“Is it Still Relevant?”

“Is it still relevant?”

It’s a question we ask ourselves quite often in liberal Jewish communities. This week I heard it anew, not in the midst of a discussion of some matter of Jewish law or practice as it has evolved from Biblical times to our own time.  No, IMG_5739this time the question was posed by Eisner Camp Director, Louis Bordman to the almost 800 campers, staff and faculty gathered in the URJ Eisner Camp’s beautiful Beyt Tefillah, the outdoor prayer space.  I have been participating in worship in this magnificent outdoor sanctuary since 1973.  It looks a bit different than it did a bit over 4 decades ago. Yet, the natural beauty, and even more, the spirit which arises from what takes place in that holy space, is still vibrant and inspiring.

Each session of camp opens with a ceremony which enables the camp community to celebrate the beginning of a new IMG_5793season or session at camp.  At the heart of this ceremony is a ritual developed about a decade ago by the educators serving camp at that time.  This ritual involves prayers and abundant singing. Its centerpiece is the passing of camp’s four Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the oldest campers to the youngest ones. It is a joyous, noisy, and I would argue, still quite relevant celebration. The goal is to re-place the Torah scrolls in the Aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark) which stands as the focal point of the Beyt Tefillah. That done, camp begins in earnest and we study, play and live Torah and Jewish values.  As the camp community passes the Scrolls from one age group to another (guided by the Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who have come to serve a week or two on the camp’s faculty), there are readings and words from our rich tradition. These words bring to life the ancient words from the Talmud, “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.  He gave it to Joshua, who gave to the elders of the community; they in turn gave it to the prophets who passed it to the Leaders of the Great Assembly…” (Avot 1:1) With these words we are reminded that already in the annals of early Rabbinic Judaism we have the notion of each generation taking its place in the chain of the transmission and interpretation of our Jewish heritage. At camp, each session, we join that process.

IMG_0084Louis’ question, “Is it still relevant?” a few nights ago had more to do with whether this ceremony, but a decade or so old, needs rethinking.  Standing at his side during the final moments of that ceremony on opening night I urged him to take part differently in next year’s ceremony. I suggested he take the place of a faculty member and that he should guide a Torah scroll from camper to staff to camper down through the layers of our camp community from oldest to youngest.  As I guided a scroll that night I was deeply moved by the smiles on the faces, the light in the eyes and the sheer electric joy of our campers and staff, as I moved through the crowd. Those smiles, those eyes, and that joy in told me all I needed to know in order to answer Louis’ query.  The answer was written on the faces of the 600 campers along with their counselors and leaders.  The joy of Torah was alive and the scrolls returned to the Ark, so that over the weeks to come we can learn and live the teachings of our rich heritage once more.

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Expectations

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“Did it meet your expectations?”

That’s probably the second most frequent question I’ve been asked in the past 24 hours.  Now, we are into the final hours of this week of writing, learning and nourishment that has been the Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon seminar.

As a rabbi, I spend a lot of time writing. The truth is, I’m pretty sure I will never view the process of writing in the same way ever again. As a result of the sharing of wisdom and guidance from incredible teachers, as well as the openness and sensitivity of my fellow students, I have been indelibly changed.  I’m sanguine enough to realize that it will be some time before I will uncover what those words really mean.  Only time will tell how what I have learned and experienced settles into my heart and soul.  Only time will tell what might actually be different as a result of this experience.

IMG_0012Did it meet my expectations? I came to be nourished. I came to be pushed out of my comfort zones. I came to be open, open to new ideas, new insights, and new techniques. Beyond all of that, I came to be part of a new community. Beyond Walls not only met my expectations, which were not grandiose, it exceeded them.  It’s not that I had low expectations for this week. I came without a bundle of preconceived notions of what could be.  I came trying to be open. I leave with a renewed stirring in my soul. I leave with a heart that has been filled anew by the people I have met in this Holy place.

