The following is guest post by Allison Buchalter, Vice President of Involvement at Thread.
Thread engages underperforming high school students confronting significant barriers outside of the classroom by providing each one with a family of committed volunteers and increased access to community resources.
Often what divides us is our inability to see ourselves in one another, to understand that our capacity to thrive is tied up in our neighbor’s capacity to thrive. I feel fortunate to work for Thread, an organization that understands and embraces this interconnectedness. We are founded on the principle that strong interpersonal relationships, based on differences, strengthen communities. We bring together people from across our city and encourage them to learn and grow together with the hope that they will begin to see themselves in one another by recognizing and appreciating similarities while also understanding and accepting differences. We are trying to create a new social fabric that unites, rather than divides, in a city where we are arguably now more segregated than ever before and are struggling to meet the needs of all our residents.
My colleagues and I work with academically underperforming high school students in inner city schools who face a plethora of personal obstacles outside of the classroom. We surround them with volunteers who are committed to helping them navigate high school and the world beyond. Some might view us as an organization focused on test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance. In reality, we are focused on relationship building. Our goal is to bring together people who don’t live near one another, look like each other, share the same daily routines and realistically would rarely cross paths in any given month. By getting to know each other in meaningful ways – sharing our dreams and fears, inviting each other into our homes, meeting our families, and purposefully integrating our lives — we are breaking down barriers that have existed for decades. Many of these obstacles were put in place for the explicit purpose of creating two communities that don’t coexist. And yet, the health, success, and the future of our city depend on the coming together of all communities and individuals to support one another.
One of the many differences among individuals within our community is religion. Where and how people worship, as well as how religion defines who they are and how they navigate the world, can easily impact any relationship. A willingness to see beyond your own beliefs and biases and learn about someone else’s traditions and values is paramount to healing the split that leads to fear, mistrust, and division. At my organization, we use differences like religion, race, and socioeconomic status to learn and grow from each other instead of hiding and creating another excuse to dismiss people.
As an individual, I have used the tenets of my religion to answer the call for social justice. In the Old Testament, G-d asks, “Where are you?” to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, Moses, and Adam at different times in the text. In only eight instances do some, but not all of these men, respond “Hineini” or “Here I Am.” This specific language is important. In each instance, these individuals are not just reporting their presence, but rather making it clear that they are fully present and ready. Hineini is the acceptance of a charge. It’s their recognition that they are being asked to do something bold, powerful and difficult. Aryeh Cohen refers to Hineini as, “the moment of crossing the line, of making the decision, of claiming the path.” It is the willingness to be drawn to action for a purpose beyond one’s self.
In our everyday lives, there are many possible Hineini moments. The call, “Where are you?” can come from a friend, a family member, or even a stranger. And sometimes, it comes from an entire community; a community that has been marginalized and often times forgotten. In Baltimore, the call comes every day. It comes from children and adults who are hungry, cold, and frustrated. But who is listening? Who is there to answer? Who is there to respond, “Hineini – Here I am.”?
Each of us must make the difficult choice – to respond or to ignore. We must be honest with ourselves and decide if we are willing to accept the words we hear, even if they push our limitations and challenge us to grow in ways that cause discomfort.
As a Jew, here I am. As a human being, here I am. As a member of my community, here I am. At Thread, we are all here. Our ears and our hearts are open. We have heard the call and are willing to stand up and take action. It is not always easy and we are sometimes unsuccessful, but we are willing to fail in order to learn. We are guided by endless hope as we try to break down barriers, unite our city and offer people greater possibilities.
Hineini. Here I am. Are you with me?
The ICJS Entrepreneurs Lunchtime Series (ELS) brings together local entrepreneurial leaders to discuss the role that religion and ethics can play in building healthy communities. In this initiative, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about religion and ethics in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome and lift up this diversity of perspectives.