Juan Rodriguez, Principal of Venetia Valley School, gave an inspiring speech during this High Holy Day's Sukkot Festival:
Rabbi Elana, Rabbi Stacy, thank you for pursuing paths of interconnectedness and continuing to open your hearts and community to me and to all of us across the way at Venetia Valley. This bond has helped shape our vision for our school and sustains me emotionally and spiritually to do this important work.
On Kol Nidre, Rabbi Stacy spoke about how life is not a straight line, both hard and joyful events move us in trajectories that we must accommodate; like the way cancer had disrupted her plans. She spoke about relinquishing the false sense of control, finding our way in new spaces, and managing our reactions to create the most rewarding outcomes. We all heard this through our own personal lenses; and for me, I reflected on the experience of immigrants, whose lives take tangents that force them to navigate barriers of language, institutions, and access.
The concept of a break from a straight line was what brought me to Northern California and specifically, to this neighborhood of Santa Venetia. I did not come here by choice. Violence in Southern California brought me North to pursue safety for my daughter. I did not seek a move from Bahia Vista School to Venetia Valley School. I knew that the move would make me vulnerable. I had been working in the warm embrace of a community that needed and appreciated me. The move was a shock. Yet, it was the embrace of Rodef Sholom, and community partners such as yourselves, whose message and voice reflected my own hopes for this community. I discovered that God put had put me in a place where I could grow, with allies with diverse experiences and talents. I discovered watering stations like Shabbat that regularly reinforce our best instincts for recognizing each other’s humanity and creating sanctuaries.
Evenings like tonight, make us whole. It is a much needed reminder that the most essential parts of who we are, our capacity to see each other as brothers and sisters.
Rodef Sholom, Rabbi Elana, Rabbi Stacey, Michael Kamler, and members like Jessica Marker and Kim Press, continue to be my rocks. Together we resist single stories that erect barriers between communities. We draw on what is best in us - our radical compassion and love that seeks collaboration and that is open to possibilities - possibilities that can only be imagined as other things fall in place. Happily, this manifests into social transformation for community members who may then effectively, and cohesively pursue agendas of self-determination, to build capacity, and work toward healing, reconciliation and development. Do you recall that about a year ago today, we stood in this space together and spoke miraculously by phone with Hugo Mejia who had called in from a detention center, after having been separated from his family, friends, and community for the crime of crossing a border from one community to the next? Together our two communities decided that no border that would stop us from feeling compassion and recognizing his humanity. Together we pursued the goal to free Hugo and reunite him with his family and with us. And, we achieved it. Hugo is free today.
We do not suffer from the rigidity that says we must belong to one community or the other. Rather, we live - crossing the street regularly, now.
Daily, we live in a way that refutes the false premise that human nature is limited, that we cannot recognize our interconnectedness and that we cannot evolve into something better. The path of knowledge, of knowing and learning the history of oppression through Shabbat, is a way of balancing, of mitigating interstices. I recall that Rabbi Stacy said, “When we are awake, we can still be awake some more.”
Like in the epiphany of surviving cancer, we can discover that it is not enough to hope or desire change. We can live in ways that amount to actual change - change that requires opening our minds, taking action, engaging capacity, true leadership, wise guidance, courage, encouragement, determination, compassion and radical love.
We have those elements in our two communities and that is how we manage to confront a history of offense to our communities - a history that has wounded us by calling into question both our identities and humanity. Together, as thoughtful and engaged partners in community, we meet challenges, pursue understanding, and continue to break down barriers. My sister calls it “good trouble.”
We are a part of a long history, history that is beautifully celebrated in this sanctuary. The struggle for human freedom and dignity extends back centuries and is likely to continue for centuries to come. As I speak, Guatemalan parents are desperately fleeing poverty and violence in their home country and standing at the border, child in their arms, yearning for freedom. If they make it to us, here we are. At the same time, African Americans stand behind bars in a system that holds them back from being fully human. Women are reliving repressed memories of sexual violation. Do we see them? Do we stand with them? More and more people are experiencing this awakening and recognizing that these acts feed into the same river that impacts each of our lives.
Michelle Alexander reminds us, What if, this pain we feel is not “the resistance,” but instead, is the inevitable pain of the birth of a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters?
She states, “We are not the resistance - We are the new American struggling to be born.” Free of the structures, barriers, and borders that divide us - not reformed, but reimagined.”
I like to think that’s what we’re engaged in over here, in our shared, sacred space - together, in sanctuary sukkahs, awaiting the harvest, with gratitude for the gifts of friendship, shared work, and shared vision. I feel fed and transformed.