Separate together

Separate together

I don’t cry much, but when I do it’s the gooey stuff that does it for me: A kind gesture. A hero’s sacrifice. That commercial where the returning soldier climbs out of a Chevy and his little boy salutes.

I had a gooey moment on July 4, at the local park where we gathered for fireworks. My town is nothing if not diverse, and the scene around me was also like an ad — for Benetton. The family to our right was Orthodox. The mothers behind us wore Muslim head scarves. There were white families and black families and East Asians. If you wanted to do a story about America’s religious and ethnic tolerance, it would be a great place to start.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so. I got a call the other day from a Europe-based news service that wants to interview me for a documentary about my town’s reputation as a melting pot. They must have read the news stories about our Muslim mayor, who earned the backing of the large Orthodox Jewish community when he was appointed last year.

Because the news service has a, shall we say, complicated relationship with Israel, I wasn’t surprised that the producer seemed focused on the Jewish-Muslim alliance. She even wondered whether what’s happening in a New Jersey suburb could be a model for the Middle East. Maybe, I thought, although I don’t quite see Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas coaching Sunday soccer league.

I agreed with her that the town is unusually diverse. Lately the town has been largely (although not exclusively) defined by its large African-American and Orthodox Jewish communities. Its main shopping districts include a slew of kosher restaurants as well as African-American beauty salons. Blacks and whites mix easily at the weekly farmer’s market, at an annual street fair, and at the busy park that is the town’s centerpiece.

But the picture is also complicated, I told her. There is tolerance, but not much interaction. Overwhelmingly, the Orthodox community sends its kids to Jewish day schools and yeshivot, while the black families use the public schools. Politically, this can get dicey, and every few years some Orthodox leaders get behind a slate of candidates for the school board, hoping to rein in spending — and taxes — for schools their kids don’t attend. That can breed resentment among African-Americans and other non-Orthodox. Even the feel-good story of the Muslim mayor had an uncomfortable subtext: Some blacks felt his supporters slighted the African-American women who also sought the position.

It’s not just politics. With kids in separate schools, there are fewer opportunities for people to mingle, meet, commiserate, and problem-solve. The civic fabric isn’t torn, but it isn’t closely knit either. As for social engineering, you can’t beat a kosher diet for keeping Jews and non-Jews apart.

Because my kids went to day school before switching to the public high school, I’ve been able to straddle both worlds — and attest to what’s missing. My kids, clearly in the minority as whites and Jews, mix regularly and comfortably with a rainbow coalition of friends. They have their synagogue lives, but also friends from an array of backgrounds. There’s a looseness and even humor in their friendships that pundits can only dream of when they write about a “post-racial” America.

I also like to think they are ambassadors for Judaism. Their classmates tend to be curious about our religious life. The education goes both ways.

Actually, those kids should be in the documentary, not me. Because my life revolves around synagogue and Jewish affairs, nearly all my friends (and I am lying about the “nearly”) are white and Jewish. For all I gain in living a committed Jewish life, I also sense what I have given up.

How any of this applies to the Middle East is beyond me. Writing for Tablet, Lee Smith makes a convincing case that Israel succeeds precisely because it was founded as a haven for a religious minority — not exactly America’s multicultural ideal. Unlike its neighbors, whose disenfranchised minorities live in fear and uncertainty, Israel has “safeguarded the lives of a regional minority with minimal oppression of and maximum participation by other groups who are also citizens of the state.”

If anything, the Arab-Israeli conflict suggests the region could use a little more separation — the Jewish state on one side, the Palestinian on the other. Without a clearly defined border, and with apologies to John Lennon, I find it hard to imagine Jews and Arabs living life in peace.

Many American Jews celebrate two Independence Days: the Fourth of July and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Two democracies, two very different models. And yet for observant Jews there are clear similarities. In both places they are challenged to live in ways that mark them as different than their neighbors — in worship, education, romance, political aspirations. Complete withdrawal leads to insularity and intolerance. Complete assimilation leads to oblivion.

In America, we seek a balance — gathering to celebrate what we share, even as we revel in the things that make us different. I only wish there were a few more opportunities for sharing.

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