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Creating Sanctuaries through Crises

Posted on Friday, June 07, 2019 by Rachel Timoner

When innocent children are separated from their parents and held in camps, we are in a crisis. 
When two synagogues experience Antisemitic murders within six months, we are in a crisis. 
When hate and scapegoating are whipped up by the leader of the country, we are in a crisis. 
When the president vilifies the press and threatens the freedom of the press, we are in a crisis. 
When the president defies and delegitimizes Constitutionally-mandated oversight by Congress, we are in a crisis.

The erosion of liberal democratic institutions is never good for Jews. An increase in violent scapegoating of any group is never good for Jews. The Jewish people know as well as anyone how dangerous these developments can be. It is possible that we have seen the worst of it, and that we will return soon to honoring the rule of law and rejecting the hatred of marginalized groups in our country. It is also possible that we are in an early stage of something that could get much worse.

How should Jewish leaders lead in the midst of this crisis? I have personally been struggling with this question. On one hand, I am alarmed by what appears to be a slide away from the liberal democratic norms and protections that have enabled Jews and others to thrive in this country. On the other hand, I know that fear can be corrosive and dangerous and I do not wish to stoke it. Though I don’t have all the answers, here are some of the leadership practices and principles that have served me so far.

  1. Acknowledge that there is a problem. When something in the news frightens me, I have an immediate urge to ignore it and to deny the danger. But it is our responsibility as leaders to see and assess our situation with as much clarity as we can. We may not agree politically, but that should not prevent us from seeing danger where it exists. We do not need to agree about the causes of the danger, its nature or the level of risk, but I want us to be awake to any threats to the Jewish people or our neighbors. 
  2. Be a calm and non-anxious presence. The day after the election of 2016, my congregation was terrified and despondent. I was flooded with desperate messages. I remembered then what I learned in pastoral counseling: the first step in helping another person through a crisis is being a calm, non-anxious presence. This is not something we can fake. Our inner state comes through in the way we hold our bodies, the way we breathe, the tone of our voices and our choice of words. Therefore, our inner work is essential in this time. The more the world around us becomes anxious and afraid, the more we must engage in the spiritual practices that enable us to feel safe, to breathe deeply, to be at home in our bodies, to smile, to exude a sense of calm and to love others. We are not perfect or impervious to the world around us and should not expect to be. But this calm, non-anxious presence is my aim.
  3. Create safe and loving sanctuaries. Some of us are leaders in literal sanctuaries. Even if you’re not, you can create a sanctuary in any space you control, from a classroom to a board room. Many of our people are frightened and despairing in this moment, but to function they tamp down those feelings and go about business as usual. On the High Holy Days two years ago, I spoke about love and courage. Each person received a small metal heart to keep in their pockets to remember that they are loved, that their hearts are strong and that there is a place where they are safe. People still show me that they are carrying around the heart in their pocket. One of the gifts we can give our people is to remember that they are often more afraid and more despairing than they let on and to create gentle places where they feel safe and loved. We can intentionally create sanctuaries wherever we are. 
  4. Say it out loud. We must speak about the crisis and the danger as we see it. Some will call us alarmist, others will tell us that we mustn’t mar the serenity of our sanctuaries. If we can create a container of safety and love, we will foster people’s capacity to hear troubling messages and to awaken to the dangers of this time. Our people are looking to us for cues. Our silence will not protect us.
  5. Be a voice of hope. As Rabbi Nahman taught, it is forbidden to despair. Those of us who are spiritual leaders have a particular power to offer hope. We must therefore not give up hope ourselves, no matter how bleak things become. We must believe in our people and in all people. We must believe in G-d. We must look for events and stories that bring us hope and provide a nechemta of hope whenever we speak words that might bring despair. We must remember that we ourselves can become symbols and beacons of hope through our leadership.
  6. Learn about other places and other times when this has happened. We are not the first or only country to go through dangerous scapegoating and the erosion of liberal democratic norms. Avoid facile comparisons but seek lessons from history and look to other countries that are facing threats to human rights, democratic freedoms and safety. Bring authors and scholars to speak before the community. Hold book groups for people to learn together and create forums for people to seek to understand what they are learning together.
  7. Identify the places where we have power. Map your congregation or community and its relationships. We have many friends, some of whom are under greater threat than we, some of whom have power to change the course of events. 
  8. We don’t need to have all the answers. Instead, make space to convene people to seek solutions together. One week after the election in 2016, we opened the doors of our sanctuary for the entire community to gather. Rather than try to direct the action ourselves, we allowed people to self-organize by areas of concern. Over the course of that year, thousands of people came together regularly to strategize and act. They formed dozens of teams and working groups, many of which continue to meet today. They are responsible for significant victories at the local, state and national level.
  9. Lead your people to action. We know from history that waiting and watching, silence and inaction, does not serve us. Not only does action sometimes make a difference, action is an antidote to despair and it often inspires others to act. Be thoughtful and strategic. Start with small, concrete, achievable goals and build from there.
  10. Seize opportunities for joy. Every Shabbat and every holiday is an opportunity to infuse our communities with joy and to feel it ourselves. Joy is not a distraction. Joy is fuel. Our tradition understands in the construction of our calendar that joy is essential. We are commanded to be joyous on both Sukkot and Shavuot, as well as on Shabbat. Joy has sustained throughout our history and joy will sustain us now. 

Even if these few years are an aberration that will quickly be righted, or if this ominous trend is immune to our words and our actions, I want us to know that we did everything we could to lead our people responsibly through this moment. Regardless of the outcome, it is up to us to bring our Torah teachings and our Prophetic voices to bear on the events of our time. 

And who knows? Maybe we arrived at our positions precisely for a moment like this.

Wexner Graduate Alum Rabbi Rachel Timoner (Class 17) is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. Her passions are community building, social justice, spiritual life and lifelong learning. From 2009 to 2015, Rabbi Timoner served as Associate Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. Rachel grew up in Miami, Florida, received a BA from Yale University, and received her rabbinical degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and was honored with the Lorraine Helman Rubin Memorial Prize for Scholarly Writing, the Women of Reform Judaism Centennial Prize, the Professor Stanley Gevirtz Award for Excellence in Bible, and the Louis and Minnie Raphael Memorial Prize for Outstanding Service to a Small Congregation. Rachel is a graduate of the Clergy Leadership Program and the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and is the author of Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism. Rachel, her wife and two sons live in Park Slope. She can be reached here.