Honorable Mensch-ion

This Holiday Season, How Can We Navigate Difficult Conversations?

This op-ed, co-written with Rabbi Guzik, appeared in The Los Angeles Daily News.

The season of Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of reunion. At a time wrought with strife, with wars being waged, and intense emotions surrounding those, it may not have been an easy time to come together. For those of us who found this to be the case, the question we are now sitting with is: Where do we go from here?

Top of mind to us, rabbis, was that 10 Americans were missing from their Thanksgiving table. Their families left empty chairs, as they are held captive in Gaza by terrorist organization Hamas, along with 230 others after the fateful day of October 7th. As we stared at those empty seats, we continued to pray for each and every hostage to be released, we prayed for the families of the 1,200 precious lives lost on Oct. 7, we prayed for the tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire, and we prayed that Hamas will lay down arms and commit to peace. Those are our emotions, other people may hold different feelings in their hearts.

But also top of mind, even during these excruciating times, as Albert Einstein once said, “I’d rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right.”

This is a not a time to despair and be right. Rather, it is a moment in our history where we must regroup, look deep inside our souls, put our differences aside for the greater good and lead with hope for a better tomorrow. We must work to unite in our common human goals of love, care and dignity.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation, in gratitude for the ratification of the American Constitution. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, asking God to “heal the wounds of the nation.” One hundred and sixty years later, new wounds run deep in our country. How do we begin to solve what looks like never ending challenges and hurt?

The answer is not found in words, but is grounded in the presence of our neighbors.

As Reverend Johnnie Moore, President of the Congress of Christian Leaders, teaches, “Community is a profoundly powerful remedy for trauma.”

As we learned through the pandemic, turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie were only ingredients to a successful Thanksgiving. Family and community define the day.

Thanksgiving is an intergenerational holiday where the divide between parents and children may have been evident. While the anti-Israel rallies and antisemitic speech we witness on college campuses across the United Sates and in major cities across the world are filled with hate and violence, there are also glimmers of hope where we use our voices and our feet to champion civility and respect.

The holiday season that began with Thanksgiving is a catalyst to bring our families together; our blood relatives, our extended family, and our greater faith family. We must view this past weekend as an excuse to see, hear, and feel the blessings we can bestow upon each other. For while theological barriers may divide us, sacred harmony must unite us.

In that spirit, Sinai Temple recently hosted an interfaith gathering. More than 1,000 residents from different religions, backgrounds, and points of view from across Greater Los Angeles gathered to hear from leaders of different faiths and to support each other and prepare ourselves for what is to come. The feeling of celebrating human dignity and love was palpable, as we were reminded to be grateful for our fortune as U.S. citizens and for the freedom America affords us every day.

We listened to the impassioned plea of Ella Shani, a survivor of the Hamas terror attack. At 14-years-old, she explained how she discovered that her father was murdered, her grandparents shot and injured, and her cousin kidnapped. She pleaded to us to remember the names of her family and community that were tortured, mutilated, raped, and killed.

But she didn’t stop there. She encouraged us to remember the strength we possess as a greater composition of faith communities. She reminded us that we have the power, when we unite, to bring humanity back into the world.

The sanctuary was a snapshot in time that we must carry beyond those walls: Black and white, Jewish and Christian, young and old, standing together. Not necessarily agreeing on everything, but loving and supporting.

As Pastor John Paul Foster, of Faithful Central Bible Church told the congregation, “I am not here as a clergy member, I am here as a friend.” He explained that fighting hate cannot be done alone, for as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Foster explained that to go through a journey together, you must walk in friendship. For when that healing arrives, it will make all of us better.

The genesis of this interfaith gathering did not come from thin air. Rather, it was years of deep relationships, communities that have worked hard on our bond and our relationship, even through disagreements and tough times.

Families have disagreements at times. Communities have disagreements at times. Neighbors have disagreements at times. If you found yourself having tough conversations over the Thanksgiving table, do not close the door. Do not be quick to get angry and disengage. Do not let the words get in the way of important relationships. Remember, there is strength in disagreement. And remember that growth and greater good can come from disagreement. Remember how President Lincoln used Thanksgiving to heal our wounds, and, even in strife, pull your friends and family even closer. Remember our common core values that unite us.

Jews are required to say 100 blessings each day. The formula begins Baruch Atah Adonai, Blessed are you God. While this is a formula to begin the blessing, we have the ability to choose how to conclude. We just came together on this festive day and declared our gratitude to be present at the table.

Now, as we leave that table, we must ask ourselves again, “What are we grateful for?”

“We are grateful to continue to be here….for and with you.”

Rabbis Nicole Guzik and Erez Sherman, married rabbinic team, serve as the new co-senior rabbis at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles.

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