At Shabbat services, my teacher Rabbi Stephen Pearce, to whom I owe my arrival at this place, shared some words of Torah. He told a story about 4 monks, who in a desperate state were informed that one of them was the Messiah, without a concrete identification. As a result, their behaviors and words with one another change, and as a consequence, their world changes. I’ve told that story before. Rabbi Pearce used the story to explain that in the gathering of teachers and students at Beyond Walls, he had seen glimpses of the Messiah in the faces of those around him.  His words immediately brought to mind a favorite selection from my teacher and friend, poet Danny Siegel:

“If you always assume

the man sitting next to you

is the Messiah

waiting for some simple human kindness–

You will soon come to weigh your words

and watch your hands.

And if he so chooses

Not to reveal himself

In your time–

It will not matter.

Danny Siegel    “And God Braided Eve’s Hair” (1976) / “Unlocked Doors” (1983)

In my mind’s eye I see my fellow travelers on this journey at Beyond Walls.  I see my teachers.  As I imagine myself IMG_0017picturing them one by one, I think of Danny Siegel’s words.  I don’t know what it will look like or feel like when the Messiah truly comes.  I only know that like my teacher and friend, Rabbi Stephen Pearce, I too, have glimpsed sparks of the Messianic time in these days.  That the Messiah was not fully revealed here truly does not matter as I prepare to leave.  I have been touched by sparks of the messianic.  That’s all that matters. And that truly exceeded any expectation I might have had.

Oh, you’re wondering about that other question, the one which I’ve been asked most frequently in these past 24 hours: “Will you return?”

No expectations, only a gentle prayer:

I hope so!

Sometimes Symbols Must Be Put Away

Rabbi Eric Gurvis:

A slightly updated version

Originally posted on Divrei Shalom:

banned-flagFor weeks I have been trying to understand the discourse surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag in public settings which erupted anew in the aftermath of the recent shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The shooting, which claimed the lives of nine innocent people gathered for Bible study, shocked and horrified our nation.  In the days and weeks since the debate around the symbolism of the Confederate flag has swirled at a fever pitch.  The flag has now been removed from the South Carolina Capital. Yet, I still find myself troubled by some of the discourse that followed the shooting and the funerals for those nine victims.

I have no problem understanding that some people genuinely view that flag as a part of their heritage as Southerners.  I am troubled by the notion that in clinging to a cherished symbol, people can overlook or willingly sublimate…

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Sometimes Symbols Must Be Put Away

banned-flagFor weeks I have been trying to understand the discourse surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag in public settings which erupted anew in the aftermath of the recent shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The shooting, which claimed the lives of nine innocent people gathered for Bible study, shocked and horrified our nation.  In the days and weeks since the debate around the symbolism of the Confederate flag has swirled at a fever pitch.  The flag has now been removed from the South Carolina Capital. Yet, I still find myself troubled by some of the discourse that followed the shooting and the funerals for those nine victims.

I have no problem understanding that some people genuinely view that flag as a part of their heritage as Southerners.  I am troubled by the notion that in clinging to a cherished symbol, people can overlook or willingly sublimate the reality that their symbol has been co-opted. How honest are they being with themselves as they hold onto the symbol and in the process, ignore that it has come to represent something more than its original meaning? In the case of the Confederate flag, we know all too well that it became a symbol of racism. It became a symbol that invoked fear. It represented the denial of civil rights and for far too long represented the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of blacks in our country.

As a Jew, it strikes me that there is a ready analogy in the power of another symbol, the swastika.  Save for some neo-Nazis Swastikaand other fringe hate groups, I believe that relatively few in our country today would argue with the notion that a swastika is a symbol which should not be displayed in light of the power it held for Nazi Germany and its genocidal acts against Jews and others. I know that some people are unaware that the swastika was, in fact, hijacked by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party.  According to some accounts, the word “swastika” comes from a Sanskrit word (‘svastika’) which can be translated to mean “well being,” “good existence,” and in some instances, “good luck.”  Needless to say, these earlier meanings were completely sublimated and perverted as Hitler and his followers used the symbol to galvanize support for their genocidal program.

Removing the Confederate flag from public display need not be seen as an act of denigrating the history of the Confederacy from a different historical era.  It was long past time for our nation to acknowledge that the Confederate flag had been hijacked. It had become a symbol invoking fear and galvanizing hatred of “the other.”  Symbols have potency – and sometimes we must be honest about the reality that sacred symbols have been hijacked and abused and must be removed from the public realm to places where their historical meaning can be preserved and even honored while their power to instill fear can be defanged.

More Than Coffee

Originally posted on Divrei Shalom:

Comedians_in_cars_getting_coffeeAt some point last year I was introduced to Jerry Seinfeld’s web-series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It is no big surprise that it has become something of a phenomenon given the dramatis personae involved. Watching a few episodes with my wife, Laura, I quickly came to understand that the premise is less about the coffee. To me, it is much more about the relationship and interaction between Jerry Seinfeld and his guest of the moment.

By now it must some five or six years since I first began broadcasting an open invitation to the members of my congregation, Temple Shalom of Newton, to join me for a cup  of coffee. I honestly cannot quantify the amount of coffee (or tea) I have consumed in this time. I can name more than a few coffee Latte Picshops which have, no doubt, been positively impacted by my venture.   Earlier this year I…

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More Than Coffee

Comedians_in_cars_getting_coffeeAt some point last year I was introduced to Jerry Seinfeld’s web-series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It is no big surprise that it has become something of a phenomenon given the dramatis personae involved. Watching a few episodes with my wife, Laura, I quickly came to understand that the premise is less about the coffee. To me, it is much more about the relationship and interaction between Jerry Seinfeld and his guest of the moment.

By now it must some five or six years since I first began broadcasting an open invitation to the members of my congregation, Temple Shalom of Newton, to join me for a cup  of coffee. I honestly cannot quantify the amount of coffee (or tea) I have consumed in this time. I can name more than a few coffee Latte Picshops which have, no doubt, been positively impacted by my venture.   Earlier this year I looked through a congregational membership list in an attempt to get some idea of just how many folks I’ve been able to connect with in this manner over these past years.

Just like Jerry Seinfeld’s time riding in cars with his guests, the time I’ve spent over coffee and tea has not been fundamentally about the beverages consumed. I have been richly blessed to hear people’s stories, and to engage in meaningful conversations about the things that matter in people’s lives. In many cases, one cup and one hour spent together has led to more cups and conversations.  In some cases, these conversations have provided the opportunity for me to help a member find his or her niche in our larger community.  In some cases, it has afforded me the opportunity to hear complaints or concerns about our community.  Sometimes the discussion turns on some challenge my companion is facing. I have learned so much through the time I have spent in these one-on-one conversations.  I cherish the connections I have been able to forge through the time I have spent in these smaller settings.

Sometimes folks are surprised that I do not meet others in more off-the-beaten-path locations.  It’s not that I don’t cherish some level of privacy. I most certainly respect the privacy and confidentiality of those with whom I meet.  However, sitting in different spots around our community makes me feel more connected.  I find myself willfully choosing to “hide-in-plain-sight” as I invariably run into (or am run into by) other members of the community. I like feeling a part of, rather than apart from my community.

EverydayAmbCourtesy of the various forms of technology we have, both literally and figuratively, at our fingertips, we live in an age of greater connectivity. Yet, at the same time a growing number of studies show that we are more isolated from one another than ever before. In a blogpost based on her recent book, Everyday Ambassador: Making a Difference by Connecting in a Disconnected World, author Kate Otto notes the paradoxical nature of technology in our lives. She describes an Amharic proverb shared with her by an Ethiopian friend: Bechawenyebela, bechawenyemotal. (“He who eats alone, dies alone.”) I was immediately reminded of a story from Jewish tradition which offers the exact same image as it draws a distinction between two different visions of the World-to-Come: one for those who are connected to the world and people around them, and the other for those who are not.

There is no question that technology has many benefits in my work and my life.  But I am keenly aware that the myriad screens before my eyes are no substitute for face-to-face encounters; conversation and relationship. As Martin Buber once put it in his masterpiece I and Thou, “All real living is meeting.”

