The Hardest Condolence Call
Don Seeman is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumnus of Class IX. He is an Associate Professor at Emory University, and holds a joint appointment in Jewish Ethnography with the Department of Religion and the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. His publications include: “‘Where is Sarah Your Wife’: Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible,” in Harvard Theological Review 91:2 (1998); “‘One People, One Blood’: Public Health, Political Violence, and HIV in an Ethiopian – Israeli Setting,” in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 23 (1999); “Bodies and Narratives: The Question of Kinship in the Beta Israel – European Encounter (1860-1920),” in Journal of Religion in Africa 30:1 (2000). Don can be reached at email@example.com
Can a condolence call become a “leadership moment?” I am honestly not sure. A few years ago, the neighborhood in which I moonlighted as a part-time assistant rabbi (and full-time professor) suffered a rash of scary armed robberies and break-ins. People’s homes were invaded and there was an armed robbery of two men studying alone at night in the synagogue. The police were not having much success putting a stop to it. Then, one Sunday morning, a sixteen year old boy who had been part of this crime spree made the mistake of trying to hold up an off duty police officer for his lap top computer. The boy was shot and killed. It later transpired that he was the son of a former long-time member of the janitorial staff at our synagogue, who had recently been let go. The boy had a history of problems with the law, and had been really angry at the disrespect he felt his mother had suffered at our hands. Someone who knew the family said it pushed him over the edge. I was devastated.
For one thing, I knew the boy’s mother, and had met the boy himself on days that he came to work with her. And even though it had probably been the right call to fire her, I had not been happy about how it was handled by another staff member. But all this took place at a time when I was struggling—mostly without success—to transform the institutional culture of the synagogue around a variety of issues, including professionalization and proper relations with employees. I had been feeling exhausted and demoralized, and decided not to pick a fight over something that nobody else thought was a big deal. I was wrong not to trust my gut. We were not responsible for what happened to that boy, but who knows if things could have turned out differently on the basis of some small choices we might have made. As one of the people who saw a problem, I needed to speak up louder.
Our synagogue was, and is, filled with wonderful, smart and sensitive people who I admire and respect, but only a very few wanted to talk about what had happened. I collected a little money to help with funeral expenses and trekked out to the projects on the other side of town, with one congregant, to pay a condolence call. Then I sent an email describing this to the synagogue list serve. It got little response, and I have not heard the issue discussed since that day. I was glad that we went, and happy that we tried to model something that was just too hard to talk about. I learned to trust my instincts and to risk being wrong rather than keeping quiet when issues affecting others are at stake. But as a leadership moment, I am haunted most by the clear recognition that I failed to martial the resources to address a structural problem in the way my community functioned, a problem that I saw more clearly than some, and that this makes my own responsibility greatest. For me it was a defining moment in which I understood what it means to feel responsibility for things that are only ever partly under your control, because the price of failure can be so unexpectedly harsh.
It also confirmed my intuition that some of the most important leadership skills we have the potential to exercise, is that which is outside of any spotlight, in the little everyday processes and interactions where human life and heartache really reside.