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Alumni Beacons of Hope: Our Interreligious S/Heroes – Rabbi Getzel Davis and Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal

By Adam Zemel
Interreligious (S)Heroes Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal and Rabbi Getzel Davis

Each month, we honor an individual whose commitments align with the bridge-building efforts of the Miller Center. For May, we shine a light on two Hebrew College Rabbinical School alumni who spoke at the Hebrew College Spring Gala, sharing how their roles have shifted since the October 7 Hamas attacks and the ensuing war: Rabbi Getzel Davis of the Harvard Hillel and Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal of Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose, MA. 

Rabbi Getzel: Since the middle of November, I have been meeting weekly for lunch with Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, the Muslim chaplain on our campus. We started meeting because he wanted to gather Muslim and Jewish student leaders after a public statement from the undergraduate student association following the October 7th Hamas attacks caused great consternation and tension at Harvard and far beyond. Khalil hoped to create a space in which students could acknowledge their pain and loss, prevent further division and animosity, and initiate broader campus efforts at dignified discussion and action.

It was a beautiful idea, but not one that has yet been able to come to fruition. Our students have felt too hurt, too angry, and too scared to be able to do anything together this academic year.

We have tried several experiments to bring them together: a communal mourning circle, an outdoor meditation experience, a joint trip, an interfaith iftar.  Each one fell apart because of the deep divisions on campus and because of external pressures.  Everyone feels isolated and unable to sit with the isolation of the other.

Khalil and I have continued to sit, eat, mourn, and get to know each other.  Over the course of the year, our families have met, and we have held each other’s deep confidence as we negotiate a sharply divided campus.

While our students have been unable to cosponsor any events, we have taken it upon ourselves to help heal the divides on campus when possible. In December 2023 the two of us and other chaplains came together and hosted a joint prayer vigil. While it might seem like an uncontroversial ritual experience, praying publicly for the welfare of innocent people on both sides of this horrific conflict made national news.

In January and March 2024, Khalil and I facilitated programming on how to be a good neighbor with someone with whom you deeply disagree.  We tried to offer a different model of engagement to the Harvard community; one I consider to be reflective of the best of Jewish values and essential to life at Hebrew College. We suggested that to love one’s neighbor we cannot ignore our differences, but rather must lean in and explore these matters in an honest and dignified manner. Nearly 1,000 Harvard affiliates attended these events.

Because of our growing friendship and comradery, Harvard asked Khalil and me to give the opening benediction at the undergraduate commencement ceremony. We have the honor of blessing almost 35,000 of graduates and their families. In the history of Harvard, there has never been a graduation benediction given by two chaplains of different religions. We intend to speak about the power of feeling alone together.

Even though we continue to struggle to bring our communities together, as individuals–as friends, teachers, and symbolic exemplars–we have attempted to model authentic bridge building throughout this difficult year.

My training at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School equipped me to build bridges with someone like Khalil. My classmates and I often disagreed about matters of theology, ideology, and sacred practice–and we continued to be in relationship. When I reflect on these disagreements, I often think of the following teaching from the great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (d. 1810):

“Know that disagreement (machloket) is analogous to the creation of the world, which consisted of creating an empty space…
For if it were not so, everything would be infinitely divine (ein sof),
and there would be no space for the world.
Therefore, G!d contracted the divine light…
leaving space in which the world could be created…

So too with disagreement:
For if all the wise ones were united, there could be no [further] creation…
It is only when there is disagreement among them–when they move apart–that space is created… analogous to the empty space… in which the world itself was created.”

Rebbe Nachman makes brilliant use of Isaac Luria’s (16th century) image of cosmic tzimtzum (“contraction”) as a model for the creative potential of those who engage respectfully across differences. For such a creative encounter to occur, however, we must be willing to let the other be themselves and be brave enough to express our differences of belief or opinion. For Rebbe Nachman, this is essentialto fruitful Torah study and religious creativity.

As with my Hebrew College peers, Khalil and I have promised each other that we will create the necessary space to explore our spiritual and ethical positions honestly and respectfully. While we certainly agree about some things, we also have genuine disagreements; ignoring them will not help us or the people we serve.

Rabbi Lowenthal: October 15, 2023, Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose held a town-wide communal mourning service. The synagogue community had come together earlier in the week for a Jewish ritual event, but this gathering was open to all. As someone who has been deeply connected to Israel and strongly committed to fostering a shared future for Israelis and Palestinians, I knew how divisive this meeting could have been. Nevertheless, our community managed to hold the complexity of the moment–including our horror, anguish, and fear–regardless of people’s particular political leanings.

The first non-Jewish person who called me after the October 7th Hamas attacks was a friend of the synagogue, Maya. She is Lebanese Muslim and a city councilor in Melrose. We cried together. I asked her if she wanted to come to the service. After reflecting on it together, she decided to come and speak to the assembled group. Everyone who spoke that day did so from the heart, crying and morning from the bimah (lectern), and mourned. It meant the world to me that Maya shared this moment with us, and I reciprocated a few months later at a Palestinian gathering.

Since then, four of us have been meeting to talk: Maya, an Israeli woman with Kurdish roots, a Palestinian man, and me. We do not always agree, and this can be deeply painful. But one core principle keeps us together: We have a shared future. Both Jews and Palestinians view themselves as indigenous peoples of the Holy Land; we cannot erase the other.

Together, my dialogue partners and I have written and spoken about the ills of Islamophobia and antisemitism, and how inflammatory rhetoric only fans the flames of intolerance and perpetuates the suffering of people near and far.

Sometimes, we have taken long breaks from our conversations, needing to feel angry or hopeless, but we have come back together time and again.

I do not know if my path is the “right” one. It is certainly not the only one. Some may judge my efforts as naive or futile, claiming that I should spend more time defending my people. Maya faces similar backlash from members of her community. But no matter how painful and scary things are for us in Melrose or greater Boston, we are not being bombed and attacked as those living in Gaza or Sderot. And so, we are not allowed to turn away from our neighbors—including our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. We must not settle for a zero-sum viewpoint in which we can only express empathy for our people. I cannot ask this of those living through war and bloodshed, but I can demand it of myself and call on others living in the United States to do so.

I do not know if I am “right”. None of us knows if we are right. But if we open our hearts and lead with civility, dignity, compassion, and hope, I truly believe we can help create a different future.

The best part of studying at Hebrew College is the havruta (peer learning) experience. Day after day, you sit with a classmate, whom you may not have known well before this, and spend countless hours unpacking sacred texts together. Often, we read things differently or draw different conclusions because we come from different backgrounds and perspectives. But sooner or later, we learn how to navigate difficult, sometimes painful, conversations, while continuing to tend to our havruta relationships.

In engaging in this intense interpersonal and textual training, we seek to follow the model of the ancient sage, Hillel, and his students. As the Talmud (BT Eruvin 13b) teaches, the House of Hillel is regularly deemed the “winner” of their debates with the House of Shammai not because they possess ultimate truth, but because of their behavior during these debates. This includes the ability to listen so carefully to the views of their opponents that they can faithfully repeat these ideas before attempting to refute them.

If we are doing havruta study well, we, too, can hold different ideas and possibilities.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, I can carry on an endless debate myself–playing the role of both Hillel and Shammai! But if we are going to make constructive change on this seemingly intractable issue, we need to engage with others passionately and empathically. Both middot (vaues or virtues) are necessary if we truly want to advance peace and justice, and not just win an argument.

Watch the full panel discussion from Hebrew College’s 2024 Spring Gala

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