I have just returned from a solidarity visit with a local Islamic boys’ boarding school set in a peaceful, leafy and suburban area, which had suffered a hate crime. Last week someone had entered the school grounds late in the night, and had set a fire by the classroom block. It was only the good fortune that a boy was up and revising for examinations in the area, that the fire service were alerted quickly as was the dormitory wing of the school where most of the pupils were sleeping. It could have been a much more horrible fire had it not been caught early.
Along with the local Vicar and a member of the Borough Council I visited the school in order to be with them, to show them that they are not alone and that the local community is supportive and warm. We wanted to be there in order to demonstrate that the perpetrators of this hostile act were not representative of the local community, that the world in which they were living was horrified by what had happened, and that they had many friends who would stand with them.
The Councillor, the Vicar and I joined the boys and teachers in the school hall. Each of us spoke and then the floor was opened for questions. One boy stood and asked how we would bring racial harmony into the world. From the panel we spoke of building bridges, of creating relationships between people as individuals and between peoples with different identities. Joint football matches between the youth of Church, Synagogue and School were suggested. Again and again we talked of finding ways of meeting the other with open hearts and minds, so that we would recognise how like us they are, we would divest ourselves of some of our prejudice and fear.
We talked of the bridge building we could actually engage in together in small and possible ways. We talked of choosing to leave the safety of our known community and risk meeting people who didn’t think like we are used to people thinking. We talked of the fear of others and their fear of us. Heartbreaking stories were shared of racist comments by passersby of the sports field, and at the local supermarket when doing the weekly shop. In an apparently unfriendly world, it is easier and better to stay with the friendly and known.
I told them the story of my teacher, Rabbi Hugo Gryn who, late in life, visiting the place of his birth and looking back on his youth in Berehovo, before the holocaust demolished his world and most of his family, wrote “On my visit [to Berehovo] I could not help but think that although Jews there were involved in the community over such a long time and although… they really had full legal equality – Jews owned land and worked in businesses and professions – the fact is that while the Jews and non-Jews depended on each other for many of the essentials in life, and we lived in the same society, we were not really part of the same community. There was hardly any visiting, sharing or gossiping. I realise now that of Berehovo’s three big and beautiful churches, I had never been inside any of them, and the chances are that none of the Christians ever set foot in any of our synagogues….” (from “Chasing Shadows” by Hugo Gryn p257). For Hugo, the building of bridges between communities became his life’s work, and this was drummed into all of his students as a vital part of rabbinic work.
As we talked, I began to hear the in my head the words of Hasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, veha’ikar lo lefached klal – All the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid”.
For years when I thought of this bridge as an image, it was as if our whole world, our whole life, is like a narrow unstable bridge swinging over a yawning chasm. That our life is lived on a tightrope, and we walk upon it through the years and are never entirely sure or secure, we are just trusting that the bridge will ultimately take us to where we should be going, as long as we are brave enough to continue.
But today the image that came to mind was quite different. The bridge of Rebbe Nachman was not over a void of years or lives, a bridge whose length measures our lives in time – instead it came into focus as the bridge we make between people and between peoples each time we meet, one that we have to make and remake in every generation, at each encounter with the other. It requires trust for us to reach out our feet and step towards each other, for we are never certain where such a fragile path might take us and whether we may fall at the first obstacle we encounter, or the second, or the third. Will the other want to reach out to us? Will they be open to our tentative moving towards them? Will they fear us and brush us aside?
As Rebbe Nachman wrote, the important thing is not to be afraid at all – or at least not to let our fear stop us creating and walking along that bridge.
Image from Wikimedia Commons, File:Pedestrian Suspension Bridge near the Inn at Narrow Passage.jpg