Rabbi Ross presented this talk to Hudson City Council last week as it explored the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in its schools.
My name is Rabbi Michael Ross. I’m finishing my third year at TBS Hudson and my 19th year as an educator.
During these three years interfaith work has become an important part of my rabbinate. I worked with Rev. Peter Wiley of First Congregational Church and Rev. Charlotte Collins Reed of Christ Church Episcopal. We meet together every September for First Serve, a community service day in the North Hills area of Akron. After the Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, we held a vigil for Pittsburgh together. We also collaborated on an interfaith thanksgiving service every November, and last year after the assassination of George Floyd, we held a Hudson Peace Vigil that visited the steps of each of our places of worship.
I was also part of Akron’s Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, with people from Temple Beth Israel and the Islamic Center in Akron and Kent. I am also an associate professor and teach at the Department of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies in Kent State, where I teach both Jews and non-Jews.
In January, Superintendent Phil Herman asked the Hudson Ministerial Association to serve on the Hudson Schools Advisory Committee on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. The HMA asked me to represent them and I served on their curriculum committee.
Three years ago, after the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue, every Jew in Hudson suddenly felt vulnerable to angry white racists. Two years ago, a suspect was arrested in Youngstown, Ohio, on threats of violence against the Jews of Youngstown. A year ago, on the 50th anniversary of the Kent state shooting, a canton resident walked into a stow store and threatened Jews in Kent state. From the perspective of these three white racists, Jews are not white people. Jews are to be viewed differently from white Christians, they are outsiders.
For the past few years at TBS Hudson, we have now required an off-duty police escort at every church service to keep our members safe. That was the case before the pandemic, and now that we started face-to-face meetings last week, it still applies.
At Temple Beth Shalom, I lead our two youth programs. Every year we talk about anti-Semitism in and around Hudson. The majority of my synagogue teenagers have told me they have seen anti-Semitic comments in Hudson schools. And the majority also said that gay bashing is much more serious and problematic than anti-Semitic abuse.
When I received the invitation from Superintendent Phil Berger, I felt I could cater to the needs of my members’ students in Hudson Schools. As an uncle, I felt that I could also cater to transgender and lesbian family members, so I also try to support the marginalization of our LGBTQ students. As someone who has mastered a neuromuscular disorder, I also work to support students with diverse learning, developmental, and physical disabilities. As the uncle and cousin of my extended family, which includes whites, blacks, and tans, I also work to support the needs of color students.
Last week was a Jewish day of common mourning called Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av). It is a day of mourning the brokenness and tragedy in our world. Jewish leaders spoke clearly about the danger of baseless hatred of our fellow human beings. We are therefore asked to convert our anger and hatred into compassion and kindness. In this light, I teach my students and my community that we must remember that everyone “is made in the image of the divine”. This text from Genesis 1 indicates diversity. I teach that we “love our neighbors as ourselves” in Leviticus 19, which indicates righteousness. And I teach that we must “pursue justice”. This is a text from Deuteronomy 16 about inclusion.
I would like to conclude my message with a challenge that I have addressed to civic leaders, clergymen, and lay people in these anxious times over the past few years. We live in a culture of discussion. This culture of anger and debate leaves us in the lurch. We all need to seek a perspective of dialogue rather than debate.
When I am in dialogue with people I meet, I am asked to be curious about their story. As I try to see each human being as they are made in the image of the divine, I can develop this by seeing the humanity of the person who shares their story. If I want this new relationship to develop, I need to listen to this person with an open heart. When someone sees that I am actively listening to them, trust builds in the relationship.
From these relationships we build community. From these relationships we seek justice for one another. May we all try to foster dialogue in our lives.
We stand back to back and argue about each other’s perspective without understanding their story. We must courageously find ways to build relationships, build trust, and hear each other’s story.
Rabbi Michael Ross is a rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Hudson and a senior Jewish educator at Kent State Hillel. He also teaches in the Kent State Department of Jewish Studies.