Finding Resilience, Finding Justice: A Jewish Perspective

By Daniel P. Aldrich.

Daniel Aldrich’s understanding of resilience at the current moment is enriched by both his scholarly work and his deep knowledge of Jewish religious texts. In his day job, Prof. Aldrich directs Northeastern’s Security and Resilience Studies Program, where he researches post-disaster recovery and countering violent extremism. Unbeknownst to some, however, Professor Aldrich however is also Rabbi Aldrich, and he brings these dual perspectives to a discussion of resilience here.

For many of us, our society feels hard to recognize right now. Since March, many of us have curtailed all normal work, community, and recreational activities, hunkering down in our homes because of the COVID19 pandemic. Beyond this feeling of being trapped in our homes, a series of deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police have generated fierce anger and frustration at the continuing brutality and systemic racism endemic in law enforcement and our society. And, as the summer starts, extreme weather events – primarily hurricanes – are forecast to be stronger than ever. For those of us feeling helpless and anxious, what can we do in the face of these massive, societal-level challenges?

We must be able to feel empathy for others and then we must act on that empathy to build trust and connections. Our Rabbis stated 2000 years ago in the Talmud that we as a community and a society must work mipnei tikkun ha olam, literally “for the sake of mending the world” (see Talmud Bavli Mesechet Gittin 32a). In a variety of places throughout the Talmud religious leadership discussed the importance of changing laws, acting flexibly and altering institutions for the public good. We have to work to think about others, and not our own self-centered interests.

We must be able to feel empathy for others and then we must act on that empathy to build trust and connections.

The highest level of action to do so would be marching in a protest against injustice, volunteering as a paramedic to help vulnerable people stricken with coronavirus, and rebuilding homes destroyed by a natural hazard. Slightly less taxing work would involve calling out bad behavior when we see it, whether in family, friends, colleagues or authorities. Even for those of us feeling that these activities require too much of us, there are still many small public goods that we can do to signal that we want to be part of the solution.

Connect horizontally

For many of us, our friends and family look, sound, and think like us. We need to reach out to them, but we also need to make an effort to reach out to people whose worldviews differ from ours. We call the first type of connection bonding social capital while the second is called bridging social ties. Those bridging ties – to friends of friends, to people we meet through synagogue, or a sports club, or a dance festival – can often bring unexpected insights and resources. If you’re someone who has never experienced direct prejudice or inequality, it may be rare that you hear directly from someone who has. And if you are someone who has dealt with the sickening feeling of being discriminated against, you may not have shared your story widely. In my family, a person of color has been willing to open up to friends of friends and even complete strangers to talk about how her race and identity have interacted with law enforcement. I’ve been in awe of her courage and strength to explain again and again what it means when another person of color dies while in police custody.

These horizontal ties can bring information, social support, and a sense of not being isolated in the struggle. Our 70+ year old neighbor here in Brighton hasn’t left his house in four months, and we’ve done our best to provide conversation, supplies, and food. While we may feel anger, anxiety or panic now, we need to try to extend ourselves to allies, friends, neighbors, and communities of faith.

Connect vertically

It is a rare occasion when most of us interact with the government, and those times may be relatively bland encounters at the RMV, the post office, or a letter from the IRS. But we need to be in contact with our decision makers – especially local ones in our towns, cities, and villages – to make sure that we have a clear line of connection. We call these vertical ties linking social capital, and they can help us punch through bureaucracy, change a problematic policy, and alter the thinking of our leadership. If you’ve never attended a town hall meeting, or sat in on a zoning board petition, or written an email to a town leader, this is the time to start. The Minneapolis City Council has seen enough evidence and heard enough narratives to want to alter the structure of its local police department.

Be willing to listen

The glue that binds societies together is trust. We need to trust that our first responders will be there to help, to protect, and to assist in the case of a hazard. If we’re lucky, we trust in our neighbors to come knock on our door if a fire or a flood has begun. We have to believe that our leaders will have our best interests – and not their own financial ones – in mind when allocating resources. The only way to build trust – whether horizontally or vertically – is through small interactions and exchanges. We need to be willing to listen to others and also be vulnerable enough to share our perspectives and experiences.

We must try to turn moments of anguish into chances for action

Don’t give up

The guidance of Isaiah 1:17 resonates powerfully today: Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, bring justice for the orphan, seek defense for the widow. We must try to turn moments of anguish into chances for action. Even if we recognize that these problems – pandemics, unjust institutions, climate change – cannot be changed by one person alone, we cannot stop striving. As we say in Pirkei Avot (2:21), you don’t have to complete the task, but you may not desist from it entirely either.

Daniel P. Aldrich is Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program, Professor in Political Science and Public Policy, and serves on the Jewish Studies Program’s Academic Advisory Board. He Tweets at @danielpaldrich.

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