I was on a flight today to San Diego for a family Simcha (brit). In rabbinical school, a professor once explained that if the person sitting next to you on the plane, train or bus asks what you do and you are not in the mood to chat, look down at your shoes and say you are an actuary. I will admit that I have never tried this trick, too nervous that the person asking will turn out to be an actuary and want to chat, which brings me to Monday night.
On my flight returning to Omaha, the opportunity presented itself to either engage in a conversation or “be the actuary.” I choose to engage, and I will admit I am a better person because of the dialogue. Before we took off the lovely women sitting in the middle seat turned to me, not knowing I was clergy, but knowing I was Jewish because of the kippah (head covering) and asked if I could explain why some people don’t like Jews. We all have our prejudices she told me, but why do people hate Jews people and Israel. I was not 100% sure when the conversation would go, yet she seemed genuinely interested, so we started to chat.
What began with a conversation of the killing of Christ, the Crusades, and Inquisition, to the Holocaust and onto modern-day issues. It was a crash course, but it seemed to answer her initial questions. As the plane began to rise, so did the conversation. A chat that started with the roots of anti-Semitism morphed into a discussion about her values as a devout Christian surrounding topic such as her faith, guns, LGBTQ, and the President.
She explained that wherever she goes, she carries a weapon for protection, I admitted that it was beyond my comprehension. She asked about our synagogue and thought having police was a smart idea, she told me about her church where there is a shooting range out back. We talked about the violence caused by Muslim extremism, and I asked about her thoughts on the damage caused by the Crusades. We both agreed that no group should ever be defined by a small minority. She told me about one of her children who believes they are gay. Clearly, this is difficult for her. I explained that I believe we are all created in Gods image, and God doesn’t make mistakes. Yet I could hear the pain in her voice because of the divergence between her faith and lived life. No question she loves her daughter, but how does that square with her deeply held beliefs.
We even spoke about the President; she expressed her support on many issues and fears in others. She wondered whether he was the best person for the job, and yet business is good. I shared my concerns, my profound respect for the office, but worry for those less fortunate than she and I, those on the margins of society that have been forgotten by more than one administration.
We just spoke, for 90 minutes we talked as strangers and differences (and lack of ability to move) turned us into acquaintances who traded business cards and hoped to be in touch. What was clear is that she loves her family, her church, her community, and her country, and she knew the same was true for me. We don’t need MSNBC or Fox News, we don’t need pundits and analysts, we need more conversations, preferably not at 30,000 feet, but at coffee shops and dinner tables. We have become more tribal as a society, and the only way to solve the problem is by sitting down with those we disagree with an open heart and an open mind and having a deep, thoughtful conversation.
I warn you it’s difficult and not for the faint of heart, there were times she made my blood boil and me hers. Yet what made the conversation so fruitful was that neither of us needed to be right, neither of us had a monopoly on truth. We both had certain long-held beliefs but were willing to be challenged, to be pushed, to be made to feel uncomfortable and it was worth every minute.