chill to this gazpacho.  The Age of Toxic Division narrows the range of what we can talk about.

This may be where some of us are at.  Is there another way?

I have a friend who shared something helpful.  He pointed out that we avoid unpleasant conversations.  We talk to the people we like to talk to.  We don’t talk to the people we don’t like to talk to.  We might even talk to somebody we like to talk to about somebody we don’t like to talk to.   But my friend asks is this the most productive course?

Suppose at work we have a challenging boss or colleague.  It is easy to talk about that boss or colleague.  It is hard to talk to that boss or colleague.  But talking about does not get us anywhere.   Talking to, hard as it may be, can make things better.

At home, we might have that member of our own family who pushes our buttons.  Whatever our ying is, they are yang.  When we are yang, they are ying.  It is easy to talk about that family member. It is hard to talk to that family member.  But talking about does not accomplish anything.  Talking to can make things better.

At shul you might sit next to somebody whose politics are incomprehensible to you.  It is easy to ignore that person, or to write them off. It is hard to engage.

But engaging when we would rather not engage is one of the purposes of this time of year.   The single most famous Mishnah about the high holidays tells us that if we have hurt somebody else, or if somebody else has hurt us, praying to God is not effective.  Rather, we have to talk to the person we have harmed, or who has harmed us.  That wisdom is found not only in ancient Jewish texts, but also on American battle fields.

Drew Faust is a Civil War historian who wrote a book entitled This Republic of Suffering about the massive amount of death caused by the Civil War.  There were 620,000 Civil War casualties which, in today’s terms, are the equivalent of six million Americans.  And yet, despite this unprecedented amount of death, she noted one telling fact.  Very few soldiers were shot in the face.  Even though the combatants fought in battle fields where they could see one another, it is hard to shoot somebody in the face.

Drew Faust has taken this lesson and applied it to her job as president of Harvard.  She makes a point of talking to her biggest critics.  If they see her, if they know her, if she sees them, if she knows them, if they can talk to one another,  even if they do not agree, they may agree to disagree more agreeably. Listening without convincing is an affirmative good.

Which brings us back to Rabbi Elkan, the Chabad emissary trying to do outreach in a roiled campus after an incendiary firing.  What did he do?  He went to campus and reached out to the leadership of Oberlin’s African American students.  A student named Gailyn Gabriel saw a heavy set figure with a bushy beard hanging around campus.  In the Journal article, she says:

I’d seen him around and thought he was one of those aging hippies you encounter on campus.  When he said he was a rabbi, I half-expected him to be wearing a bulletproof vest.

A Chabad rabbi and the leader of the black student union at Oberlin are not natural allies.  It was precisely for that reason that Rabbi Elkan did what he did.  He invited Gailyn Gabriel to have a cup of coffee with him.  She said yes.  They shared stories.  He told his story, what it was like to fear for his safety in Jerusalem, aware of the threats of terrorism that could break out at any time. I have friends who lost their lives due to terrorism.  I went to their funerals. I went to their shivas.  I comforted their loved ones. She heard him.  For her part, she told her story.  Do you know what it is like growing up America and being told by your parents, from an early age, that one day when you are driving, you may be pulled over by the police.  Why would you be pulled over?  Not because you were speeding. Or driving while drunk.  Or  leaving the scene of a crime.  No, you will be pulled over for the sin of driving while black.  He heard her.   They did not convince one another.  They did something even better. They listened to one another.  Gailyn Gabriel concluded:

Rabbi Shlomo talked to us in a way that dialed down the distrust.  I’d say we’ve become friends and I’m more aware now of how Jewish kids might perceive things as anti-Semitic.

In this Age of Toxic Division, I have two words for you.  They are hard words. But they are holy words.  Talk to.  Don’t talk about.  And don’t give up. Don’t quit.  Don’t bail. We cannot become Chabad emissaries.  But we can become emissaries for humility and decency. We can become emissaries for listening without trying to convince.   We can become emissaries for saying I hear you, I happen not to agree with you, but I hear you, and I respect you, and I love you anyway.  Even in a toxic age, especially in a toxic age, a little listening and a little talking to go a long way.   After all, toxic issues come and go.   But our relationships are here to stay—if we make it that way.  Shana tova.