As I sit down to write this post, I’m taking a break from preparing for our Passover Seder here at the ranch—a ceremony that’s an amalgam of my Jewish roots, Pagan practice, and our very down-to-earth desire to give thanks and celebrate another season of baby lambs and kids. The goat kind, that is. I’m remembering a Seder I hosted more than twenty years ago, and it is making me think of some of the challenges and rewards of trying to facilitate diverse groups and work together across the lines of diversity.
Two dear friends were co-hosting with me. Both were friends of mine, but didn’t know each other. Marcia Falk, is a brilliant poet, liturgist, author and feminist rooted within the Jewish tradition. She’s written many books of liturgy in both English and Hebrew, including her latest, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Kate Raphael is a lifelong, courageous activist for LGBT rights, justice for Palestine, and many, many sorts of peace and justice work, and an author of a great mystery novel set in the West Bank, Murder Under the Bridge.
At that time, a new tradition was circulating in the LGBT rights community, based on a story that two lesbians had approached a rabbi and asked, “What is the place of a lesbian in Judaism?” The rabbi had purportedly answered, “The place of a lesbian in Judaism is like the place of a piece of chametz on the seder plate.”
Now chametz, for those of you who don’t know the tradition, is yeast bread or bread-related substance, and one of the core strictures of the Passover holiday is to banish all bread and anything remotely related to it. The story goes that when the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, they left so quickly they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. I actually believe the custom is older, and has to do with a ritual purification of the remnants of the old grain harvest before bringing in the new. In any case, Orthodox Jews scrub the house from top to bottom, carry out a thorough search for any stray crumbs of chametz that might have crept in, and burn the crumbs in order to purify for the holiday.
So, at our Seder, Kate wanted to put a piece of chametz on the Seder plate to symbolize solidarity with LGBT rights. Marcia was horrified—not because she didn’t support LGBT rights. She was a strong supporter of gay liberation, but putting a piece of chametz on the Seder plate, to her, was viscerally horrifying.
We never really resolved the issue. Kate couldn’t let go of the symbol, which was vitally important to her. Marcia literally couldn’t stomach it. The guests were coming, the chicken soup simmering, and we ended up with two Seder plates at opposite ends of a very long table, for the duration of a very long, tense ritual. Decades went by before I dared host another Seder!
But I tell this story to illustrate some of the issues that emerge when we try to work together across our differences. Today I regularly find myself facilitating very diverse groups. I direct an organization called Earth Activist Training, that offers permaculture design grounded in spirit with a focus on organizing and activism. We offer Diversity Scholarships for people of color and differently abled people working in environmental and social justice, and as a result, our groups often span many sorts of diversity—racial, gender, religion, class, physical ability, age, interests and experience.
Permaculture—ecological design—teaches that diversity brings resilience. A diverse forest can withstand disease or fire or hurricane better than a monoculture of genetically identical cloned trees. A diverse human system has a greater range of perspectives, a wider intelligence and understanding, than a group made up of people who all share the same background.
But a group with different life experiences and perspectives will also have differing needs, ideas, goals, and responses, that can generate conflict. In the role of facilitator or teacher, our responsibility is to create an atmosphere that welcomes everyone, in the fullness and complexity of the many identities we each carry. But that’s not always easy to do in a context in which oppression continues and the pain is ongoing.
So what can we do—when the differing needs in a group intersect in painful ways? When a black mother’s fear for the lives of her boys in a hostile world intersects with a Deaf woman’s pain at being robbed of all her communication devices by a thief the police suspect is a local black teen? When an Egyptian activist’s pride in his heritage bangs up against the blacks students’ need to claim Egypt as Black Culture? When a sincere, heartfelt gift of a precious object triggers an indigenous students’ pain at the appropriation of her culture and heritage?
I can’t answer that in one blog post—or a dozen. But I’d like to share some of my own experience—often learned by making mistakes—the experience of an older, Jewish-American, flagrantly Pagan woman writer and teacher who has been struggling with these issues for a lifetime. I hope to make this the beginning of a small series, and invite the voices of some of the other facilitators and teachers from a variety of backgrounds whom I work with.
