Written by: Mollie Sharfman
I woke up on August 10th 2015 ready to return to the job that I loved that gave me a firm understanding of the role that I played in the world. I was building vibrant Jewish Community as the Director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Baltimore’s summer camps.
When I drove into camp, there were police cars surrounding the entrance. Soon I would find out that Neely Snyder, my friend, colleague, and mentor of eight weeks was tragically killed by a tractor-trailer while waiting to make a left turn into our campus minutes earlier.
One minute I was Neely’s protégé, performing the mitzvah/commandment of separating the challah together with her in front of the entire camp, and the next, I was performing the mitzvah of pouring dirt on her grave to ease her way into the next world (a Jewish custom considered a chesed shel emet – the highest form of kindness one does for another as they can never repay you.)
I had been searching for a Jewish woman role model like Neely. She could talk to any person, any Jew and her impact was far-reaching – she crossed boundaries that others were too afraid to cross. She was a leader in the Jewish community, she was an equal partner with her husband in their Jewish lives, she was the complicated and proud Jewish woman that I had been waiting to meet
On August 10th 2016, a year later, I was far away from the tragic events of last summer, and I found myself sitting with the most diverse group of people I’d ever met in my Historical Narratives and Identity Committee at the Muslim-Jewish Conference. I had
I found something that I did not expect to find – a new spiritual home and belonging in the inter-faith/dialogue community, a new way to express my values in this stage of life. I grew up and worked primarily for the Orthodox community, but through my graduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary: Davidson School of Jewish Education, my Jewish world expanded and I became connected to many different Jewish communities that do not necessarily agree with one another. At times, becoming this boundary crosser made me feel like I do not belong anywhere. At MJC I met both Muslims and Jews who also lived in-between and who thought and rethought about their values as much as I do.
Friday rolled around. I sat and watched the Jummah prayer. I have only heard Muslim prayers in Jerusalem, in the Old City and, even though I live only meters from there, psychologically, it is worlds away.
Then it was time for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Twenty minutes before Kabbalat Shabbat was set to start, I was sitting in a corner of the lobby watching the movie, Disturbing the Peace, on Sulaiman Khatib’s laptop, a recent production describing the work of Sulaiman’s organization – Combatants for Peace. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen, listening to the voices from both sides – some individuals in the movie were with me at the conference. I still wasn’t sure what my role in all of this was going to be but I knew one thing – I no longer lived only within my own story, my own history, and my own narrative. After years of pushback within myself, I have made space. There were so many of us at the conference – from Silwan and Rechavia, Tel Aviv and Jericho – meeting here in Berlin.
Reconciliation – that word came up again and again while experiencing the conference. Watching Disturbing the Peace brought me back to when I was working at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in the summer of 2013, to when Tim Zaal, a former Neo-Nazi stood in front of me alongside his victim, Matthew Boger. Matthew had been kicked out of his house at 12 years old when he came out to his mother about his sexual identity. Matthew was sleeping in a park in Los Angeles when Tim had stabbed Matthew in the head with his spiked boot. They told their story about meeting years later when they both found their way to the museum. They described their road to forgiveness and reconciliation. Something stirred within me and there was a tectonic shift within my thinking, but back then I would not let my mind adapt this approach when it came to the issue that was closest to me, the matzav – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here at the Muslim-Jewish Conference, in the present, I found myself having another shift – actually considering it and laying out the possibilities with fellow participants – because that is the magic of the MJC. There are these “goose-bump” moments where you can actually see glimpses into a futuristic world, a world where reconciliation has already happened and age-old conflicts and barriers have fallen away.
Finally, I yanked myself away from the laptop and ran up to get ready for Shabbat. We started to sing and an old-new friend, Rachel Benaim came to stand by my side and whispered, “Let’s do this,” and we created a dancing circle with the women. Dancing together reminded me of the power of women’s camaraderie– we, this inter-faith community, who were so serious about our respective religions but yet so open to one another.
We went as a group to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp that is just outside of Berlin. I really did not want to go to Sachsenhausen. I have devoted a lot of my life to learning and writing about the Holocaust – leading trips for Jewish youth to Poland, spending my summer vacations in college working at Yad Vashem – but as I have grown up, I have turned inward and I started focusing on my family’s own personal losses – the loss of my grandfather’s family. It has become about my need to come to Europe to look for a glimpse or a reminder of them – it has become philosophical and metaphysical, “that selfsame strange urge I had when I was small – the desire to grant a second chance to something which could never have one.” (Amos Oz) I ultimately decided to go to Sachsanhausen and every so often someone would come over and hold onto my arm – there were no words exchanged, just an understanding, and it was enough.
I cannot tell you exactly the moment that it happened – maybe it was when we started asking each other difficult questions about our respective religions and politics, or maybe it was hearing a story or idea we never heard before, challenging our own status-quo. We held space for each other, for each other’s identities. It was a holy space, a magical space. It was a melding of ideas, personalities, and psychological and physical barriers came down.
On August 10th, 2015, I stood firmly within the Jewish community working for specifically Jewish communal needs and lost Neely, a new mentor as quickly as I found her. On August 10th 2016, I found an unexpected new space that I felt very connected to as a participant on the Muslim-Jewish Conference.
Even though Neely’s presence in my life was so brief, she left an impact on me and motivated me to be more empowered in my role as a boundary crosser and gateway between different communities.
Today on August 10th, 2017, I found a way to use my role in the world as a Jewish Educator and bring it into the MJC team and serve as the Chair of Jewish Affairs for this year’s conference, creating a framework to share one another’s rituals and the religious values we hold dear.