I recall vividly the moment of realization I had soon after the Ferguson protests had gained steam. As a new member of the clergy and recent transport to St Louis, I watched the news unfold musing, “The Jewish community really should do something.” Then I stopped. “Darn,” I thought. “I am the Jewish community.”
The truth is, it is easy to look on from the outside and see all the ways in which our Jewish community is lacking. Even failing. Like Monday morning quarterbacking and backseat driving, we are all experts when we have the luxury of not being the decision makers.
And that is precisely what it is— a luxury.
It is easy to criticize. The real work is in joining.
In my time working in the Jewish community, and in the St. Louis Jewish community in particular, I have been overwhelmed by the quantity and the quality of the lay leadership. I have come in contact with some of the most passionate and dedicated individuals I have had the privilege to know—individuals who love their Jewish community, who want to see it flourish, and who devote wealth, resources, and hours upon hours upon hours of valuable time to make that dream into a reality.
More recently, in my role as Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council is St Louis, I have been dismayed to find more and more members of our community opting out. Those who have held seats on our committees and votes on our council choosing to resign those positions or simply forgo those meetings and, instead, take their message to social media and other public platforms in the hopes that vague insinuations or inflammatory comments would result in communal shaming that would yield their desired results.
Rori Picker Neiss is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis.
It is easy to stand on the outside and find fault. It is far more difficult to sit down at the table, roll up one’s sleeves, and work together for change.
Organizations like the JCRC are grounded in a consensus decision-making process. Our policy and positions are determined by those who show up. When those who disagree with the work of our institution resign in protest, they surrender the microphone to those they leave behind.
Certainly, a seat at the table is not a promise that one can actualize the outcome they crave. A seat at the table is a promise of an opportunity to be heard, to have the opportunity to share one’s worldview, respond to questions, and dispel misconceptions while at the same time having the opportunity to hear others’ worldviews, ask questions, and gain deeper understanding. It is the promise of representation in ultimate negotiations that, although everyone may not leave happy, can ensure that the totality of our community is taken into consideration.
Our Jewish community will never be unanimous in any of our stances. Indeed, the beauty and vibrancy of our community is in our diversity. It is the plethora of voices challenging one another that forces us to reevaluate deeply held beliefs, define our terminology, question our boundaries, hone our perspectives, and emerge with a clarity that, while not universal, is far more nuanced, comprehensive, and profound than where we began. Most importantly, it is from that place that we can be most successful, both in speaking to the range of individuals within our community and in representing our Jewish community and advocating our causes to other faith, ethnic, civic, and political leaders.
In the past 18 months, we have been shocked by the increase in physical assaults against our Jewish community nationwide as we found ourselves mourning the deaths of far too many individuals taken from us too soon because they chose to attend synagogue, shop at a kosher supermarket, or even walk down the street dressed as a Jew.
This rise in violent anti-Semitic attacks has caused some of us to draw ever more insular. It has caused us to question the motivations of our fellow Jews, to identify potential enemies within our midst, to attempt to silence legitimate—albeit controversial—voices in our community. This does not serve to protect us, as some believe, but only to further divide us. It is a division that we desperately cannot afford.
Let 2020 be the year that we choose not to be afraid of our diversity, not to be afraid to face dissention, not to be afraid to list to views dissimilar from our own, and not to be afraid to be changed by encountering opposition. Most of all, let it be the year that we are not afraid to show up and be counted.
We will all be stronger as a result.