The Alter of Kelm Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824-1898) was a student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement. He deliberately started a small Yeshiva (Jewish Religious School) in Kelm, Lithuania in order to cultivate ethical students. This was a hallmark of the Mussar movement. Alter of Kelm had learned to enter into the pain of the “other”. He enjoyed walking to a pond by following a peaceful path. When he was told that along this same path Jews were matched during the pogroms of 1648-49 to that same pond, required to dig their grave, were executed, and buried. He wrote, “I could no longer bring myself to walk along that road, and if I did I would feel the pain of the “other” who blood soaked bones lay beneath the ground” (Weinreb). My education, my professional work, as director of Jewish Heart Ministries, and my Christian faith has molded me and help me understand that there is a tremendous need to understand and appreciate the “other”. The best way to enter into the pain of the “other” is to listen, and understand.
As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University in the 1980’s and 90’s I was exposed for the first time to a diverse student body. I remember an experience sitting with a group of fellow campus Democrats discussing the renting of a car. I had often heard my dad talk about “jewing down” someone. So naively I said, that I would “jew down” the rental place. The laser beam stares of accusation I received at that table clearly demonstrated to me how offensive my statement was to the “other”. I have never forgot those faces. The stares were etched in my mind never to be forgotten.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, I worked on several campaigns in Iowa. In 1997, I was hired as a campaign manager for a state senate race in South Carolina near Charleston. An incumbent state senator DeWitt Williams was running for reelection against a strong Republican challenger. As an African American his district has once had a majority African American population. I was sent down to assist him in retaining the white Democratic vote. I quickly become aware of the deep distrust the African American community had for the establishment. It taught me how to me more aware of another perspective. Although we lost the race, I grew in my appreciation of the “other”. The Senator I worked hard to re-elect and the “other” I worked side by side with during this election.
My desire is to embark on a rigorous effort to listen and understand not only those who are physically alive today, but through the books and stories the “other” whose story was told in the distant past. Since visiting Ohave Shalom Cemetery, I have wondered what is the story behind those stones? Both the “other” that was buried under the gravestone and the “other” who placed the stone on the gravestone. My passion is to impart that same desire through the work of Jewish Heart Ministries. “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine…you did it to me (New American Standard Version, Matthew 25:40b).” Then the ‘other” becomes the brother.
Bible. New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, 1971.
Weinreb, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh. “The Path From Destruction and Despair to Restoration And Repair.” Live Webcast of Tisha B’Av Kinot, 1 August 2017, OU Israel Center, Jerusalem, Israel, Lecture.