When fear turns to trust

December 30, 2011 - 2:00am -- Living City

Suffering can get in the way of dialogue — unless it’s shared

By Ronald RamerBy Ronald Ramer

I was working as the director of a Jewish Community Center in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. More than 450 children attended the daycare and preschool classes in the center, along with over 200 adults who came for various lessons. They were served by a staff of 143.

An injury to us all
A particular event helped me to understand my purpose as a peacemaker. One morning we received a bomb threat. We had to evacuate the building and work out the consequences as we went along. We pleaded with the police not to let this get into the newspapers. We had to ensure the safety of the people in the building, but announcing the threat might cause panic. How could we inform the children and adults while maintaining calm?

We were so bound up in these fears of not being able to control the situation that we never thought to call the rabbis of the five synagogues in the community, nor did we reach out to the clergy of other religious denominations. We didn’t reach out to anyone. In our attempt to isolate what was going on, we isolated ourselves from any help that other people could give us.

Over the next 18 months, we received a bomb threat every 90 days. The police were unable to track the calls. The best they could do was to determine that the calls came from a public phone booth, but they were never able to observe anyone in the vicinity or find any leads to pursue. Even though we hired security guards, we were unable to calm many of our members, and many quit the center. Throughout the 18 months, we didn’t keep in contact with anyone or tell anyone for fear that making the threats public would provoke “copycat” incidents.

By chance the pastor of one of the local churches struck up a conversation with the president of the Jewish Community Center, noting that he had heard of the bomb threats. When the president divulged the entire story, the pastor responded in a way that showed his understanding of our suffering.

“This is an injury against the entire community,” he said. “When Jewish people are suffering as you are, we are suffering with you. We will not allow this to happen in our community. We stand in solidarity with you.”

On the recommendation of the pastor, the local Interfaith Council held a solidarity weekend with the participation of various religious groups. From the pulpit, every clergy member spoke out against this outrage.

The newspapers were filled with stories and editorials of what had been happening and the community’s response. All of the people in the town stood in support, and the Community Center Board of Directors accepted their help.

We were all changed forever. I learned that the suffering embedded in fear had isolated me and our Center from everyone else. It touched us deeply that the entire community felt that an injury to us was an injury to all.

In telling this story, I reclaim and reaffirm the solidarity that is essential to who we are as Jews, as a people in dialogue.

Struggling with ADHD
A young boy had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a learning disability that causes a lack of concentration and memory. He was struggling in school and had trouble with organization and studying for tests. One day when he came home from school, he announced to his mother that he had been thrown out of class and would not be able to return until she had a conference with the teacher.

The mother told me about her son and the anger she felt toward the teacher. She proposed bypassing the teacher and going directly to the principal to have that teacher fired since she didn’t know how to work with her son.
“Firing the teacher means that your son will have no one to work with him. How will that help him?” I asked her. The mother began to have a doubt about her response and wondered what she could say to the teacher if she met with her. I suggested that she tell her that as a mother she has done everything she could possibly do and has run out of ideas on how to help him as well.

The mother later told me that she said this to the teacher, and the teacher began to cry and hugged her. The mother then began to cry and hugged the teacher. They agreed to work with each other to help the son.

The mother initially saw the teacher as the enemy responsible for her son’s failure. As a result, she could not conceive of the teacher also suffering from being ineffective. The mother isolated herself, which left her unable to engage in dialogue. Only when she made herself fully open to the teacher — through what the Chassidim in the Jewish tradition call bitul hayesh (“negation of self”), or “emptying herself,” in Christian words — was the teacher empowered to be fully open to her.

What caused the shift? The mother could begin the process of emptying herself because she was not given advice nor judged, but allowed to be and reflect on her goals to help her son. Without trust there can be no dialogue.          

Ronald Ramer, who has been involved for years in interreligious dialogue, presented the Focolare’s experience of Jewish-Christian dialogue to 250 representatives of various religions gathered at the K.A.M. Isaiah Israel synagogue in Chicago last April