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Who is Wise?

by Rabbi Yossi Groner

Who is Wise?

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Picture by Chris Cureton

March 1, 2012

CV is thrilled to work with Rabbi Yossi Groner, the next featured author in our Critical Issues series, in which the most prominent leaders of the city address core issues facing the region. 

 

On a recent Saturday the phone rang in the early morning at my daughter’s home in South Charlotte.  As Orthodox Sabbath observers we do not answer the phone on Saturday nor do we drive a car or use any electronic devices in observance of the holy day.  (Unless in a case of a life threatening emergency when these restrictions are suspended).

The phone went unanswered as my daughter and family were enjoying the Sabbath morning as a family, prior to meeting up with us at our synagogue, which is within walking distance of their home.

A half hour after the phone rang there was a knock on the door. In walked a friendly telephone service man who said that he was the one who had called. My daughter explained that she is Jewish and that today, Saturday was our Sabbath and we do not answer the phone on the Sabbath. The friendly service man had a bewildered look on his face and in his nice southern drawl said: “Did they change the seventh day from Sunday to Saturday?”

This story is instructive, as it speaks to an issue that I have faced often in my 31 years in here Charlotte: the invisible fence that separates us.

Charlotte’s Innate Energy

I would like to emphasize that Charlotte is a fantastically great city and a wonderful place to live and raise a family.  I feel fortunate to live in Charlotte, as it provides us with a lifestyle where everyone can succeed and thrive if they so choose.

Charlotte is a place where the pace is slower than the big city, where we have the chance to experience meaningful interactions like greeting our neighbors or striking up a conversation with the clerk at the grocery store.   In addition, the reason Charlotte is a great place to raise a family, is that we as a community are very child-friendly.  Children are celebrated and seen as blessings in our community.

This is not all. There is an innate energy in Charlotte which drives us all to achieve and succeed. 

Unlike other regions where people relocate because they have to, Charlotte is a place to which people choose to move.  Most newcomers vow to stay forever.  This speaks volumes about the “make-it-happen” and inclusive character of Charlotte, which affords everyone the opportunity to find success in her warm embrace.

Yet, with all the virtues and great qualities that make Charlotte great, there remains a road ahead to make Charlotte exceptional.

A Future Global City

One of my first impressions of Charlotte was that we were fairly insular. Global issues did not seem to interest most of our local folk, and the national agenda did not much affect us.  One exception was school busing, which was court ordered to help reverse segregation and it did have national ramifications. Besides that one issue I believe that Charlotte was quite insular 30 years ago.

We have certainly progressed and come a long way. The upcoming DNC convention in Charlotte will not just throw us into the spotlight, it will also awaken us to the national discourse that is shaping our future.  We, in Charlotte, need to open up and be ready to embrace our role as a future global city by breaking out of our insularity.

Divisions and Polarization

I believe the reason for this insularity is deeply rooted in the hidden invisible fence that many of us Charlotteans harbor within our psyches. It seems easier for us to classify people by their religious affiliation or political bent. This keeps us apart from each other, and it often causes us to misjudge each other and to not truly comprehend the needs or motives of our neighbors.

A case in point is the political divide that separates us.  If someone brings up any subject in current events, it is at once framed in a political context.  You’re either a bleeding heart liberal or a diehard conservative.   To many of us, today’s political discussion is like President George W. Bush’s battle cry after 9-11, “You are with us or against us.”

The polarization of our society has made our coming together as citizens of a great community quite difficult.  We have stopped listening to each other.  Healthy discourse comes about only through listening to and understanding the contrarian viewpoint. By putting people with an opposing point of view onto a predesigned template we shut them out and eventually it affects our own ability to make progress on issues important to us.

Another case in point is the religious divide.  It is quite unsettling to non-Christians in our community who feel ostracized because of their belief system which is not in line with the mainstream. This feeling of exclusion can be subtle, where the non-Christian can feel, perhaps unintentionally, excluded from their neighbors, to outright isolated.

As an orthodox rabbi who wears a Kippa and a beard, I attract curious looks all the time.  I am usually an anomaly in the streets of Charlotte.  After 31 years I am quite used to it.  On the upside, I do get lots of questions about faith and the Bible, which I am glad to answer if I’m not in a rush.  But the question that baffles me most is when I am asked: “Which church do you worship in?” Or, “Which Christian denomination do you belong to?”

This is not a criticism that is unique to Charlotte. It is human nature for people to assess each other based on a frame of reference that helps fit into the comfortable template of the assessor.  We are always looking for the political or religious slant of the other person. This goes to the very issue of trust and confidence. By feeding our preconceived notions about other people, we always process their conversations or interactions on our terms.

