This week we commemorated Sh’va Asar b’Tamuz, the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day in the Jewish calendar and a day to commemorate the breaching of the walls in Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). On this day we also mark the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE) and other tragedies of the Jewish people. One of the messages that our rabbis teach about this period of destruction in Jewish history is that Jews must not repeat the errors of the past. Most importantly, we learn that sinat chinam, senseless hatred between Jews, led to the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, and in order to prevent future calamities, each generation that commemorates the destruction must work to overcome the temptation to act or speak against others with sinat chinam.
This message of connection and openness to others, confronting bias and senseless hatred was ringing in the halls of Shaarei Tikvah on Thursday afternoon this week when I hosted a group of high school students from White Plains High School at Shaarei Tikvah. My friend and colleague, Rev. Lee Trollinger who participated in our community’s conversations about racism and privilege last August, requested that I spend some time with him and these students so that they could learn about the Jewish religion and our shared values. This annual program was implemented by the City of White Plains Youth Bureau through the Calvary Baptist Church of which Rev. Trollinger is the pastor. The Church helps the students from White Plains High School learn about civic engagement and community based organizations in Lower Westchester. The goal of the program is to engage students with new concepts by meeting various leaders of organizations, which will help them grow as individuals.
Our hour and a half together was fun, honest, and intellectually engaging. I offered the students a tour of our sanctuary and beit midrash and taught them about our rituals and the significance behind them. The students had many questions about the objects they saw and the explanations I offered. Rev. Trollinger explained the significance of the relationship between Jews and African Americans and we had a conversation about our shared experiences of slavery and how that impacts the way we respond to injustice. These students were asked to challenge assumptions and express their opinions honestly so that we could all learn from one another. As a group, we valued diversity of opinion, which allowed for more honest and interesting discussions about issues connected with the Jewish relationship with Israel and American politics. It was powerful that within a synagogue space, which promotes diversity of opinion, we were able to foster a dialogue in which students of various experiences and a diversity of opinions were able to learn from one another.
The polarization of our communities have made many important conversations taboo. And yet, we must remember that our relationships with one another can be strengthened if we are open to listening to opinions and ideas of those with whom we disagree. I am sure it was not easy for these students to walk into a space about which they knew nothing. In fact, none of these students had ever stepped into a synagogue before, and yet, they left with a new sense of understanding and connection. My prayer over these three weeks leading to the 9th of Av is that we can find space to engage in discussion with those who disagree with us in order to promote civil engagement and diversity of thought in our communities.