Everyone has been telling me to go see the play “Oslo.” And, I’m sure I will eventually go see it. But, honestly I’m not eager to see it. I’ve heard it’s brilliantly done. But, to be honest, I’m a little saturated with this subject. I’m tired of rehearsing the details of intractable conflicts that nobody has a clue how to solve. I want to see something more uplifting.
So, last week I went to see Come from Away. I loved this play. And, it made me feel better about everything, even Pittsburgh. And, I think this little play holds the key to what ails us today.
Come from Away tells the true story of the tiny Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland where for many decades 7000 people lived in happy communion with each other and splendid isolation from the rest of the world. But, on September 11, 2001, the world found the town of Gander. 38 planes bound for JFK were diverted to the Gander airport. And, for a period of five days, 9000 people from all over the world descended upon this small town.
The people of Gander responded magnificently. They fed the stranded passengers. They housed them. They commandeered their school buses to transport them to town. They entertained them. They made them feel at home at a fearful, uncertain time. They touched the lives of these 9000 people, and they themselves were transformed by their own incredible display of hospitality.
They even held a tenth year anniversary, and people flew in from all over the world to be there. And, every time Come from Away opens in a new city, people from Gander are flown in to be present on opening night.
What struck me most of all about this inspirational story was that there was much more than food and shelter that was provided by the people of Gander for their stranded guests. And, this is the key to understanding our own tradition’s deepest teachings about hospitality to the stranger. And, I believe that Gander and our parasha have something important to say to us about national hospitality today.
In today’s parasha, Rebecca is chosen to be the second mother of our people for two reasons. First, she offers water to a thirsty traveler and to his ten camels. This was not an easy task. A thirsty camel can drink 20 gallons of water. Multiply that by ten and Rebecca likely had to spend several hours tending to the needs of the animals.
But, as kind as Rebecca was in this moment, what Rebecca does at the end of the parasha is equally compelling and often escapes notice. When Isaac marries Rebecca, the Torah says, ‘vayinachem Yitzchak acharei imo’/Isaac was comforted for the loss of his mother Sarah. In other words, Rebecca understood the thirst of the soul as well as the thirst of the body. And, she responded to both.
There is a beautiful line in the Sefardic version of the Bircat Hamazon, the blessing after we eat. After we thank God for providing food for our bodies, we say ‘ki hisbia nefesh shokeka/God satisfies the thirsty soul, v’nefesh r’eva milei tov/and fills the hungry soul with goodness.
This is what the people of Gander did. They did more than feed and shelter their guests. They touched their hearts with their warmth. They made them feel at home. They made them feel appreciated and loved and included at a time when they felt displaced and frightened. They addressed the needs of the soul, not just the needs of the body.
Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz was one of the eleven people who were killed at Tree of Life last week. It so happens that Jerry Rabinowitz is the brother in law of my friends Ruth and Asher Ostrin of Israel. So, I read his story with extra interest.
Jerry was a beautiful embodiment of the words “Ki hisbia nefesh shokeka”. He treated not only the bodies of his patients, but their souls, too. In the days when so many of us were afraid to even be in the same room with an AIDS patients, Jerry Rabinowitz treated them without gloves. One of his patients, Michael Kerr, said “Dr. Rabinowitz kept me calm when I was afraid. He reassured me I was going to make it. He made me feel safe. He held a lamp that lit the way for us.”
Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz understood his mandate as a physician was to heal the soul as well as the body. And, to me that makes Dr.Rabinowitz not only the quintessential Jew, but the quintessential American. Because, America at its very best has always responded to both body and soul. When my in-laws, Victor and Deborah Guttman, z’l, survived the Holocaust and came to America, they didn’t just choose this country because they could make a living here. They came here because they sensed that this was a country where they could find acceptance and dignity and healing for their battered souls.
But, we are in danger of losing this quality right now. And, I’m not talking about open borders. Remember that the 9000 guests of the 7000 citizens of Gander stayed for five days. What if they had stayed forever? Would that have changed the nature of their hospitality?
Immigration is complicated. How we welcome the stranger, how many we welcome, how we integrate newcomers into our community—these are all subjects of legitimate debate in an open, democratic society. But, that we welcome the stranger, that our country was built on the value of hospitality—this should be something that all Americans should be able to agree on.
Say that our resources are strained. Say that we wish we could help more people, but we want to focus on the people already here, including recent immigrants, if that’s what we believe. But, say that America sees itself as a refuge from hopelessness. Say that even if we are not always capable of helping the body, we are always capable of reaching out. We are always capable of offering sympathy. We are always capable of offering solidarity, never contempt, for those who are fleeing violence, corruption and tyranny.
So, the first thing we need to do collectively, bi-partisanly, is to re-assert the American value of helping the stranger. And, the second thing we need to do is to broaden our definition of the stranger—it includes people who are politically different from us, or who come from a different social class. And, yes, we have a right to expect from every one of our leaders an unequivocal rejection of white supremacy. That is the least of what we should expect.
And, at the same time, if we’re serious about fighting hate, we need to acknowledge that there are no innocents here. We all have to do things differently if we want things to get better. This past Wednesday, a group of rabbis met with Mayor Jenny Durkan to talk about Pittsburgh. Towards the end of the meeting, Rabbi Danny Wiener said, we might not be able to change all of America. But, why not start in our own community?
I love this idea. There are good reasons to believe we could succeed here. Come from Away started in Seattle. That’s no accident. I told the mayor that Janine went to Franklin High School. She described Franklin in 1968 as Camelot. Everyone got along, blacks, whites, Jews, Asians, Latinos. It was America as it should be, could be.
But, Seattle has a lot of work to do. Lately, the tolerance that is associated with progressivism doesn’t include Jews. That’s wrong. Don’t tell me you love me as an individual Jew, but not as a collective. Don’t tell me you love me only as long as I’m willing to be a powerless minority. I don’t need that kind of love.
And, it is easy to blame all the hatred in the world on a ‘basket of deplorables’ and there are deplorables, but that won’t get us to where we want to go. America provides Jews and Muslims with unique opportunities to connect. But there are profound differences which separate us, so if we’re serious, we will commit to the hard work of addressing those differences honestly. Similarly with traditional friends like Jews and Blacks and a host of other American relationships.
The work of overcoming hatred is long and hard. But, we cannot afford not to do it. As I was leaving the mayor’s office, I met a woman from Singapore who asked why I was there. When I told her, she waxed eloquent about how important it is that Americans overcome hatred. I don’t recall feeling such a connection with complete strangers of all backgrounds since 9/11. The question is: can we expand this moment? Can we hold this moment and translate it into meaningful action?
Can we see Pittsburgh as a wakeup call to our Jewish community to have the internal conversation about anti-semitism we have not yet had? Can we see it as a wakeup call to the American community to heal our country from the deep polarization that has been building for years?
This is a moment of great pain. But, it is also a moment of great opportunity. Let’s take hold of it. We cannot undo the tragedy of Pittsburgh. But, the legacy of Jerry Rabinowitz and all of those beautiful lives is in our hands.