When every prior effort has failed, what is required to continue trying? Where does one find the energy to believe that change for good is possible despite a history of dashed hopes? How is it possible for people of shared good intentions to sit together at a table and dream of a different kind of reality for Rockland County? The answer is: strong minded optimism.
Yesterday I attended a meeting called by Dr. Penny Jennings, Commissioner of the Rockland County Human Rights Commission. She believes that government’s job is not to make change but to support change efforts. New to her post, Dr. Jennings hopes that by bringing together a group of interfaith leaders, she can kick-start efforts to unify our community.
When I received the invitation, I could have said: been there, done that. Instead, I found myself moved by Dr. Jennings’ dedication to change. From the moment Rabbi Scheff and I met her last month at the rally against hate on the New City Courthouse steps, we saw that Dr. Jennings is a catalyst for action, a skilled listener and empathic thinker. I knew that I wanted to be on her team.
Once again I found myself in a board room surrounded by people of good intentions brainstorming ways to heal the divisiveness, insularity, and prejudice that mar our home in Rockland County.
Once again I found myself in discussions about brokenness, distrust and fear without the presence of the people whose voices are required in the room. We need leadership of the Chasidic communities at the table in order to have robust, honest conversation, in order for real change to happen. We must find a way to change hearts and minds enough to successfully bring into the room people who do not want to be there.
Dr. Jennings, however, pointed out that we have to begin somewhere. “Someone has to extend the olive branch and I don’t mind being the one to do it.” Evan Bernstein, Regional Director, and Etzion Neuer, Deputy Regional Director of the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, brought their wisdom and experience to the table.
But most of all, Dr. Jennings listened to the community and religious leaders gathered at her table. She engaged us in an honest conversation about the most pressing issues of human rights and social justice in our county.
We talked about paths to change and barriers as well.
We all agreed on our destination: a hospitable environment where bad behavior will not be tolerated. Rockland County will be a place where we are gracious to our neighbors. We will have mutual respect. We will have a knowledge of each other’s values and concerns.
Government cannot legislate loving one’s neighbor, but it can legislate against acts of hatred. Attitude shifts can happen in a multitude of small steps. Doing nothing except giving in to frustration and anger cannot be the most reasonable response. The issues in Rockland County are not going away, and neither are we. Rockland County is our home.
After a discussion about the many difficulties in reaching our goals, Dr. Jennings offered the most profound statement of the day: “Oy vey!”
As a rabbi in this county, I am committed to working toward change. As a rabbi of the Orangetown Jewish Center, I am proud to represent our congregation in its desire to be a part of the work that is required.
In these weeks before the High Holy Days, it seems to me that nothing could be more important. In a world where the tone of discourse has become ugly, it is required of us to remember the power of respectful communication. It is essential to defy hatred and refuse to be part of intolerant behavior.
Is being optimistic naïve? I believe that optimism is a courageous choice. Join me in optimism. The alternative, helplessness and hopelessness, is not a real choice.
L’shana tova, a good year for all, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill