Avoiding incendiary topics of conversation has become second nature for many Americans during these recent years of increasingly divisive political views and attitudes. A growing body of research describes a U.S. nation bitterly divided along political fault lines to the extent that our polarized attitudes create risk for the health of our democracy. On a more personal level, stories abound about friends becoming enemies and families falling apart over what can feel like irreconcilable opinions.
Against this politically charged backdrop, Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz’s new book, “To Build a Brave Space: The Making of a Spiritual First Responder,” may strike a chord with those of us who believe that a cohesive society is possible if we are willing to engage with each other to find common ground. The book serves, in part, a memoir of Rabbi Gewirtz’s journey toward leading Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New Jersey’s largest synagogue, and, in part, an appeal to our sensibility of the importance of listening and learning, our understanding of how to find our way back to a calmer and more productive national state.
Rabbi Gewirtz opens his book with a preface describing his congregation’s multifaceted reaction to an act of protest he participated in with his family when opposing President Trump’s travel ban in January 2017. Because the ban was targeted at seven predominantly Muslim countries, many on the left labeled it as purely motivated by racism as opposed to the security concerns that the Trump Administration used to justify the action. By protesting the ban with his family, Rabbi Gewirtz believed he was “living” the Jewish value of standing up for the oppressed. Many members of his congregation saw it differently, however, and they began questioning his ability to serve their needs. Rabbi Gerwirtz describes this type of divided reaction as, unfortunately, becoming more of today’s norm.
“Brave Space” then delves into Rabbi Gewirtz’s past to analyze the development of his moral compass and political attitudes, which were largely shaped by his family and his experience coming of age in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s. He mentions the Munich Massacre of Israeli athletes by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics as having made a deep impression on him. That event painfully illustrated to him, at a young age, that no matter how observant he chose to be in his life, the simple fact that he was Jewish could render him vulnerable. The book goes on to describe his path toward the rabbinate within the context of the political and social events of the times.
As a Jewish American of similar age to Rabbi Gewirtz, when reading the book I found myself reviewing the critical events of modern U.S. history and their impact on my own life’s trajectory. Like Rabbi Gewirtz, I began my career in New York City in the early 1990s. I was working in 2 World Trade Center (the south tower) at the time of the first terrorist bombing in February 1993. Although that first bombing caused nowhere near the devastation of 9/11, it was traumatic for me and undoubtedly contributed to my decision to leave New York for graduate school in Boston.
I was long gone and on maternity leave with my first child when both towers came down in 2001. This tragedy stranded my husband in San Francisco when the airports shut down in the wake of the attacks. In “Brave Space,” Rabbi Gewirtz recounts the harrowing 9/11 experience of his wife and his congregants when he was a young rabbi at a congregation on New York’s Upper West Side.
Unlike Rabbi Gewirtz, who was raised in Manhattan, I grew up as one of a few Jews in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. I was accustomed to being out of sync with my peers for many reasons, but back then in Kentucky, the disagreements were mostly quite friendly. I think I was less shocked by Trump’s election in 2016 than many of my more liberal-minded friends in the Northeast because of the beliefs and opinions I was exposed to as a kid.
As Rabbi Gewirtz describes in the book, he himself seemed surprised that so many of his congregants—despite being well-educated, good people brought up in Jewish households—held such divergent opinions when it came to politics. To his credit, Rabbi Gewirtz views good listening skills as critical to his role as a rabbi. He has clearly been working hard to listen and learn as part of his effort to bring to people together in spite of any differences of opinion.
Taking the idea of listening and learning a step further, Rabbi Gewirtz explains his view that religious leaders and organizations play an important role in orchestrating safe and illuminating conversations intended to bring us all back to the fundamental understanding that we are all human beings with more shared values than we think. That may seem hard to believe at times, but Rabbi Gewirtz closes his book with plenty of examples of productive discussions and encouraging results stemming from them. Let’s hope this work continues and is embraced far beyond his own congregation.
As a local leader in the global movement that is Hadassah, I am proud of the role my organization plays in facilitating medical care for more than one million people of all races, religions and nationalities each year. Building bridges to peace through medicine, something for which the Hadassah Medical Organization, Hadassah’s medical center in Israel, earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005, and providing safe spaces for healing are more crucial than ever in today’s divided world.
Sara Mason Ader is a life member of Hadassah New England.
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