Temple Sinai’s speaker at its Selichot program Saturday night challenged the synagogue’s congregants to fully see each other, physically, spiritually, and socially, as a first step toward understanding and engaging as a community.
To do that, Gregory Ellison, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at The Candler School of Theology at Emory University, led his audience at the Sandy Springs synagogue through a series of questions.
Ellison, who is also an ordained minister, described them as the five hardest questions they can ask themselves during this season of contemplation.
In a recent interview he elaborated on them:
“The first question is a question of identity. Who am I? Whom am I not? What do I call myself at the soul level, which is deeper than just the role I have in society?
The second question is, why am I here? What unique gifts have been given to me? What unique gifts have been given to me that I must use while I am here on this earth? What must I do with all of the gifts I have been given that no one else can do?
The third is a question of community. Who is my neighbor? Who are the strangers among us? What does it mean to be hospitable to the stranger? How does one welcome the stranger who is my neighbor?
The fourth question is one that is a question of identity, purpose and community.
It was first asked by the great African-American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois.
It asks: How does it feel to be a problem? If you think differently, act differently, write differently, speak or dress differently, people may perceive you as a problem. How do you own that problem for yourself? How does your own uniqueness create a sense of empathy for others? How can it help you see others who may be perceived as problems?
Finally, the fifth and hardest question. It was inspired by the writings of Howard Thurman, who was one of the mentors of Martin Luther King Jr.
What must I do to die a good death? I believe we should wrestle with this on a daily basis because, according to Thurman, both life and death are a single respiration.
To die a good death requires us to live a good life. The legacy that we form is based on the words we speak and the thoughts we have and the actions that come from those thoughts and the habits that develop from those actions and the virtues that develop from those habits.
Thurman wrote that there’s a genesis to the evolution of hate. The first stage is contact without fellowship, for us to be in a diverse community and be in contact with people, but to have very few spaces in which to know them and contact them.
To have contact without fellowship leads to what Thurman calls ‘unsympathic regard,’ so that if you wrong me in some way, if we have no relationship with each other, I don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. You become stereotyped and typecast.”
And how has that affected Jews, he was asked.
“Not just Jews but many of us live separate from each other in what I call ‘our silos.’ I think it is a national problem.
There is a theorist that I love, the Jewish social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.
He says we are surrounded by familiar strangers, people who we see on a daily basis, but we have this unspoken agreement that we won’t talk to them. That is contact without fellowship.
We find familiar strangers in our work, in corporate settings, in people who get on the elevator every day and never speak, people who meet at the coffee stand and never ask: How is your mother doing? Our neighbors, how many people don’t know who lives next door to them?
That’s contact without fellowship. It is not exclusive to Jewish communities or black communities or white communities; we have all become more ‘siloed’ over time.”
Ellison’s recently published book, “Fear+Less Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice,” is based on community conversations with more than 35,000 participants, conducted over the past five years by the nonprofit he founded.
His aim, as it was Saturday night at Temple Sinai, is to create a worldwide movement for better understanding among different and diverse communities by starting first to have them understand one another as individuals.
So, based on all these conversations, is Ellison hopeful for the future?
“I am increasingly hopeful because of the national conversation that has begun, there can no longer be a denial of differences between us. Also, there is an increasing awareness of how privilege based upon both class and race created a glaring gap within equity in our society.
“I am well aware,” he concluded, “of the alliances formed in the past between a black community that was facing crisis and people of the Jewish faith. I think the common narrative of triumph over adversity, which Christians and Jews share through the first five books of the bible, says a lot about how we can stand with each other.”