Jewish Journal

Crossing the Street

by Susan Esther Barnes

May 14, 2014 | 10:44 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

Last September I wrote, “Juan Rodriguez Delivers a Powerful Rosh Hashanah Sermon” in which I described an event which lead Rabbi Lezak from our synagogue to realize we had never formed a relationship with the K-8 school across the street. Here we were, a bunch of Jews on one side of the street, pretty much ignoring our predominantly Hispanic neighbors. What would happen if we crossed the street to engage with them?

Make no mistake, this isn’t about charity, in which one group condescends to give handouts to the other. Rather, the goal is tzedakah, righteousness, along with the opportunity to build relationships and community.

Since the time Mr. Rodriguez, the principal of the school across the street, gave his sermon, various events have been conducted by the synagogue and the school, together. One such event included giving people from both communities the opportunity to tell and to hear stories of immigration from each other. Maybe this family came from Mexico and that one from Poland, or this one from El Salvador and that one from Germany. Maybe these people travelled by ship and those travelled by car or on foot.

But there was so much in common. We wanted to make a better life for ourselves. We were fleeing persecution or war. We were separated from our extended family. We had to learn a new life, a new language, a new culture. Sometimes, it’s a relief to be with others who share our story. Sometimes, it’s instructive to learn from the stories of others.

This week, we held the latest event with our neighbors across the street. It was an “International Literacy” night. English language proficiency certificates were awarded to those who earned them. We shared cheese pizza and salad. Then, parents and their children split up into different groups to hear stories from around the world read out loud, followed by a taste of dessert from the country associated with the story.

I’m not saying it was all love and roses. I made an effort to eat my dinner at a table of people I didn’t know, so I could form new relationships. When I asked if I could sit down, the people at the table paused, then begrudgingly assented. They then made it clear they weren’t interested in giving me so much as the time of day.

On the other hand, while I was pouring water and lemonade for the participants, I had a nice chat with a man who is launching a new catering business, and his friend who said he makes the most amazing tacos. The parents and children were quite engaged with the stories during the readings, and seemed to enjoy getting the treats from Israel I handed out afterward.

All in all, it was a successful event. Maybe not everything is perfect, but that is how relationships are. There may be some bumps along the way, but when both parties value the other and recognize they can learn and grow together, we’re willing to put in the effort to work out the kinks. I’m looking forward to seeing how this relationship continues to grow over the coming years.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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