We remind ourselves to look for the humanity in each other

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We remind ourselves to look for the humanity in each other

Cantor Nancy Kassel

A few weeks ago, The ACC & GTM held it’s annual convention in Atlanta. While the name and logo attached to the convention was a spin on popular culture: PEACH PERFECT, this year’s convention had less of an emphasis on musical repertoire. Instead, the focus was on how we can use our voices, our positions and our own actions to inspire others to pray with their feet.

By now, many of you have heard this expression: praying with your feet, uttered by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he marched with MLK, JR. & other civil right’s leaders in Selma, AL. The expression “pray with you feet” is a little like “put your money where your mouth is” or “vote with your wallet.” In other words, let your actions pro-actively reflect your speech and values.

The key-note speakers on the first full morning of the convention were from an organization: FEARLESS DIALOGUES. It wasn’t your USUAL start to a keynote address. Chairs were arranged so that small groups of 4 or 5 people would sit together. There was no official introduction to the representatives of Fearless Dialogues. Instead, there was a prolonged silence as these representatives walked around the large room and made eye contact with each and every person and as they did, they said “It’s good to SEE you.”

Most of us were wondering……..what’s THIS all about? We had had our coffee and breakfast and were ready to go. Why aren’t they up there starting their presentation? Over the next hour or so….we found out. The motto of “Fearless Dialogues” based here in Atlanta, is SEE, HEAR, CHANGE. From their web-page, they describe themselves as: "a grassroots organization committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other."

It goes on to say: "We hope to interrupt cycles of marginalization, and to foster strong communities for the common good by creating spaces for unlikely relationships to change the way people see themselves & the world in which they live."

After this mostly silent period of being greeting by the representatives of Fearless Dialogues, we were then paired up for the following exercise: Two people face one another and the first person requests permission to look into the eyes of the other for about a minute in silence,   after which -  the 2nd person requests permission to do the same.

I was paired with a colleague whom I did not know too well, nor he – I. You have to be WILLING to do this: stare into the eyes of either a stranger or someone you barely know. The first few seconds are awkward. There are little nervous twitches as the one being looked at – adjusts. And then things sort of settle down. You are left to your own thoughts about WHO this person is…in THAT moment. In the discussions that followed this exercise – we learned how different people experienced this exercise.

The catch phrase was……”I SEE you.” For me, it meant – I see your humanity. You are a different gender. You are younger. You’re at a different stage in life than I am in. But I SEE your humanity. I see your kindness. I see how YOU and how I can get through the initial discomfort….to have a genuine exchange of communication without words.

It was a POWERFUL exercise, and now – this colleague and I have a shared experience and newly formed bond.

The FIRST step in making progress through difficult situations and relationships is SEEING the other person...and eventually seeing that they are less in the category of OTHER than initially presumed.

Coincidently…(OR NOT) just last week, I watched the movie: The Best Of Enemies (2019). The film is based on the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson. Its based on a TRUE story – and focuses on the rivalry between an African Amerian civil rights activist, Ann Atwater, and a Klu Klux Klan leader, C.P. Elis. The time is 1971 and the location is Durham, NC.

Relations between the African-American and white communities were strained, to say the least. Mostly “Separate AND un-equal”. When an electrical fire damages the school building of the young African American children, An outsider is brought in to facilitate a process whereby a mutually agreed upon solution can ideally be reached between representatives of each community. For most of the movie…..you are left with the impression that this will NEVER happen. Attitudes are SO ingrained. No one is likely to budge or evolve. Almost AGAINST their wills…the main characters (who were based upon REAL people) come to see the humanity in each other. The movie is NOT over-simplified, as it portrays what took place in 1971 Durham, NC.

And perhaps it is not so much of a stretch to identify, today, in this country, with the polarizing views among families, friends, fellow congregants and co-workers. We have to be REMINDED……to look for the humanity in each other. To, as they emphasize in the organization Fearless Dialogues – to SEE each other.

In the Torah portion Balak we receive a similar message. In brief – Balak, king of Moab….was afraid that the Israelites would attack his nation. He hires a man named “Bal’am”, a well-known pagan prophet – specifically for the purpose of cursing the people of Israel. OK – we all have to earn a living. Bestowing blessings and curses on others – was what Bal’am did.

But on 3 separate occasions, when Bal’am was poised to place his curse, when words of blessing came out of his mouth – instead, the most well-known of which are: Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya-akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael. How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

So Bal’am rose above the image of the Israelites that was presented to him by Balak, the king of Moab. He SAW, with his OWN eyes, the humanity of the OTHER: the Israelites.

In circling back to the recent cantor’s convention, we put the words of our prayers and songs into action by going to the Center for Human and Civil Rights, presenting a concert of music from different genres, all reflecting periods in history in which change was needed, by hearing a keynote address by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the RAC (Religious Action Center) and by hearing from colleagues who regularly participate in marches and protests and other actions that reflect their values, which are deeply rooted in Jewish values.

And on the final day of the conference, the keynote speaker was Professor Andrea Schneider, a professor of law in Milwaukee, who had much to share about overcoming the discomfort of negotiating contracts in synagogues as well as facts about the gender inequality of pay that still exists with synagogue professionals.

It’s time for our voices to be heard and our actions to reflect our values. Let us be like the prophet Bal’am – and SEE, really SEE The humanity in each other.

Lord knows….(literally)……..it’s not easy, but we have to at least begin somewhere. Might as well be HERE…….and NOW! Of course, Hillel put this sentiment so much more eloquently: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now – when?


Cantor Nancy Kassel serves Temple Beth Tikvah in Rosewell, GA. She has served on various committees of the American Conference of Cantors and is the incoming chair of the Joint Cantorial Placement Commission. Cantor Kassel enjoys spending time with extended family in the Atlanta, where she was raised, and is grateful to be a  ‘mom’ to her son Jacob.