The Only Woman at the Table
His seat was directly across the table from me. He called me Rabbi Drill, but he did not look directly at me. I know that calling me “Rabbi” was a concession he made for me and he knew that my understanding of his lack of eye contact was a compromise I accepted from him. Rabbi Mayer Schiller represented the Skver community in the Village of New Square and I represented a very different religious world. We were two of twelve religious leaders from Rockland County and New York City who gathered at the invitation of Rockland County Executive, Ed Day. Everyone around the table accommodated each other so that we could meet in the middle, in a place where we could listen to each other and truly feel heard.
When I was invited to the two hour summit that took place at Rockland Community College President’s Office yesterday, the meeting was described as an opportunity to sit down to open lines of communication between various religious groups of Rockland County. I accepted with the hope that a process of healing and reconciliation could begin.
But I arrived with low expectations. I knew that leaders of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, of NAACP and of parent groups in East Ramapo have tried to meet with members of the Ultra-Orthodox community for open dialogue. I knew that these attempts had not been successful. I wondered what could possibly be different.
And here is what was different: Mr. Day invited religious leaders from Spring Valley and Suffern churches, the Islamic Center of Rockland, the Board of Rabbis (Conservative and Reform colleagues) and the Orthodox Jewish and Chassidic communities. Mr. Day told us that he is working to make Rockland County a place where we can live next to each other with respect and cooperation, with fair treatment for all and special privilege for none. He asked us to speak our truth and established an atmosphere of safety. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, was invited as our facilitator. He established the tenor of the meeting when he said that it is better to discuss without resolution rather than resolve without discussion.
Two powerful pictures of broken community emerged from our conversation that struck powerful chords with me. First, Rockland County was compared to a ride on a New York City subway. We get on and get off at different stations, and while we share the space, no one makes eye contact or greets the other. We are as close as can be, but we pretend that the others are not there at all, sharing a bench or even hanging onto the same subway strap. Such travel through our days may be adaptive for New York City’s underground (though I would disagree) but it is not the way to be a cohesive county where all citizens have a profound sense of belonging.
The second description was shared by Reverend Raymond C. Caliman of the Fairmont Baptist Church in Haverstraw. He described a visit to Walmart in Suffern. People pass each other as they shop, but no one looks at the other. Instead, they look away. He said that the turning away speaks volumes about distrust and a refusal to know the “other”.
We spoke honestly and with open hearts from the anchor of our various religious traditions. Reverend Dr. Weldon McWilliams Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley reminded us that we are all God’s children. Rabbi Schiller acknowledged that members of the Chassidic community must be taught that all people are created in God’s image. We talked about the need for a balance of power and empathy.
We explored next steps which include Rabbi Greenwald and Rabbi Schiller bringing members of their communities to the table, a statement of principles to which religious leaders can sign on, and a confederation of religious leaders who can stand together to condemn actions of bias against any group in the county as well as to celebrate positive steps forward.
It was only a beginning. But I feel optimistic. I felt heard. And Rabbi Schiller called me Rabbi.
With optimism and friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill