Sunday, May 5, 2013

Surrounding an island of fear with a sea of acceptance - Reflections on Diversity - May 5, 2013

       My wife Rhonda and I participated on a panel discussing diversity at a library in a nearby city this past weekend.  We and the other panelists were honored to share our perspectives on libraries and how they help to open up worlds of information about our existence for readers and through discussion of important books.   

       We expected the discussion to be about the topic at hand, and it was a very positive and wide-ranging conversation.  That is, until one person challenged whether or not the event should have happened at all at that library.   Her comments during the event were a departure from the questions asked by the majority of those present.   She was concerned about drawing attention to “diversity” in any way.    Her attempt to redirect the discussion to her viewpoint succeeded only briefly.  Everyone wanted to get back to what we all came to discuss. 
      I felt that I had to speak with her afterwards and thank her for coming.  Yet, in our conversation, she…
·    Accused me of feeling superior because I was seated on the panel in the front of the room and that I was, therefore, necessarily “talking down” to her.
·    Implied that I had nothing to teach her because I was from somewhere else. 
·    Was taken aback when I asked her name, then mocked me for asking as I walked away.  I did go back to continue the conversation.
·    Told me what she meant during the program when she asked, “Where is this discussion going?”  She claimed that the goal of the event was to place inappropriate material on display in the library because “it had happened in Colorado” and it had been attempted in that library as well.  I was told later that her claim was untrue.
·    Objected to tables in the room bearing books on various topics related to diversity, marked with signs defining the materials as dealing with cultural, religious, sexual/gender and ethnic differences.  When I told her that such a display was merely a mirror of reality, she snapped back that WE on the panel were defining diversity to leave HER out.  Of course, the categories of cultural, religious, ethnic, and gender difference included her. 
     Most people gathered at the event responded to this challenge with grace. One audience member spoke about God’s love.  Another attendee reiterated the widely-held religious belief that all are created in the divine image. I quoted Psalm 133,  “How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity,” noting that this sentiment should be our basis for wanting to understand each other. 
       I felt that this woman, a community leader, behaved towards me and my fellow panelists with inhospitality, hostility, disrespect. She made me feel unwelcome, a stranger.  She besmirched herself and, by extension, the community which she claims to represent.  She was in a room of people, however, who felt differently, who realize that diversity doesn’t mean that we have to agree, but that we do have a responsibility to listen and, if we are able, to disagree agreeably.  
     I have been the rabbi of congregations for many years with members who hold a wide range of political views and diverse positions on issue of the day.  I believe in carrying on lively conversations with congregants while still taking stands on issues that I consider crucial for the well-being of our society.
     Fortunately, the fear in that room was a small island in a sea of acceptance and a desire for mutual understanding.   It was a learning experience far beyond what I imagined it would be.  It reminded me that open-mindedness, agreeable disagreement and genuine dialogue, while affirming one another’s humanity, are essential to creating and sustaining a peaceful community.  I continue to have faith that we are up to the task. 


  1. Larry, I'm sorry this happened to you. I am a member of the community in question, and a weekly (if not more) visitor of our library. It deeply saddens me when people use the name of the Divine to justify their hateful, bigoted, close-mindedness. These are the same people who claim 'Infringement of Constitutional Rights!' when opposed, and yet don't see how they are stepping on the rights of others. Thank you for your gracious and humble attitude in sharing your experiences.

    1. I have been fortunate to get beyond fear with a few people with whom I disagree politically or with those who don't share my religious views to simply show some mutual caring. It can happen, but there has to be a willingness to see each other's humanity on some level. It IS possible.

  2. I'm so sorry you had to face this ignorance in the middle of what was otherwise, by all accounts, a pleasant program. Despite the way she presented herself, she does not represent the community, or the organization she claimed to be chair of. I'm sorry I missed the program - son's birthday party - but I probably wouldn't have responded to her very politely, so it may be just as well:)

    1. I felt it was important to have the conversation to know more about why those comments were made. I still don't totally understand, but I think that people who disagree can still approach each with open minds. Still holding out hope....

  3. Larry,

    I am the member of the community that stood up to the person in question and spoke of love and cooperation within the community without the need to necessarily agree on everything. I am not a member of your religion and, were we to have a debate, I'm sure it would be a lively one. But, the whole point of understanding diversity in the community is that agreement on such things is not needed. We are bound together by our common interest in bettering ourselves and bettering our communities by cooperation, compassion, and learning about each other. We are far more alike than we are different.

    I was stunned and dismayed that a supposed leader of our community failed to understand the one moral that that permeates every civilization, every culture, every ethnicity, every walk of life: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. How sad that something every kindergartener knows is lost on a supposed community leader.

    -- Keith Stump

    1. Keith,
      I agree with you wholeheartedly. One of the most affirming experiences I had was when I was an Elementary School site council chair at our son's school in Topeka, working with the school principal, a cousin of Linda Brown as in Brown v. Board, who was active in her Baptist church. One of the things we dealt with was school community building between students, parents and faculty. Because she knew about creating a caring community from her religious experience, and we knew about it from our experience, we actually had a common language. It is great when we can bring something new to the table for each other so that we are all enriched.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Rabbi Larry K.

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  5. Such incidents often bring out the best in the rest of us.