I was an outsider this weekend. I was immersed in traditions and a culture that I have seen and been close to but have never participated in to the extent I did this weekend. I was a little nervous and uncomfortable. I followed the motions. I said the words I knew and mouthed along with the rest. I listened, I was open, I was respectful, and (I hope) I was appropriate.
The whole weekend I was reminded of a time in 8th or 9th grade, when I attended Catholic Mass with a friend of mine in our small, central Illinois town where everyone knew I was definitely not Catholic. I went to the Lutheran church and had recently been confirmed, a process that educated me about the Sacraments and after which I could participate in Holy Communion.
On one Sunday, I found myself at Mass with my friend and his family whom I had known since the womb. When the time in the service for Communion came, I was confident in my knowledge of the Sacraments, happy at my ability to participate in them as a mature 13-year-old, and pretty sure Jesus would be OK with a little reciprocity between Catholics & Lutherans, so I joined the line approaching the priest for the wafer. The Body of Christ.
I was also a rule follower. Questions in my head started fueling doubt and guilt. I knew my Catholic friends had been doing this longer than me. Was it for different reasons? Why did my friend’s sister give me a weird look when I got up to join in? Everyone here knows I’m not Catholic. What are they thinking? If I do this here will it be a lie in some way? Will I be doing something wrong?
I came face-to-face with the priest, “The Body of Christ.” I held out my hand for the wafer (rather than opening my mouth for it), turned with all these questions in my head and what I thought must have been the whole congregation looking at me, and I buckled under the embarrassment and pressure. I shoved the wafer in my pocket. I skipped past the person with the Blood of Christ, and kept my eyes on my feet as I made my way back to the pew. A few years later, I told this story as part of an ice breaker exercise for an undergrad class. The professor commented, “So, you’re saying you had Christ’s big toe in your pocket?” The answer was, “yes,” and that day it was heavy.
This weekend, I attended a family weekend at the camp where my son will be going this summer–the kind of Jewish overnight camp my wife grew up attending. Our weekend there was fun for our whole family. And, for me and the kids since we are an inter-faith family who have not “practiced” much, it was an opportunity to experience Shabbat and participate in prayers and services for the first time. I felt like a fish out of water, but I listened and learned and was welcomed. I probably seemed quiet, and questions and doubts came to my mind like they did when I was 13, but I left this weekend with a blessing in my pocket.
Ask. Listen. Be Open. Make No Assumptions. Be Conscious of Your Biases. Empathize. Be Optimistic.
These experiences reminded me of a couple of students. One who started as “the new kid” this week in my school who I helped find his way on his first day and another who has been trying hard to find a way to tell us she needs something different. Both feel like fish out of water. I often ask students what they need or how I can help.
I also am reminded of the need to be open to new ideas and cultures in order to be an effective collaborator and educator. I welcome experiences, like the one I had this past weekend where I was in the midst of new things, because they help me easily empathize with students who are confronting the unfamiliar or who need a change.
I’ve said before, “To learn about others who do not share the same background as you: Ask. Listen. Be open. Make no assumptions. Be conscious of your biases. Empathize.” To that, after this weekend, I would add, “Be optimistic.” A tension between optimism and discomfort results in perseverance and growth.
Friday night, I started off open minded but uneasy about participating in Shabbat service. I experienced it and participated in it with my family, and we grew. The highlight of the service for me was thinking of my own children (and now, reflecting as an educator with hundreds of students) when the camp director, who was leading the service, told a story. She talked about how, even in the midst of the holocaust, Jews would find ways to carry on with traditions and customs associated with their faith and holidays. For example, they would use thread form their clothing and light it, however briefly, to have candles. They devised other covert accommodations and substitutions, but they didn’t have a way to recreate a Torah. At this point in her story, the camp director had a young girl recite a blessing. Her youthful voice in the context of the story brought a tear to my eye. The director went on, saying that in the grim midst of their struggling through those times they did, in fact, have a Torah: the children.
If I am among people who see children (students) and are optimistic, if we see them and know we can learn from them, if we base our decisions on doing what is best for them, then I know I am among friends.