Meditation on Risk

September 1, 2000
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Reena Bernards

On a sunset cruise in San Francisco Bay a few years ago, I looked out over the edge of the boat and saw the Golden Gate Bridge gracefully slung across the water. I mentioned to a few friends that I thought bridges were the only human-made objects that actually improved the beauty of nature. Someone who had earlier heard me describe my work as a dialogue facilitator said, “That’s because you are a bridge-builder!” This was the first time I connected my work of reaching across cultural barriers with my love of bridges.

Growing up on Rockaway Pennisula, a bridge crossing was necessary to go anywhere. It took me from my insular community to the urban neighborhoods of Brooklyn. A bridge connects two pieces of land that are otherwise doomed to perpetual separation. Much of my life’s work has consisted of creating opportunities for connection - between Jews and Palestinians, blacks and whites, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, victims of sexual abuse and recovering perpetrators. The purpose of this work is to build understanding so former enemies can become partners for change.

Building a connection with someone from another community is risky on many levels. It involves an internal commitment to challenge deeply held societal norms. It demands a willingness to be seen as an “outsider” within one’s own community. The messages that keep us apart from each other are profound - that in crossing over we betray our own community and expose ourselves to physical or emotional harm. Sometimes these messages contain an element of truth, and we must assess the level of safety.

Far more complex is the risk of becoming an outsider within one’s own community, taking unpopular positions under the scrutiny of extended family and friends. I remember giving a speech in 1983 at a Sunday brunch in a Conservative synagogue in Queens. I talked about the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside and at peace with Israel. After the talk, a congregant rose to lead the birkat hamazon (grace after the meal). Before beginning, he offered a prayer of his own, “We want to thank God that the members of our congregation don’t agree with the views of this speaker!” His statement put me outside his community, and he wanted that to be clear to God as well. I thought about that breakfast years later, after the signing of the Oslo Accords, when I participated in a public dialogue with a Palestinian woman at a Maryland synagogue. As we entered the room we saw that each table was decorated in the colors of either the Israeli or the Palestinian flag. After so many years of rejection, this simple act of acceptance moved us both.

Building bridges entered my most intimate, personal sanctum when we adopted two biracial children. Their dual identities as African American and Jewish is a daily reminder that boundaries are permeable. I remember being asked how it felt to be a mother when our son was adopted at birth. I responded that it was just as I expected. I always wanted to be a mother, and I always loved children. But becoming part of an interracial family was transformative and life-changing. I now see the world in ways I never would have before. I had thought I had a clear sense of who could be a member of my family (someone with white skin), and I thought I knew what Jews looked like. Our circle of friends now includes non-white Jewish children and adults.

As I think about raising our children to be proud Jews and proud African Americans, I wonder if we can help them find a home in both communities. Will we have the tools to teach them how to stand tall when faced with messages of hate? I am awed by the challenge. In Hebrew, the word awe is yirah, connoting fear, trembling, belief, and excitement. This is high-risk, great-love parenting. Maybe risk and love are entwined, like strands of a braided candle wrapped around each other, bending toward light.

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Reena Bernards is a trainer in conflict resolution and multicultural dialogue, and a consultant in organizational development to social change organizations. She was the coordinator and cofounder of the Dialogue Project between American Jewish and Palestinian women. She is on the Steering Committee of the Jewish Multiracial Family Network and on the Board of the Interracial Family Circle in Washington, D.C.

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