My husband and I do not have to teach our children to accept others who are different from them. They are growing up as members of several communities – and an extended family - in which diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness are the norm; where the concept of “different” itself, according to my smart and thoughtful son, is debatable. They attend neighborhood schools where, in addition to, “What is your favorite color?” and “How many inches is your right foot?”, first graders’ interviews of new friends also sometimes include questions like, “do you have two moms, two dads, or one of each?”, oblivious to the possibility that the first two options might ever be considered less probable than the third (of course this first grader left out several other possible family forms – there is always room to learn when you are six). And they are growing up as members of our diverse and inclusive Emanuel community, where they are learning, alongside my husband and me, how Judaism teaches us to live our lives in ways that make the world a better, more peaceful, and more accepting place.
My decision Sunday evening to grab my 11 year-old daughter, throw on our shoes; and walk the few blocks down to the corner of Halsted and Roscoe where we just learned a vigil for the Orlando tragedy was taking place was not prompted by a desire to teach my daughter a lesson, much less a Jewish lesson. After a long and difficult day feeling, among many other emotions, utterly helpless, attending the vigil felt necessary. As my daughter and I stood in front of the signs, candles, and flowers that had piled up around the light post, we became part of the circle of people surrounding us. Some were standing alone in quiet contemplation; one man held his hands together over his heart; a few couples stood tightly embracing each other, seeming to hold each other up; many were just standing still like my daughter and me with their arms around each other’s shoulders. She looked up at me and smiled when she noticed a young woman (a teenager?) with purple hair walking silently through the crowd offering tissues to those whose tears were visibly flowing.
After a while, we decided to leave the circle and head home. As we turned away a man I did not know approached me with tears in his eyes. He said, “I was fine all day until I saw you and your daughter. Thank you for being here. Thank you for teaching her.” I hugged him, and then we both started sobbing. After he left, I told my daughter I wasn’t ready to leave. We rejoined the group and stood quietly again for a few more minutes. She put her hand on my back, gently rubbing, comforting me as if she were the one with the wisdom at that moment. I decided right then to call my sister in Portland to tell her I love her. I thought about what her own 10 year old daughter, my niece, might be feeling thinking about her two moms’ pain today; and the fear that none of us was ready to say out loud.
Walking home we talked about what we had just experienced and what we learned from it. About how attending the vigil was less about what we needed than it was about needing to be in a space where our presence contributed to making community. We talked about what she represented for the man who thanked us, the gift she had given him. My daughter and I decided that what we did was a Mitzvah, an act of Tikkun Olam. She suggested that we look up the meaning of "Mitzvah” when we got home. We learned that Mitzvah comes from the root word “tzavta,” which means connection; and my daughter said that makes sense, because connection is what makes community.
I am still reeling about the events in Orlando, as I reel every day about the senseless and uncontrolled violence in our city and across the world. But as I hugged my daughter goodnight, I felt a bit less helpless, a shred of hope, and grateful for all of the communities of which we are a part.