I write a lot about vulnerability. Today, I want to talk about another kind of vulnerability — the vulnerability of a community. But more on that in a moment.
My stories often deal with the challenges and rewards of raising a special needs son. I worry about his vulnerability; I write about the vulnerability of our family. With the joys of having such a wonderful son, come anxieties and challenges. But what got me thinking about the vulnerability of a community — in this case the Birmingham Jewish community — is my relationship with my two writing coaches, Richard Friedman and Samantha Dubrinsky, both of whom are Jewish.
The three of us meet in the early mornings 1-2 times a week at the Birmingham Jewish Federation, before their offices open, for them to work with me — helping me flesh out ideas, coaching me, editing and, most importantly, encouraging me. So coming and going to the Jewish Federation has become routine for me and I still come at least weekly.
However, I am sorry to say things have started changing for the Birmingham Jewish Federation and the Birmingham Jewish community since the beginning of the year. On top of bomb scares called into Jewish institutions (Birmingham received four of them), there have been desecration of Jewish graves, anti-Semitic fliers spread and notorious anti-Semitic and white supremacist speakers spreading their hate. Alabama is not immune to this; in fact, one of those speakers, Richard Spencer, recently visited Auburn University.
Samantha, Richard and I have become very good friends and though not Jewish myself, this issue of anti-Semitism— and this sense of vulnerability — has become personal for me, and important. During our last writing session, sensing their concerns and preoccupation with the se issues, I spoke to them from my heart.
I told them, “First of all, if I didn’t know you guys, I would have a sense of shock and dismay, but I have to be honest — knowing you and being aware of the challenges that the Jewish community faces, makes it so much closer. I look forward to coming to the Federation. This situation makes me feel angry more than anything else and helpless. I know y’all face a lot of issues and Jews have had to deal with the hatred of anti-Semitism for a long time.”
They listened and I could tell they were appreciative. Our conversation also got me thinking about my own life, as a Christian raised in heavily-Christian Alabama, and what my relationship with Jews has been over the years and my attitude toward the Jewish people I have known. I have to tell you, in this case I felt pretty good.
I grew up in Tuscaloosa and I never knew the difference as to whether someone was Jewish or not Jewish. I had Jewish friends and there was just no difference. I really mean it. Yet, when I moved to Birmingham, I began sensing more of a separation between the Christian and Jewish communities, perhaps because Birmingham is larger and thus had a larger Jewish community quite capable of sustaining itself. Nonetheless, though I didn’t think much about that at the time, it did bother me a little bit. It wasn’t the world I had known growing up — with close Jewish friends, with my parents being quite friendly with Jewish couples and no religious barriers when it came to participating in community life.
Some of the best and most enduring friendships I’ve made with Jews came through my business career. They were fair, loyal and once you earned their respect you had it forever.
I’m a huge World War II buff and am familiar with Adolph HItler’s rise to power that would lead to the murder of 6,000,000 Jews, so I never for a moment dismiss the vulnerability of the Jewish people. I also deeply admire the way Jews have responded to adversity — they make their communities even stronger, don’t turn inward but continue to extend a hand to others and have built a country — Israel — that in so many ways is a beacon to all democracies.
The Jewish community is important to me on a number of levels. What I admire a lot about the Jews I know is their acceptance of others. I’ve found that the Jewish friends I have are some of the most open and welcoming people I know. As a father of a special needs son, validation of others is such an important concept to me — it’s a really big deal. It breaks my heart to think of my son being excluded because he is different. I know the Jewish community is especially sensitive to the idea of acceptance because they, too, know what it feels like to be dismissed because of their differences. Whenever I walk onto the Jewish community campus in Birmingham, I know I’m being embraced for exactly who I am, even though I’m not Jewish.
I’m actually sitting here, at the Birmingham Jewish Federation, writing this with Richard and Samantha coaching me on the fundamentals. It is an odd juxtaposition on one level, but a beautiful thing on another. We are friends, and I stand with them.
And now I want to tell this to those who have committed anti-Semitic acts against the Jewish people: “I don’t have any fear about being a part of this Jewish community, even though I’m not Jewish. In fact, I want to be even more involved now. The majority of people I talk to are just as outraged by these anti-Semitic occurrences. Richard and Samantha have taught me much about Jewish history, anti-Semitism, Israel and the triumphs of the Jewish people. In my heart, I stand with them and always will.”