Coffee anyone?

What Business Are We In?

Originally posted on Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.:

Synagogues should be asking, “What business are we in?” That may seem obvious, but it isn’t, and most synagogue leaders get it wrong – with disastrous consequences.

The usual answers are things like Jewish education, Shabbat and holiday services, social action, or even all of the above, in the tried and true triad of religion: Torah (study) avodah (prayer) and g’milut chasadim (good deeds).

Religion may be what we do, however; it is not our business. The two are not the same.

The question arises compellingly in Peter Drucker’s 1954 classic, The Practice of Management. Drucker’s 1950s example is Cadillac. What it did was manufacture cars; its business, however, was not automobiles but status. Recognizing its business aright led to the realization that its competitors were not Chevrolet and Ford but high fashion and diamonds.

So what is the synagogue’s business?

During the years following World…

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My Social Justice Story

During my time in high school, a group known the Fellowship for Christian Athletes was active. I went to a public school, so their presence was controversial, at least to me. They sponsored a moment of silence at the start of each day, a veiled version of school prayer. They had Bible study sessions. They were active in other ways, too. One day, I happened to mention the Fellowship to my rabbi, and he became incensed. For him, their presence was a clear church/state violation. By the end of the day, the rabbi was on the phone with the local ADL chapter and with my father. As things began to roll, and as it became clear that I would be a player in this fight, my father said to my rabbi, “We are going to leave Neil out of this.”

I was furious. I wanted to fight. I wanted to say, “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play!” My father and I discussed it, and his punch line was simple, “I do not want you going to school in the middle of a fire. Go become a rabbi, and then you can take on this fight for some other kid.”

I heeded my father’s advice. I sat that one out. They made some phone calls, and they called a few meetings between school officials and community leaders. As a result, the Fellowship lost its footing in my high school, though they did not go away. I went off to become rabbi.

I first told that story to Rabbi Jonah Pesner. At the time, he was the founder and director of Just Congregations, and he went ahead and put me into the fight. I was one of his rabbinic interns. That story for me, was the foundational experience out of which my sense of justice was born. Rabbi Pesner helped me identify this story, and taught me how it was fuel for my work in social justice.

This last month, after 40 years under the leadership of Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi Pesner has been appointed as the new director of the Religious Action Center (the RAC) in Washington D.C.

For more than 50 years, the RAC has served as the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity. Each year, Ellie Goldman and I travel with our 9th Graders to the RAC to participate in their L’taken seminar. The RAC awards the Fain Award for excellence in congregational social action programming. Temple Shalom has won the award a couple of times. We are a congregation who holds Tikkun Olam as a core value, and we have kept a relationship alive with the RAC that has helped us to live out that value.

When you come into our synagogue building, the opportunity to do justice is always present. We can bring cans of tuna fish or tomato products, which are then donated to Family Table, serving a large population of hungry in our broad community. At Yom Kippur we fill a truck that supplies the Newton Food Pantry for months. We have countless drives for clothing, glasses, and other goods that make the lives of others a little easier. This year, we were a Fifth Night site—families were invited to bring presents to Birthday Wishes, instead of receiving gifts that night. We continue to be involved in the conversation to bring more affordable housing to Newton. And we are a part of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, fighting for a more just Boston. We are an active community in the world of social justice. This work requires many volunteers, and I thank each and every one of you who have taken part in some social action or social justice program or initiative this year. You are living out the values that we espouse.

“For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Eternal God by doing what is just and right.” Israel’s specialness is linked to its mission: to walk b’derekh Adonai, on God’s path, la-asot tzedek u’mishpat, to do what is just and right. May we, as a sacred community, travel that path from strength to strength, always one step closer toward a world more whole.

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17th Century Shabbat Service – Hello!!?  I live in the 21st Century!

By Cantor Peter Halpern & Nadine Broude

A Jewish Italian Renaissance composer who worked in the Court? Unlikely, right? Weren’t most composers of the 17th Century associated with and funded by the Church? Who was this guy? What relevance does he have to my Judaism, Temple Shalom, and how we pray today? And why should I attend such an unusual Shabbat service?

Join us on Friday evening, March 27 for a unique music opportunity, as Cantor Louise Treitman and the nine-voice ensemble “Il Concerto di Salamone Rossi Hebreo” transport our congregation to 17th century Italy, with inspiring liturgical settings of the sublime music of Salamone Rossi. This Italian rite synagogue service has been presented to great acclaim in the greater Boston area and as part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival.

We’re not familiar with many Jewish composers from the late Italian Renaissance. If you google Salomone Rossi, you’ll find he is a Renaissance Man, literally and figuratively. At the age of 17, already a singer and accomplished violinist, Salomone Rossi was appointed to Duke Vincenzo I’s court in Mantua, Italy. Rossi was so well respected that he was exempt from wearing the yellow badge, required of all Jews in Mantua. He soon became resident composer and leader of the Duke’s instrumental ensemble, where he created the trio sonata (two upper parts for instruments such as violins or trumpets and a bass part played by viol or cello). He also flourished in the composition of madrigals, setting texts from the great poets of the time to music. His “continuo madrigals” are thought by some to have defined the onset of the Baroque era in music. (For non-music people, read this as he was a trendsetter!)

Rabbi Leon Modena, who also served as cantor of the Italian Synagogue in Venice, felt it was time to move away from the non-instrumental “improvised drones and primitive harmonies” which had been used in synagogues since the Destruction of the Second Temple. Rossi and Modena worked together, addressing potential hostility from Christians who might feel the Jews were “stealing” their music, and from fellow Jews who resisted modernizing the music of the synagogue. Rossi’s collection of Jewish liturgical texts set to his music in the baroque style, השירים אשר לשלמה (Ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo, The Songs of Solomon) was published in 1623. His music was enthusiastically received and gradually led to an enormous Renaissance of Jewish music which continues to this day. When cantors talk about the great Jewish liturgical composers, it is no wonder that Rossi is included with those such as Louis Lewandowski, Salmon Sulzer and Samuel Naumbourg.

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The Dilemma of Moses as Killer

By Charles Rudnick, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom.

Today’s Torah portion, known as Sh’mot from the Book of Exodus, examines the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt under Pharaoh, God’s acknowledgement of their suffering, and his decision to send Moses to free the Jews from Egypt.

Within this broader context, Sh’mot tells the story of Moses’ own birth and growth into an adult and a leader of the Jews.  The portion I chanted today focuses on one aspect of this story that I believe is both an integral part of the overall Torah portion and highly illuminating in its own right.  It is also particularly meaningful to me.

We learn that Moses was born following Pharaoh’s order that all Jewish boys in Egypt be killed by throwing them into the Nile River.   Following his birth, Moses’ mother hid him for as long as she could.  When he was three months old, she placed Moses in a wicker basket, which she water-proofed and left along the edge of the Nile.

The basket was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took Moses in and raised him as her own son in Pharaoh’s household.  When he had grown into an adult, one day Moses went out and witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew.  He reacted by striking down the Egyptian and killing him (he also hid the body).

The next day, Moses went out again and saw two Jewish men fighting.  When he asked one of them why he was hitting the other, the man replied with scorn, telling Moses essentially:  “Who died and made you king?  Are you going to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?”  Moses realized his secret was out and, fearing for his life, fled to the land of Midian.

Moses’ actions are both inspiring and troubling, for they raise questions about law and society that are core to my beliefs and much of the work I have done over the years.

On the one hand, Moses demonstrated great bravery by standing up to an Egyptian oppressor to save a fellow Jew from being beaten.  His decision to act in the face of a terrible injustice is admirable, and I’m sure many of us hope that we, too, would have the courage to try and stop an act of physical violence if given the opportunity.

Yet there are also unsettling aspects of Moses’ actions.  Was it really necessary to kill the Egyptian?  Why did he hide the body and try to pretend nothing happened?  One he was discovered, why did he flee the country, rather than stand up and take responsibility for his actions?

It’s important to consider these questions in context.  There are very few details provided about the circumstances surrounding Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, but the evidence suggests Moses was aware of his Jewish heritage at the time – the Torah portion says he “went out to his kinsfolk” and “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”   We also know that Pharaoh had inflicted great suffering on the Jewish people.

It is therefore possible that Moses was reacting on behalf of all Jewish people against their oppression, inspired by the injustice he witnessed.  He may also have been conflicted about his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s household while his “kinsmen” lived in servitude, possibly contributing to his violent reaction.

Yet even if we assume these things are true, do they justify or merely help explain Moses’ actions?  Does one person have the right to take justice into his or her own hands?  Moses may have been motivated by moral outrage, but he still killed a man, and did so solely of his own accord.  The Torah does point out that Moses “turned this way and that” to see if anyone was around, which could mean he was trying to find someone else to help stop the beating – or it could mean he wanted to make sure nobody was watching.  Even if there were someone of authority around, Moses had every reason to doubt that justice would be served upon an Egyptian beating a Jew.

These issues resonate uncomfortably with some of the challenges our nation is currently grappling with regarding the treatment of African Americans and other minorities by the police and courts.  Like Moses, many people in communities of color have ample reason to distrust our system of justice, and some choose to take matters into their own hands.  When protestors burn cars or buildings, some may just want to destroy property or steal, but others are motivated by moral outrage at a system that has historically treated them or their “kinsmen” unfairly.  As with Moses, this may not justify their actions, but it provides context and helps us understand them.  And in both cases, it speaks loudly to the dangers of a system in which all people are not treated equally, and where the rule of law is being undermined by a lack of trust.

The dangers are not esoteric; they are real.  One of the main reasons this Torah portion struck a chord with me is my lifelong belief in, and commitment to, the rule of law.  Just ask my kids – to their bewilderment, the phrase “rule of law” comes up frequently in our house!  I have always believed that a society governed by fair laws, administered impartially, is fundamental to protecting rights, to resolving disputes, and to creating the trust that is essential to the fabric of any civil society.

It was for these reasons that I spent several years working to strengthen the rule of law in emerging democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.  I have seen what happens in societies that lack the rule of the law — and the needless suffering and chaos that can result.

In 1995, I arrived in Sarajevo at the tail end of a brutal, three-year war, charged with helping to rebuild a legal system that had suffered through war as well as 50 years of Communism.  I was surprised to hear the same refrain over and over again:  our number one priority must be to re-establish faith in the courts.  Granted, I was running a legal reform project, but I was struck by the fact that academics, government officials, members of the legal community, and ordinary citizens all felt that creating a trust-worthy system of justice was essential to helping that country rebuild.  The lack of such faith had undermined citizens’ confidence in their entire government, and contributed to the fraying of that society.

Here at home, we need to do whatever is necessary to rebuild some of the lost trust in our system and strengthen our rule of law against further erosion.  I think today’s Torah portion provides an example of how we as individuals can play a part in this process, at a very human level.

As I consider the implications of Moses’ actions, my disquiet at his decision to take the law into his own hands is somewhat tempered by God’s apparent forgiveness of him for murdering the Egyptian.  Perhaps God understood that Moses acted to save the life of another, and therefore felt his actions were justified.  As a “rule of law” guy, this type of rationale by a legitimate authority certainly gives me comfort.  In addition, we see later in Sh’mot that God chooses Moses as the person to return to Egypt and free the Jews from servitude.  It’s hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of Moses’ character, and I find myself inspired to give Moses the benefit of the doubt, even if I don’t fully understand all the facts.

Similarly, I hope that as our country continues to struggle with the fallout of the recent crises in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland – no matter which side of the issue we find ourselves – we can try to step back and give those on the other side the benefit of the doubt; try to appreciate the context for their actions; and perhaps use this openness as a foundation for strengthening our trust and improving how we treat each other, both individually and within our system of justice.

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