I heard an amazing story this week about a project called One Small Step. After the 2016 election, a radio producer named Dave Isay had an idea.
Dave is the founder of StoryCorp, a project that placed a recording booth in the center of Grand Central Terminal and invited regular people to record stories of their lives. Grandparents and grandchildren, spouses, friends can sit together and share up to 40 minutes of conversation, questions and stories of their lives. Incredibly successful – largest collection of human voices in human history – stored at Library of Congress 60,000 interviews.
But after 2016, Dave had the idea to bring together strangers, and more than strangers, people who disagree. People from opposite sides of the political aisle.
Dave knew that bringing people face to face to talk created a bond and impacted both parties. And so talking was his response to the increasing hostility and divisiveness of our country. To combat the US vs THEM disease that has spread even more over these past 4 years, this project aptly named One Small Step, attempts to bridge the divide one small step, one conversation at a time.
The one small step conversation I heard was about a muslim woman, named Amina and a homeschooled southerner name Joseph. They found themselves across from each other at a political rally in Austin, Texas.
Joseph was wearing a MAGA hat and holding a sign that said Proud to be a Deplorable. Amina was across the way, peacefully protesting President Trump. But at one point, someone knocked the hat off Dave’s head. And without thinking, Amina jumped into the frey to get Dave’s hat back.
Because she wears a hijab, Amina said she has been picked on for dressing differently since she came to the US as a middle schooler – not a good age to stand out and be different. Seeing Joe’s cap flicked of his head, triggered something for Amina. And it didn’t matter that Joe was a political opponent. She just had to do something. And that intervention, that small but meaningful moment of empathy… led to the two of them to the recording booth and to being part of One Small Step.
Their conversation is really interesting and eye opening. They both say they are literally not the same people since taking time to talk and more importantly, listen to each other’s experiences. It is quite inspiring.
I bring this up, as you can imagine, because it’s November 2020. It’s an election year and we can’t avoid the reality that whoever wins on November 3, or 10th, or however long it takes to settle this controversial election, a big chunk of our country – our neighbors, our friends, our family – a large number of people are going to feel disappointed. People will feel alienated and disenfranchised and possibly quite angry and afraid. And that is not a good formula for a peaceful, unified future.
So I wanted to share an idea that comes from our Torah, from the narrative of the Tower of Babel. After humanity is destroyed in the flood of Noah’s generation, another tragedy occurs. The people come together to build a tower to reach up to heaven.
Now I’ve always wondered what was so bad about this building project. Wasn’t it a good sign that people were working together, that they were communicating and joining forces to reach heaven. Maybe a bit arrogant but they were trying to do something good, perhaps even holy, reaching towards heaven, and they were severely punished. The tower is destroyed and humanity is never able to speak the same language again. I’ve always felt some empathy for this generation.
So much for working together!
Dr. Ari Ackerman at the Schechter Institute in Israel taught about a commentary on this text by the 19th century scholar Rabbi Yehuda Berlin. Rabbi Berlin argues that the sin of this generation was not that they built a tower or dared to approach God in heaven, but that they committed the sin of conformity. The tower was meant for leaders to look down on civilization and make sure everyone was speaking and behaving the same way. And when they weren’t in conformity, there was violent coercion.
The message of the Tower of Babel is that diversity is a blessing. That we don’t need to be afraid of different voices and opinions. We have more to fear from conformity than from disagreement.
This message is challenging but relevant for today’s reality. There are many voices and opinions we disagree with. There are painful and sometimes violent and dangerous distortions of words and facts. And yet, we cannot survive in forced conformity.
Jewish tradition, our texts, our laws, our very ritual practices are built on heated debates and long standing disagreements between various factions. But Judaism has modeled a brand of civility and respectful dissent that the American political system would do well to learn from. Judaism has survived in no small thanks to our ability to resist forced conformity. We have found ways – imperfect and sometimes with great frustration, – ways to disagree without cutting ties. We have found ways, like the One Small Step project, to continue talking and sharing our tradition even with those with whom we have profound differences.
So as we make our way through this election month and perhaps longer, I will be keeping in mind that conformity is a sin. We all benefit from diverse opinions and voices and we grow and learn more from conversations with new voices than from sitting still in our own private echo chambers.
Let’s move forward together with this One Small Step.