As a child growing up in Los Angeles, my friends and I were from all sorts of different backgrounds, religions, and traditions, and we accepted this diversity as normal and beautiful. We were fascinated by each other’s differences, and we loved and accepted each other as we were. Of course, I had no idea how unusual this was. At that point, I considered my commitment to building relationships with those different from me to be an enriching intellectual pursuit.
Then, in college, I chose to major in religion. Through my studies (and just growing up), I realized that I had not fully recognized the tremendous reach of religion in our world. Religion truly matters…not just historically, but now, in an everyday, immediate sense. The fingers of religion extend through everything: international and domestic politics, education, law, environmental issues, social justice issues, and, of course, the everyday lives and identities of most people (this includes believers, non-believers, and everyone outside and in-between these two categories). As a result, I realized that by building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions, I could make more informed and more thoughtful choices in life. Since this lined up with my own moral identity as a Jew, a feminist, and an American, I committed myself to doing exactly that. So I would say that, at this point, my commitment to building relationships with those different from me also became a moral pursuit.
This all changed on September 4, 2011.
At this time, my family and I (my partner and I have a beautiful, almost-7-year-old daughter) were living in the dorms of a Christian school. We had been embraced openly along with all the other student families on campus and we encountered no trouble being (almost the only) non-Christians on campus. That is at least until our mezuzah was stolen off our apartment’s door frame. (In the interest of saving space, I refer those of you who may be new to the term “mezuzah” to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezuzah). Normally, such an occurrence would be merely theft, but the removal of a Jewish family’s mezuzah historically has been an act of intimidation and religious/ethnic hatred. We were shocked and incredibly hurt. Our fellow students were amazingly responsive to the situation. They expressed anger and disgust at the theft, and offered help, hugs, and prayers. Some even took up a collection from students and faculty to buy us two new mezuzot with beautiful cases!
The administration’s reaction, however, left much to be desired. Their comments ranged from the unintentionally hurtful to contemptuous. Most did not know what the object was, so they were angry at us for calling it “a possible hate crime.” Another administrator expressed anger that posters we put up about the mezuzah used the word “stolen,” and one of our posters was defaced, with the word “stolen” replaced with “lost” and “missing.” One administrator at the very highest level wrote a community-wide letter about the incident that expressed sorrow that “a family heirloom” had been stolen, asked for compassion towards the person who took the item, and at no point stated that it was a Jewish item or that we are Jewish. None of the chaplaincy or spiritual development staff contacted us to see how we were doing or how we felt. No one addressed that we might be feeling unsafe in our own home. The event was never optimized as a learning moment or as a chance to reaffirm campus solidarity. And to this day, the administration has said nothing about it, publicly or to us, since the initial event.
Now, the reason I relate this story is not to point accusatory fingers or stir up anger. I share this story with all of you because this is the moment that building relationships with those of different religious and ethical traditions became personal for me. This event was handled so poorly that I still cry when I think about it. I fault no-one for not knowing what a mezuzah is, but when I go over it all in my mind, I cannot help but think that…maybe…perhaps…if those administrators had had a relationship with us, or even had had a relationship with other Jews to ask them about what such an event would mean for a Jewish family, maybe this event would have been handled differently.
This event made me realize that my commitment to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions is no longer just an intellectual pursuit or a moral imperative for me; it is a personal choice for me now. This commitment means that I am choosing to always reach out to others with respect, kindness, and curiosity, to greet the human in others, to learn from others, and to help others be visible and have a voice, however alien it might be from mine. This is what I would have liked the school administration to have done for us then. This is what I would like others to do for me now. So this is what I choose to do for others from now on.