Sitting in Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel last week on Martin Luther King Day reminded me why I am so proud to call this area my hometown. A celebration of Dr. King’s legacy — primarily organized by the Community Coalition on Race — the event was about as quintessential Maplewood-South Orange as it gets.
The event included not only a performance by Columbia High School students, but uplifting talks by local religious leaders from a diversity of faiths who approached reflecting on Dr. King’s message and legacy by helping us gain perspective by lending us their own.
There are not many places in the country — really in the world —where a minister, an Imam, a reverend and cantor could all gather in such an absolutely positive environment. No tensions, no judgments and no negativity. I’m not sure about everyone else, but these days, that environment is an oasis of understanding and positivity compared to the relative divergence that exists in media, government and culture in our state, our country and frequently around the world.
And we are among the luckiest because we actually live in a community where not only this happens, but where it is encouraged and valued. Going to colleges in other states and meeting people from across the country both in undergraduate and graduate school reminds me that not everywhere is like our area. And when people from other places hear two CHS (Columbia High School) alum talking about how we grew up in these two towns, for example, they are immediately captivated by the stories we tell, want to know more, and often, even want to visit and see for themselves what these towns are all about.
Friends of mine who have visited often head back to their hometown filled with thoughts of picturesque gaslights, open space and parks, downtowns that should be in movies, and often are, and a community that is genuinely diverse, creative and passionate.
Now, finding a place to move to without breaking the bank is another challenge perhaps only matched by the challenge of figuring out a way to ensure that people who grow up here can afford to continue to live here, but clearly we have a rising demand as more people realize how unique our community is.
And perhaps I am just feeling reflective because it is a new year, or maybe it’s just that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about our towns lately, but it seems reasonable to try and take a moment to step back and place our experiences here and now within a greater geographical and historical context.
Anyone who is reading this has probably at this point realized I am, well, a bit of a nerd about government.
And one of my favorite case-studies is the constitutional convention — an event where people from grossly different walks of life came together for a common goal, and even through disagreement and differing ideology of literally the most fundamental nature, were able to compromise and create arguably one of the best governing documents ever written. A powerful lesson indeed.
The idea that regardless of peoples’ differences – no matter how superficial or deep they may be at any given time – unity around something we all care about is the most powerful force of all.
Throughout political times that seem to favor divergence instead of convergence, remembering this theme seems of even greater importance than ever. And these towns, more specifically, the people who live, and work and go to school in these towns, should be an example for other communities.
Until then, I hope this week’s column can at least serve as a little thank you to people who make events like last weeks’ celebration and reflection happen. And again, in a national culture that seems to favor rabble rousing over civility and progress, it is inspiring to be reminded that my roots are in a place that is above the fray and sets an example of what community actually means.