Sometimes attitudes change due to a crisis that forces us to join together, and we are able to overcome the predicament through teamwork. This was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, which hit Charlotte very hard in September of 1989.  Neighbors helped neighbors and people really looked out for each other.  But why must we wait for a crisis?

Searching Inward

I believe that we, in Charlotte, are now ready to open up and actually transform our community. My reason for this optimism is due to the fact that many believe that Charlotte has gone through a metamorphic experience with the economic downturn that began in 2008.  Charlotte has always been defined as a place where a person can make it happen and have it all.  We would delightfully show off our immaculate neighborhoods and all of our beautiful homes that would make the desired impression on visitors from some big metropolis.  We attracted the best financial minds and built the biggest banks, and life was good.  We were judged by our financial success and by our acquisitions. 

Checking the demographics report on Charlotte would make our hearts swell.  Charlotte is second in banking.  It is the largest city in the Carolinas, and has the 8th busiest airport in the U.S., a powerhouse that drives the Carolina economy.

After 2008, when many upper-middle-class workers lost their jobs and many wealthy folks saw their portfolio’s shrinking, a new reality set in.  The big question was “What am I worth?”  But this was not only about financial worth.  This was a deep, soul-searching question. This introspective “What am I?” was a deep yearning from within to feel something more than the trappings of wealth and possessions.

This question forced many of us to search inward and to reach deep within our souls to understand that our spirit is alive and well. Our can-do spirit and desire to succeed has not diminished, but has taken on a new and deeper meaning, not in material terms, but in real human and spiritual values.  There has been a greater awareness of the pain and suffering in our community, and organizations that are geared to helping the less fortunate have been ever expanding, thanks to the generosity of many Charlotteans.

Listening and Learning

A first step in our internal change is to hone our ability to listen and to learn more about the people who make up our community.  There is a well known Talmudic adage: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”  How do we learn from other people?  By removing all of our preconceived notions about them and listening to them with an open mind. This genuine and pure interaction is so important in today’s times that we in Charlotte, with our can-do spirit, can lead the way in changing the discourse from great to exceptional.

A classic rabbinical story about listening is about a man who once approached his rabbi on the night before Passover and asked if he could fulfill his obligation of drinking four cups of wine on Passover night with milk. The rabbi, being quite perceptive, realized that this was not a regular religious inquiry, so he replied as follows: “Good question. It will take me some time to look it up.  Meanwhile, here is some money to buy wine for Passover.”

By listening with an open mind he realized that the man was in pain because of his poverty, and he was masking it in a religious question. The rabbi’s open mind and genuine ear allowed him to be sensitive to the needs of the man. Although he did not directly answer his question, he was able to resolve the man’s dilemma.

Divine Providence

The human soul is Divine and its resources are a gift from God, which means that each of us has a contribution to make to society and, most importantly, to the community in which we live. To quote Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, “It is by Divine providence that a soul ends up living in a particular place. It is because of the spiritual connection and the Divine mission entrusted to this very soul that brought him or her to this community”.

All of us are destined by a higher authority to live here, to work here and most importantly, to make a contribution that will have a lasting impact on our community.  This can only be accomplished by recognizing the divinity in each other.

Encounters and Friendships

I am not advocating integrated religious services or for people to give up their political ideas. What I am arguing for is a genuine exchange of ideas between us to learn more about each other and to see how we can make our community a model of cooperation and teamwork.

I am advocating for every voice in Charlotte to be heard and appreciated. Our community is like the great sounds of the orchestra, where every musical instrument contributes to the overall performance.

In conclusion, we can learn much from our youth. There is an organization that I am affiliated with, ‘The Friendship Circle of North Carolina.’  This group encourages local teenagers to develop friendships with children who have special needs. It is a great opportunity for these teenage volunteers to learn about the lives of their counterparts, befriend them and thus acquire a sense of fulfillment and appreciation for those whose lives are filled with daily challenges.  These teenagers are teaching us (adults) a great lesson in how to dispense preconceived impressions and interact with others in a pure and unbiased way.

If you encounter someone from a different culture, don’t be afraid to learn about them and the world from which they come from.  There may be things which make us uncomfortable; but instead of allowing that invisible fence to separate us, let’s try looking at the meaningful traditions that other cultures have to offer in connecting us and teaching us something about ourselves as well. 

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Tags: Yoseph Groner, critical issues, cultural understanding, invisible fences

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