By Kim Kamen
Special to the TJP
I may not have been born in Dallas, but it’s where I’ve called home for nearly 20 years. Through my professional roles as a teacher, an AmeriCorps director, an executive director of a social service agency and for the better part of the last decade, a national staff member of AJC, I’ve been privileged to see the many beautiful neighborhoods and ideological communities that make up this great city. (AJC happens to be the nation’s oldest human rights organization which has worked to safeguard the civil and religious rights of all Americans, and has been involved in most of the landmark civil and religious rights cases in American jurisprudence.)
I’ve dined inside some of the most exclusive mansions in Highland Park and I’ve run back-to-school drives for children in South Oak Cliff whose every day revolves around securing their next meal. I’ve spoken with oil barons (yes, they do exist!) and befriended undocumented workers, who regularly put in 18-hour days to better the lives of their family members. Within the Jewish community, I’ve enjoyed wonderful Shabbat meals in Orthodox homes, and have been to terrific events hosted by families who don’t consider themselves religious, but rather “culturally Jewish.” I’ve seen so much goodness and I’ve seen prejudice in all these environments — and of course, within the many communities and shades of gray that don’t fall into one of the extremes.
In recent weeks, the ugly scab of racism that persists in this country was peeled back once again. The fatal shootings of several African-American men, as well as the horrific scenes that unfolded in downtown Dallas July 7 and, most recently, in Baton Rouge targeting police officers in the line of duty, affected me greatly, as they have millions of others.
In the days following the tragedy in Dallas, I brought my children, ages 10 and 13 years old, with me to the make-shift memorial site in front of the Dallas Police Headquarters. They made posters and handed out pipe cleaners in the shape of hearts for the officers — hugging them and thanking them for their service. This act of tikkun olam just felt … necessary … even though we typically have little to no interaction with members of the Dallas Police Department.
We’ve been there before
On the drive back, we spoke about the reason why so many people were gathered that fateful night downtown — and I explained about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the simplest of terms, I shared that while I believe all lives matter, there are many, especially in the African-American community, who feel their lives matter less — and that this is unacceptable. I drew loose references to Germany in the early ’30s, when anti-Semitic laws were enacted to deem Jews “less than.” While there are no doubt numerous and stark differences at play, the analogy of systemic prejudice resonated — and based on the extensive discussion that ensued, I think my children understood and agreed with the concept that while it may be tempting to stereotype a particular group, it’s wrong on many levels.
The next day, I had the tremendous honor of representing AJC at the Interfaith Memorial Service attended by the mayor, the chief of police, both senators, Congressional representatives, the vice president, and Presidents Bush and Obama. I found myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of police officers, numerous religious and civic leaders representing a vast array of demographic and political backgrounds, each contributing to the rich tapestry that demonstrates Dallas’ diversity.
As a professional in the interfaith and advocacy arena, I bore witness to something that on many levels looked a lot like the countless prayer services and vigils I’ve seen too many times before in cities throughout this country: strangers holding hands — many with tears streaming down, embracing the notion for just a few moments that regardless of differences, we are all in this together.
Walking the walk
Aside from the high-level speakers, I felt a genuine difference. There was a tangible sense of resolve that we will not let our city be defined by this latest tragedy — and that it’s time for Dallas, which bore a stigma for decades, following of another horrific shooting nearly 53 years ago, to say “Not this time.”
Dallas community leaders and citizens alike appeared committed to not just talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to empathizing with those who live differently. There was also an emphatic sense that we will take this experience and grow from it — ensuring this incident evolves into an opportunity for genuine and sustainable change, not just a momentary lowering of our barriers. We may not be able to legislate away hate, but we can advocate for a better approach to living empathetically. It’s not easy to see the world through a different lens, but it is what’s necessary to begin the healing process.
When I returned home following the memorial service, the phone began ringing; friends and family were reaching out to hear about my firsthand experience. Sadly, it didn’t take long before one conversation included heartfelt sympathy toward the fallen police officers, but zero understanding of the reason people were peacefully protesting for nearly two hours until a madman rained bullets.
I had no choice but to stop this family member in mid-sentence and explain that principled nonviolent protests have played a key role in advancing human and civil rights in our country — and are a fundamental right of our democracy. I then quoted David Harris, AJC’s CEO, “No one should for a single moment seek to indict or stigmatize an entire faith (or race). That would be irresponsible, inaccurate, and dangerous in the extreme.” Frankly, I’m not sure I got through, but I refuse to be silent on this matter. We must speak truth to power, and we must do all we can to guide those wearing blinders, even if it means meeting them where they are, to emphasize the importance of becoming empathetic to individuals and communities who are different from our own.
On a personal note, while I cannot be more proud of my Jewish heritage, I am keenly aware that there is significant diversity within the Jewish community here in Dallas and beyond. This mosaic grows exponentially as we take a step back and consider our interactions within the context of the larger community.
To that end, after hanging up the phone with my relative, I was even more determined than ever to ensure that I — and my children — are continually exposed to multiple points of view and people who come from all walks of life. It is my belief that such interactions can serve to open one’s mind to new ideas, create bridges of understanding that were never before conceived of, and strengthen one’s understanding that our community and nation is enhanced — not eroded — by the diversity of its people.
Kim Kamen is the associate director of the Department of Regional Offices at AJC. The opinions expressed are her own.