On Wednesday night last week, Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael heard a powerful sermon by Juan Rodrigez. No, Mr. Rodriguez is not a rabbi. I have reason to believe he is not even Jewish. So what, you may ask, was he doing giving a sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish High Holy Days?
As Rabbi Michael Lezak explained, it all started at the end of April last year, when Venetia Valley School, across the street from the synagogue, received a bomb threat. The school was locked down. No children were allowed out, and no parents were allowed in. So when Rabbi Lezak arrived at work that day, he found a crowd of worried parents in the synagogue parking lot.
Thank God, it turned out there was no bomb and nobody was hurt. But it made Rabbi Lezak realize that even though he’d been working across the street from Venetia Valley School for ten years, he had never crossed the street to visit them. Later that day, after things calmed down, he walked over to the school’s office with a big bag of Hershey’s kisses, and promised them he would be back.
Thus began what we hope will become a strong, long term relationship between Congregation Rodef Sholom and Venetia Valley School. Sure, we had donated school supplies to them in the past, but that’s not the same as sitting down with the school staff and talking about common issues and solutions. As Rabbi Lezak and Principal Juan Rodriguez got to know each other, they discovered we both have a lot to gain by learning more about each other and working together.
So, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Lezak introduced us to Mr. Rodriguez, and he introduced Mr. Rodriguez to us. It was touching to see him wave to the crowded civic center auditorium, as many of us waved back at him. Then, he started speaking.
First, he told us about a girl in his school. One night, immigration officers came to her house, demanding to know the whereabouts of a man nobody in her home had ever heard of. After the officers became convinced that the man they were seeking wasn’t there, they instead took away the girl’s father.
The next night, the girl’s mother tried to get her to remove her backpack, so she could get ready for bed. The girl cried, and refused to take off the backpack. She said she needed to be ready, in case the men came back and took away her mother away, too. Despite counseling and repeated assurances, that little girl wore that backpack day and night for six months.
Next, Mr. Rodriguez told us about a brother and sister at the school. Their father has terminal stomach cancer, but he has no insurance. As a result, he has no pain medication. Every day, these two young children have to see their father suffering, in pain, as his condition worsens.
Last, we heard about community meetings that were held to discuss the traffic problem on our street. “I went to these meetings with the intent to try to do what was best for all the stakeholders,” Mr. Rodriguez told us, “and I assumed that’s what everyone else there was doing, too. But one evening, I explained how one proposed solution would have a negative impact on the education of the kids at our school. In response, one of the people at the meeting said, ‘What do we care? They’re not our kids.’”
It was a powerful message about fear, pain, and disrespect happening in our own community, right across the street. As Rabbi Lezak explained, that bomb threat was a shofar blast that reminded to us to open our eyes, to see what is happening around us, and to make sure we’re communicating with our neighbors. And, God willing, it was the start of what will turn out to be a beautiful relationship.
If you would like to make a donation to help kids like those Mr. Rodriquez spoke about, you may do so through the Venitia Valley Family Center.
According to their website, "The Venetia Valley Family Center is dedicated to helping support the parents and families of the Venetia Valley community to reduce any barriers to student success. The Family Center connects families to local resources – nutrition, housing, medical, dental, or vision care, health insurance access, counseling, tutoring, employment support, clothing, parenting education and leadership programs, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, childcare, enrichment, extended learning programs, and more. Family Center staff provide advocacy and referrals for individual families, as well as offer a comprehensive family literacy program, including home-visits, parenting classes, literacy workshops, special events, volunteer training, and capacity-building leadership opportunities. The goals of the Venetia Valley Family Center are to empower families to become full partners in the education of their children and to support the long-term goals of children and their families."