The President’s Blog

Last month, I attended a meeting of senior rabbis, executive directors and presidents of large Reform congregations sponsored by the Union of Reform Judaism. It was held at the Hyatt Regency in the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The location turned out to be significant as we were there the same weekend that President Trump signed an executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Right below where we met, people came to protest the executive order. Some accounts said there were hundreds of protestors; others reported that the crowd swelled to more than 1,000. In addition to the protestors, attorneys were meeting in rooms next to ours, strategizing and offering free legal help to refugees who were detained.

The refugee crisis is something that was already on our minds, but the events that occurred around us had a significant impact on our formal and informal discussions. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), spoke to us about the RAC’s efforts on behalf of refugees and the programs that it is creating to assist Reform congregations around the country to respond. First Vice President Nell Shapiro and I connected with lay and professional leaders and compared how each of us is addressing the issues of the day. It was clear that we are part of an incredible movement of diverse individuals with common goals, struggles, and good intentions.

I have been reflecting on that weekend experience and the many ways in which Washington Hebrew Congregation sets the standard for tolerance and acceptance. For decades, we have welcomed our Christian and Muslim neighbors for MLK Shabbat and Day of Service. At a recent Amram lecture, we discussed the American-Jewish conflict over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Last month, we partnered with HIAS and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to host a community Havdalah service, declaring our support for refugees fleeing violence and persecution. For more than a year, Rabbi Lustig has also led a renewed effort to forge ties with our interfaith neighbors through a series of Faith over Fear dialogues.

I attended the Faith over Fear dialogue dinner at Temple in January. I am writing about it now because the gift of hindsight has revealed the true value of this program. Like many community dinners at WHC, Edlavitch Hall was the setting for a gathering of a diverse group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Each table had napkins in three different colors. We were invited to sit at whichever table we wanted, but instructed to choose a seat with a blue napkin if we were Jewish, a gold napkin if we were Muslim, and a white napkin if we were Christian. I found myself sitting between two of our guests — Hassan and Rafaa — each of whom had gold napkins. The dinner was enjoyable with typical introductory small talk. There was also a text discussion after the meal about welcoming the stranger and how it was reflected in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran. We shared thoughts and interpretations around the table, and Hassan made an observation that was eye opening and really connected with me. As the program wrapped up, Rabbi Lustig asked us to share email addresses with our tablemates, which we did, and said our goodbyes.

A few days later, I was at the airport in Dallas for the URJ meeting, and immigration protests were in full swing. Grateful for the email address exchange at Faith over Fear, I sent a quick note to Hassan and Rafaa to check in and let them know I was thinking of them. Hassan wrote back, which led to an email dialogue and then to lunch — at which we agreed that it was just the first of other opportunities to get together. Rabbi Lustig’s invitation to trade email addresses opened the door for me to move beyond pleasant dinner conversation and build a friendship with someone who I met because of our differences, but connected with because of our many similarities.

This experience reminded me of the Danish television commercial, All that We Share, which has gone viral on the internet. The ad opens with the lines, “It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us, and there’s them,” and shows a large group of people separated, primarily based on demographics. Then, it goes deeper and brings people together based on similar life experiences, breaking down stereotypes and boundaries. If you have not seen this video, you can find it here. Its impact is significant.

I encourage you to explore the many opportunities that Washington Hebrew Congregation offers throughout the year to “welcome the stranger.” In doing so, you may discover, as I did, that a stranger can become a friend.