A View from Glen Hill: A community of respect

Two weeks ago, Rachel Bearman was installed as Rabbi of Temple B’nai Chaim. The process of formal installation of new clergy is a grand occasion for major community celebration, and this service was that in every respect! Among the congregation’s welcoming responses to their new rabbi in the service’s beautiful liturgy were these: “Help us to embody the change we wish to see in the world. Lead us in creating a community where justice and compassion flourish…taking the teachings of our faith beyond these walls.”

Hovering in the background of a joyous occasion like this one, however, were the sad incidents involving swastikas first at Wilton High School earlier this fall and then just last month at Ridgefield High School. The principals of both schools issued powerful messages:  Wilton’s Principal Robert O’Donnell said, “…[T]hese recent incidents are highly offensive and compromise our school community….  In challenging times when students make very poor choices that impact the school community, it is incumbent on us as educators and parents to…find meaning in these events and teach all of our students that this is unacceptable behavior that is hurtful to us all.” And Ridgefield’s Principal Stacey Gross wrote, “That type of behavior does not represent the type of school that we strive to be — a school where there are no second-class citizens…and every student and staff member receives the benefits of civility and human kindness. I know that you join with me in saying, ‘We will not allow our school to become a platform for hatred and intolerance of any group.  Furthermore, we will not be bystanders to humiliation, and we will not be silent to the suffering of others.’”

Recently, Good Morning Wilton’s Editor Heather Borden Herve wrote an eloquent editorial on this subject entitled “Wilton is No Place for Hate.” She said, “When we allow intolerance and hatred to remain unchecked, we give it a place to set down poisonous roots….  Each time we stand up to say, ‘Hatred has no place in Wilton,’ we solidify our community as a place of respect, as a home that will not allow people to be demeaned…lift[ing] up people of different origins, abilities, orientations, and beliefs. How much better can it be when we constructively promote contributions people make to the community rather than spending time and energy coping with hatred? How much more emboldened will we be when more of us stand up and say, ‘We do not accept hatred here in Wilton.’”

Before a gathering organized by Wilton’s Joint Youth Ministries, Educator Laura Gauld — co-author of the book The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have — described that “biggest job” as instilling character in our young people in an achievement-driven world where too often the implicit message is that their ultimate goal should be complete selfishness — no one else matters. She urged that character is built by “sowing an action that reaps a habit.” Most of all, she underscored the need to set an example by being loyal to our own “best self” that cares about others and thinks about the needs of the larger world.

How does each of us live up to that standard? It’s not an easy one, especially when feelings run high and we forget about the ultimate need to see the humanity in everyone around us (including, ironically, even those who do demeaning things), to understand that we are all suffering or struggling in one way or another, and to strive to hold up and recognize the good even as we move quickly to say about behavior that does not meet that high standard, “This is not who we are as a community. We always respect — and stand up for — the value of each person.”

Rachel’s Challenge, an innovative program of national scope following Columbine, has just been established at Wilton High School for exactly this purpose with more than 60 students engaged already and strong teacher and administration support, all focused on very intentionally pursuing acts of thoughtfulness and compassion.

When we do not allow our town “to become a platform for hatred and intolerance” and “we solidify our community as a place of respect, as a home that will not allow people to be demeaned…stand[ing] up and say[ing], ‘We do not accept hatred here,’” we hold up a standard that is character-building for each of us even as it presents an example for our young people as they see us striving to live out cornerstone values in a world that models them far less than it should.