So—lesson number one. Clenching my teeth and muttering “Please, Jesus, rapture me now!” doesn’t help.
Remembering the goal is the starting point. If our goal is to create a world of justice, how can we respond in a way that will further that will foster more justice?
When we care about justice in this world, and we experience or hear about injustice, we often feel angry, powerless, afraid. Those feelings are extremely painful—especially helplessness. I don’t know how to get the cops to stop killing black kids and people of color, or how to stop the theft of indigenous land, or how to close down the tar sands. But I might know how to police your language, or shame another white person, or lash out at the messenger who reminds me how dire the situation is and how little I’ve done about it.
But in the role of facilitator or teacher, I can’t do that. My responsibility is to create an atmosphere where everyone can learn and grow and be heard. I can’t be responsible to that role and indulge in blaming, shaming, or name-calling. I need to move the group toward learning, by encouraging and modeling listening, and sitting with the pain that arises, naming and acknowledging it.
Pandora Thomas, who is often my co-facilitator in these matters, always reminds us that the goal is to further real relationships, which include the fullness of conflict and disagreement—not to simply pacify the waters and create a surface harmony.
If we create space in a group to address these deep issues of injustice and discrimination, pain will arise, but so will the opportunity for change and growth and learning on a deeper level. However, the intensity of the pain can also blow a group apart and make other learning impossible if we are not prepared for it.
So I’ve learned, the hard way, to find the right time and space for these discussions. Not too early—for the group needs a chance to settle, bond, and build trust. But not too late. Not late at night, or right before the day off, or right before the end.
Conflict can be creative and productive—when it stays focused on the issues. When attacks become personal, and people get locked into defensiveness, the underlying issues get buried and we lose a huge opportunity for learning.
Had I been wiser, at that long-ago Seder, I might have been able to step us back from the content of that conflict and say, “Hey, this is really about the deep pain of feeling excluded. The pain lesbians feel at being excluded from the Jewish mainstream—and the pain we all feel as Jews about being excluded for 2000 years. Once we acknowledge that pain, maybe we can find some common ground.”
It’s easy to get locked into something that feels like a solution to the problem, but really might only be one possible way to address it. Whether or not we put a piece of bread on the seder plate, discrimination against lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender folks will continue. In some situations, that symbolic act might strengthen the group’s resolve to challenge and fight that oppression. In other situations, it might simply create division and deflect attention from the real issues. Once we unpack the hurt, and remember the goal, we might be able to find some way together to create a symbol of inclusion that will work for all of us.
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A note on the bread-on-the-Seder-plate story: In later years, I noticed that the bread seemed to be replaced by an orange, which seemed to me to be a reasonable substitute. But in googling around for this post, I found this article by Susannah Heschel, who originated the orange tradition in the ‘80s, to symbolize inclusion of women, lesbians and gays, the widows, orphans and all who have been excluded. She asks that we eat the orange to remember the juicy contributions all these groups have made, and spit out the seeds of hate.
Both Kate and Marcia read a draft of this article and graciously consented to my writing the story, and all of us agree that we’re older and wiser now, and might be able to handle the situation more flexibly.
A living tradition grows and changes—and so can we! The deep message of Passover is that the work of liberation goes on, in every generation. Let us approach it with courage and compassion, and welcome in a new spring of hope.
I have had many teachers and co-explorers on this journey, too many to name them all. But today I’m thinking of some of the friends with whom we began the WomanEarth Institute back in the early ‘90s, an attempt to form an ecofeminist learning environment that addressed issues of racism and exclusion: Ynestra Kind, Luisah Teish, Rachel Bagby, Gen Vaughn, Margo Adair, Shea Howell, and many others. And some of my current co-conspirators in Earth Activist Training and related groups: Charles Williams, Pandora Thomas, Rushelle Frazier, Jay Rosenberg, Brandy Mack and Wanda Stewart.