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Being Different Makes Us Better

LightRocket via Getty Images/Erik McGregor

Two weeks ago, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, a man barged into a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, wielding a machete and slashing six Hasidic Orthodox Jews who were celebrating Hanukkah. It is ironic that this anti-Semitic attack occurred on Hanukkah, which is an occasion that emphasizes light over darkness. With each consecutive eight lightings of the Hanukkah menorah, light increases and, as one “leader candle” lights the other eight on the last night of Hanukkah, the effervescence of light drowns out any darkness in the room. So, how did this darkness of human nature find its way into the light of Hanukkah and the backdrop of the Christmas holiday season, the season of love?

We now know from news reports that the African-American perpetrator, Grafton Thomas, had a history of mental illness and had documented anti-Semitic rants on the internet. We also know that a couple of weeks earlier, on December 10th, two other African-Americans shot up a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, killing three Jewish shoppers.

Although the real motive is unknown because the assailants were killed, the back story of the Jersey City attack, as reported by various media outlets, is that African-Americans in Jersey City, Monsey, Lakewood and other areas surrounding New York have been resentful that ultra-Orthodox Jews are buying up homes (at higher than market values) to establish more affordable religious hamlets than are available in New York City proper.

The gist of the news reports is that the religious culture which emerges from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish “takeover” of an area changes the neighborhood and then the remaining, non-religious residents feel estranged. Kind of a reversal of “white flight” — white people fleeing neighborhoods that were being “taken over.” Interestingly, this is the same emotion that currently empowers the so-called “angry white man” to justify bigotry and violence because “they” are supplanting white America.

I understand these emotions, because I have seen this picture before. Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio (one of the first successfully integrated communities in the country), I remember when the first African-American family moved onto our street. They did so at 3 am for fear that they otherwise would not be able to move into their new home. Aside for the fact that they painted their house pink, they were exemplary neighbors, outpacing character-wise the bigoted white Cleveland cop who lived next door to me. Gradually my street became about 50-50 black and white. White people who moved away felt that blacks were taking over their territory.

My family ultimately moved to a larger home in Shaker Heights, but for the several years we lived on our old street while integration was taking place, we befriended our African-American neighbors — not because they were black and we were white, but because they were nice people. We shared values. The awareness I now have: that race doesn’t matter, humanity does is in large part because I was exposed at an early age to people who looked different.

I have also seen this picture of bigotry and resentment against religious Jews. In the late 1990’s in Beachwood, Ohio, a predominately Jewish suburb of Cleveland, several groups of Orthodox Jews decided that they would migrate from Cleveland Heights and establish a Jewish Synagogue campus of five or six Orthodox institutions on Green Road, one of Beachwood’s major thoroughfares. There was already one synagogue on the street, but the rest of the street was residential.

The reaction was swift and viscous, as documented by local articles as well as a prominent book “Jew vs. Jew: the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2000) by Cleveland native and New York Times contributor Samuel Freedman. The non-Orthodox Jewish community in Beachwood blocked the zoning plans, pitting Orthodox neighbor against non-Orthodox neighbor.

The allegations were similar to those swirling around Monsey and other New York enclaves: “the Orthodox Jews are taking over the community. It will never be the same. They are different from us.” I recall reading an article in which residents were quoted as saying that they feared for their lives because their cars were being blocked from streets on the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews walked in swarms in the middle of the street to the synagogues. To my knowledge, this never really happened, but it was good fodder to induce fear.

Ultimately, as the zoning plans made their way through the courts with no chance that the Orthodox campus would not be permitted, Beachwood relented and allowed the plan to move forward. What has ensued in the past twenty years is that Beachwood has become a prosperous and highly-desirable community where property values have held — even during the Great Recession — in part because of the strength of the Orthodox community’s continued demand for housing. The city has evolved as a mix of Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Christian and African-American residents. Beachwood has emerged stronger and better.

Bigotry and anti-Semitism are fear-induced forces that seldom have roots in reality. In my grandmother’s native Poland, word would often circulate that Jews were killing Christian boys on Passover and using their blood to bake matzo. Despite how ludicrous these kinds of stories may be, they resonate with negative forces that are a real part of human nature. Unfortunately, whether in the New York area (where, according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitism has increased 53% in the past year) or in Europe, which has seen similar increases, the only way to deal with these situations is with equal and opposite forces: education, kindness, dialogue, counter-messages speaking out and, of course, legal consequences. Creating a culture that dispels and tamps down racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism as being inconsistent with our values is a long-term antidote.

However, the best solution is exposure to people who are different, most often resulting in the realization that they’re not so different, after all.

What gives me hope for the future is the sentiment shared by Shimon Rolnitzky, a Hasidic Jew and resident of Monsey:

“ my opinion, (this is) the strongest message that can be taken from the attack. The natural friends of Orthodox Jews are other minority communities next to whom we live. A large part of the black, Latino and Muslim communities, our neighbors, look at us religious Jews as their natural allies against a world of enmity and hate.

When I stopped at a gas station on Skyline Drive in Ringwood, New Jersey, several weeks ago, the gas station attendant dropped everything and volunteered to show me which products were kosher. He himself uses kosher symbols, he explained to me, because he eats halal.

My twin boys were raised with the help of a black woman who developed a taste for cholent (Sabbath stew) and gefilte fish and was extraordinarily loyal to my children. After the attack in Monsey, she called to express worry and sympathy about what happened.”

My own experience has been that, as we are exposed to different people, we become better – individually and collectively. We may have visceral emotional reactions that alarm us when we see differences. There’s no denying that I have. But, if we integrate our heads with our hearts — utilizing our values as our guides — we can overcome the negative and embrace the positive. And if we do so and engage people who are different with kindness and respect, we will surely be lighting candles to diminish darkness.

Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, an organization that teaches, promotes, and provides the skills and tools that enable individuals to make positive, values-based decisions every day. Its kindness- and character-focused initiatives, such as its Project Love® school programming, have reached 400,000 students in more than 1,500 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action’s upcoming Just Be Kind® campaign will specifically address our nation's values and empower students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect. #justbekind

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