The following remarks were delivered by Marty Chester at the JCRC’s program on Epigenetics at Beth El Synagogue following its 2018 Annual Meeting, where Marty was installed as the JCRC’s Board President.
Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming.
I’m delighted to become the new President of the JCRC. I’m grateful to inherit this position from our outgoing President, Jeff Oberman – who has so skillfully led our board for the past 2 years. Thank you Jeff – our community is better off thanks to your leadership.
I’m also pleased to welcome Dr. Rachel Yehuda to our community. Dr. Yehuda, who we’ll hear from in a few minutes, is a pioneer in studying how the effects of trauma are transmitted biologically, generation to generation.
I was asked to say a few words about the JCRC before we hear from her. But in thinking about what I’d say, I reflected on Dr. Yehuda’s work—and how it might be beshert that she is here just before the Shabbat when our Torah portion is Noach, which recounts a few traumatic episodes that have left their mark throughout the generations. There is, of course, the Flood. But I’d like to speak about an episode that I think relates to the JCRC and our mission in the community.
I’m talking about the Tower of Babel (in Hebrew, Bavel).
We know the story, which begins by saying: ‘Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.’ (Gen. 11:1)
Everyone settled in one valley, in a single place. And they said: ‘Let us build…a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves [or] else we shall be scattered all over the world.’ (Gen. 11:4).
We know what happened next. G-d didn’t like this. G-d said – well, if this is what they can do when they all have the same language, there will be no limit to what they can do. So G-d confused their speech, so they couldn’t understand each other and couldn’t finish the tower. And G-d scattered the people all over the world.
Many of us were taught that G-d punished the Tower-Builders because they were arrogant, and tried to threaten G-d’s status as ruler of the universe.
But Rabbi Daniel Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary teaches that the Tower-Builders weren’t arrogant; they ‘were afraid.’
What were they afraid of?
In the story, the Builders say that they’re afraid of being נָפוּץ — scattered– all over the world.
Rabbi Nevins interprets this fear of scattering to mean that in fact, the people were “terrified of losing their identity.”
Another rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin from the 19th century, seems to agree – he suggested that the people were afraid of scattering, of losing their identity, because they were so uniform.
Rabbi Berlin saw a connection between the Tower-Builders’ identical language—and identical thought. He taught that what the Tower-Builders really feared was that among their homogenous society, some people among them might develop different ideas. (Ha-emek Davar on Genesis 11:4) So, the Tower-Builders were constantly afraid of their uniform thought and uniform ideas being challenged.
But of course, as Rabbi Berlin said, “the opinions of people are not identical.” So, he taught, the Tower-Builders had to enforce their uniformity. And he teaches that the reason for building the Tower was to prevent anyone from leaving their uniform society—even going so far, Rabbi Berlin said, as to “kill whoever did not think like them.”
According to these rabbis, the real sin of the Tower of Bavel was not in trying to reach G-d, but was forcing everyone to be the same and to think the same – of turning a common language into identical thought, and unchallenged ideas.
The Tower-Builders’ fear of difference—and fear of disagreement—was their undoing. G-d struck them with the very punishment they most feared—separating them, scattering them all over the Earth, creating what the Torah calls Bavel.
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Hundreds of generations later, we—Jews and Americans in 2018—are still dealing with the effects of that traumatic episode. We are still living in Bavel. Our world is divided, confused, and yes—often traumatized. People retreat to their own tribal towers—or “bubbles”—and seek more and more to stay only with people who think identically.
Even in our own Jewish community – even though we share a lashon kodesh, our own holy language, we often find ourselves speaking past each other, failing to understand each other – or worse – staying in our own towers and not talking to each other at all.
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This modern-day Bavel is where the JCRC finds its mission. The premise of “Community Relations” is that we’re never going to be identical. But—even though we don’t all speak the same language, we can still understand each other.
For almost 80 years, the JCRC has built understanding in the face of conflict; and has met threats not by retreating to our own tower—but by building relationships with our neighbors.
Today, in our increasingly-scattered world, it is more important than ever to continue doing this. A few examples:
- We’ll continue building relationships with our fellow immigrants, and with any of our neighbors who are mistreated because they are immigrants, because of their religion, their race, or because they are different. The Torah teaches that we Jews know “the heart of the stranger,” because we were strangers in the land of Egypt—but much closer to home, in the memory of people sitting in this room, we suffered vicious hatred and discrimination right here in Minneapolis. This is why the JCRC was created in the first place.
Today, we’re committed to using our community’s experience—and our voice and our influence—to help the strangers of today who are attacked just because they are different.
So we’ll continue to speak out against the violent threats like those made just a few days ago against our local Muslim Civil Rights leader Jaylani Hussein.
We’ll continue to support our neighbors like we did when the Dar al Farooq Islamic Center was bombed last year.
We’ll continue to speak out as we did against the federal government’s family separation policy.
We’ll continue to partner with groups like the Minneapolis Urban League, building upon the historic partnership between the Jewish and African American communities.
And we’ll continue to educate the community with programming that explains the valuable contributions—and the rights—of immigrants, minorities, and others who experience the oppression that we Jews know all too well.
- We’ll continue building support for the State of Israel. Though our relationships with our elected officials and with other faith groups, we’ll continue to help our neighbors understand the importance of Israel to the Jewish people, and to understand the challenges that Israel faces as its people, and their neighbors, try to live in peace. We’ll continue doing this through the JCRC’s outstanding speakers’ bureau. We’ll continue taking Minnesota’s legislators to Israel. We’ll remain vigilant to fight misguided BDS efforts at the legislature and the University. And in doing all of this, JCRC will continue to provide a forum in which everyone in our Jewish family can safely and respectfully share their views.
- We will continue building relationships with law enforcement. Nearly every day, JCRC staff is in touch with law enforcement and with our schools, our synagogues, JCCs, and any place our community gathers, to make sure they are well-prepared for something we hope never happens. This year, the FBI recognized the JCRC for making extraordinary contributions to keeping the community safe, and gave the JCRC its Director’s Community Leadership Award. We’ll not only continue this work, but will do it better than ever thanks to our new Director of Community Security, former Plymouth deputy police chief Dan Plekkenpol, who brings decades of law enforcement experience to help keep our community safe.
- We will continue to build understanding about the Holocaust and its lessons – by talking with people across the region about the Shoah—and the dangers of what happens when minorities are targeted for persecution. We’ll do this through the Transfer of Memory exhibit, which has brought photos and personal stories of survivors to places as small as Decorah, Iowa and as busy as the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport during Super Bowl week. And—point of personal privilege—was co-created by my mom Lili Chester with photographer David Sherman. And I’m so proud of her and the work she’s done. We’ll also continue our annual trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where we take school children and law enforcement and military service people from across our region to the museum to teach the lessons of what happens when hate goes unchallenged.
- And we will continue building relationships with our elected officials, by doing things like sponsoring the Fifth District Congressional Debate that filled this sanctuary with more than 1000 people this summer; and working with our legislators of both parties to obtain funding that help support our community institutions.
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These are just a few of the many ways that the JCRC—led by our tireless executive Director Steve Hunegs and his talented staff—build understanding by building relationships, even with people with whom we can’t agree on everything.
The JCRC staff, and our Board, are going to keep getting out of our tower, as we’ve done for 80 years. But we’re also going to be asking for your help.
We need you to join our work with your time, your attention, your conversations, and your attitudes. Every one of us has a part to play in overcoming the ways in which our society has become too much like Bavel.
- We’ll ask you to talk with each other, and with us.
- We’ll ask you to listen, especially to people you disagree with. And we’ll do our best to listen.
- And we’ll ask you to act, not only to keep our community strong, but to help the communities and the people with whom we are in relationship.
Even though we don’t always speak the same language, we can still learn to understand each other. And when we understand each other – we can build something together. Not a tower that walls us off from the rest of the world and enforces uniformity. But a community – a k’lal yisrael and a broader community—that does not fear our differences, but that faces them honestly and respectfully. And when we do that, we will build something strong and lasting.