Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Relationships with “the other”
“Good morning, how are you?”
“How about you?”
How often do we look at another person’s weary or cheery facial expression and dive deeper in our perfunctory morning exchanges? Are we able to say, “You look really tired!” opening the door for the person to respond with a “Yes, my two year old was up most of the night” or “I’m not really tired, just thinking about what’s ahead of me today.”
The above example of responding with an attempt to read the other person’s body language is crucial to building strong communication skills and consequently powerful relationships. It helps the recipient of the communication to name and clarify his or her feelings, and it facilitates opening the sort of communication that builds sturdy relationships.
I know all of this theoretically, and I’m pretty good at practicing it in my life and my work. But a couple of weeks ago on that difficult day when our school received a threatening communication, I was the recipient of that relationship building through empathetic communication in a surprising and uplifting way.
The morning was a difficult one for us. The staff and I had drilled so often on the scenario that took place so that our response and actions were practiced and accomplished as planned. But I was surprised by my own feelings of isolation, hurt and anger that surfaced by late afternoon.
After the children and teachers were all safely home, and the campus leadership team had completed our debriefing, I opened up my email to the most unexpected set of emails. First, there was an email from an imam from San Jose, saying:
I write to you to express my solidarity and prayers for what the school staff, admin and students went through….I would like to extend my hand in friendship and let you know that my community and I are there for you.
Then it was from a Muslim mother in San Jose who wrote:
I am so very sorry to hear about the threats made to your school recently. As a mother of two sons, my children's public school and their teachers and staff were big parts of our daily lives…..I thank God that the threat was not materialized, at the same time recognizing the agony and fear that it instilled in the hearts of staff, parents and children alike. No one deserves to feel scared about going to school. Nonetheless, I would like to cheer all of you on, with prayers, support, encouragement, and diligent work hoping that the trauma would pass….discrimination and hate has no place in our society, one that values deeply our togetherness in diversity.
Similar emails continued throughout that day and for several days after. In all, I received a dozen notes from the Muslim community. In the days that followed and continuing, I’ve received hand written notes from members of churches locally and in different parts of the country. I’ve made it a point to respond to each communication, and I now have had several longer exchanges with a few members of the local Muslim community. In contrast, I received communication from two of my fellow day school colleagues in the Bay Area (out of twelve in the Bay Area and hundreds across the country), from two Rabbinic colleagues in the area and from the CEO of the Jewish Federation.
Initially, angered by the silence of my Jewish community colleagues relative to the outpouring of response from others, I asked myself when was the last time that I reached out to them when they were “hurting.” I also realized that as Jewish tradition has created a literature of protocols for dealing with death or illness, we have no apparent script about how best to approach someone who has endured the fright of being threatened and disrupted. The script is there in a tradition that asks us to approach all relationships with empathy – a tradition that describes at great length how to approach a poor person, a thief, an ill person, a mourner and a stranger.
The second take-away for me was something that I’ve felt acutely since the recent election, which surfaced a deeply polarized society. No matter where I stand politically, I, as a member of this society, need to know “the other” genuinely and not in dichotomized or dismissive categories. I need to know that person in another state, in my neighborhood, in my community who may see and may experience the world in a very different way from me. And that person also needs to know me – my values, my priorities, my needs. I cannot be dismissed by others because of a strong attachment to Israel, and I can not ignore the fact that parents of color are treated differently from me when walking or shopping in particular neighborhoods. I need to work on building relationships with “the other” around our common ground of shared humanity. Prior to the threat, I and a group of my local Jewish colleagues and Muslim leaders had started that work. I need to do that with all “the others” in our community.
This work of community building is daunting, yet it must be done. There is a poster on the wall in my office that quotes a famous rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon who lived between 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. It says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” That quotation guides me now more than ever and I ask every member of our community to use it as a guiding principal to build the relationships that will lead to more a caring world.
Choose groups to clone to: