(Editor’s note: Rabbi Abie Ingber is founding director of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement)
In February of this year, I conducted a special diversity education session for a colleague with high school educators from the Greater Cincinnati area. I had assembled a team of five panelists from among the student leadership of the Interfaith Community Engagement initiative at Xavier University. The students represented diverse faith, cultural and ethnic traditions including Jewish, Hispanic, African American, Hindu and Muslim. Each offered brief vignettes from their high school and formative educational years. The students were erudite and able to present difficult moments with great humor. The Muslim student shared a story of a high school teacher who had failed even to acknowledge her faith. The two of them chanced to be walking out of the school at the same time just before the winter vacation. “You’re Muslim aren’t you?” said the teacher. The Muslim student nodded. “Then have a Happy Hanukkah,” he said.
At the session, a number of the teachers kept pushing for ‘take-homes.’ As we neared the end, I suggested they would be best served integrating their 3:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. lives with their 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. lives. “Live your after-school hours just as you teach during your classroom hours and you will find even greater meaning when you return to the classroom the next morning,” I offered. One teacher asked for an example. Some of the earlier questions about what we had learned from 9-11 were still ringing in my mind, so I shared the following personal story.
“On Sept. 11, when the airplanes hit, all I wanted was to be with my daughters. The next day, coming back to work I noticed the new Middle Eastern restaurant that had just opened a few doors from my office. I walked over to warn the new owner, a Palestinian, of the possibilities of hateful repercussions from the attacks. I entered, introduced myself to Kallid, the owner, and explained that some people might lash out against him and his Middle Eastern eatery. I told him that if someone entered intending to do him, his workers or his restaurant harm, he should leave the dangerous situation immediately and quickly come to my Jewish Center for protection. When he asked why I was doing this, I replied that no one had done it for my parents (who were Holocaust survivors). I gave him my business card signed “to my friend Kallid.” He was visibly touched and I returned to my office, hoping his situation would not deteriorate.
“A few days later, one of my Jewish students asked why my business card was displayed in the front window of the new Arab restaurant. I did not understand, so I went up to the restaurant to see for myself. My business card was indeed taped to the inside of the window, exactly as my student said. Kallid apparently felt that the card of friendship from a Rabbi might deflect some of the venom directed at him and had placed it as somewhat of a protective amulet in his front window. It stayed there for years.”
When this story was finished, I thanked our panelists and the assembled educators. As my students and I were leaving, my Muslim student told me she was so excited she almost interrupted my story. “Rabbi, my mother worked in that restaurant. I remember for weeks she kept telling our family of a Rabbi who had come into the restaurant and offered his protection for our safety. This Rabbi was a hero in our home and I never knew who he was,” she replied.
It was a tearful hug of incredible holy proportions. Ten years had flown by until a magical Xavier reunion. Perhaps 9-11 didn’t change us only for the worse.