Judge Rice: We must truly know and understand each other

By Walter H. Rice

Senior U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Ohio Walter H. Rice delivered this keynote address on Oct. 30 at the Dayton area Jewish community’s memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

I am neither a rabbi nor a faith-based leader; nor do I have the power to articulate in a way that can, by any measure, either explain the reasons for or provide consolation or relief from the pain for what were monstrous acts of murder based upon pure unadulterated hatred.

The Tree of Life was not my home synagogue, yet many of my friends and their families were congregants. I remember watching it being built more than 70 years ago, not long after World War II. The last names of every victim were familiar to me, perhaps the son or daughter or family member of someone I knew well, so many long years ago.

While the Tree of Life was not my home synagogue, the warm, nurturing environment of Squirrel Hill was my home for the first 18 years of my life. It was then, what it remains today, a warm and nurturing community where people watched out for and cared for one another, seemingly unchanged by time, except, thankfully, that it is no longer segregated or overwhelmingly of one religious faith.

It may seem a strange thing to say, but I get close to the same feeling of togetherness, of warmth and community from this gathering tonight that I once felt at home, in a different and in a far distant time.

This gathering, consisting of members of all our community’s faith-based institutions, public officials, and persons from all walks of life, represents togetherness, solidarity and unity, a caring and respect for one another, which we must not allow to disappear in the coming days and weeks. We must, as a community, be and remain unified in these trying times.

While we cannot stop the hatred that festers in unbalanced and disturbed minds — hatred of others that excuses one’s own failures and inadequacies — there are steps that all of us can take to limit these events, to reduce the growing lack of respect we seem to have for each other and our institutions, and to unite the people of the Greater Dayton area.

This is not a political speech or a political event. It simply could not be, cannot be, and must not be. Nor can we use our time together to assess blame for what has occurred or the state in which we find ourselves.

The only direct blame to acknowledge is that of the shooter and no one knows what events, what people or what sickness brought him to the synagogue the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27.

Nor must we fall prey to simplistic solutions, to quick fixes, to the complex problem of why we as a society have obliterated numerous red lines, countless codes of civility, decency, and respect.

Expanding the death penalty will not deter other acts of mindless violence perpetrated by those with sick minds; background checks would not have stopped this 46-year-old man with no known criminal record or mental health commitment from being in legal possession of a deadly weapon, nor will arming security guards or, for that matter, arming rabbis or even cantors stop a man with a rifle determined to kill.

No, the only workable solution is long-term, and its success rests with everyone in this room and with every thinking being in this country.

It is a truism that we all, each and every one of us, are the products of our individual life’s experiences. Since I was a boy, we, as Americans — all of us — have learned to live, to work, and to go to school with one another. These are giant steps forward that would have seemed pure fantasy on the eve of World War II.

While we have a long, long way to go, we can be proud of what we have accomplished. However, as far as understanding each other, in terms of really knowing each other, our backgrounds, and our life’s experiences, all of us — Jews, Gentiles, Christians, Muslims and other faiths, black, white and brown, nations of one country or another, those with different ethnic backgrounds, political views and preferences, and so many more — in terms of all of these, we are truly little advanced over the past 80 years or so.

All of us, without exception, can no longer retreat to our own corners insofar as personal relationships are concerned. We must all go outside our comfort zone in order to learn not what a person believes, but why he or she believes it.

Dayton area Jewish community’s memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, held at Temple Israel, Oct. 30. Photo: Peter Wine.
Dayton area Jewish community’s memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, held at Temple Israel, Oct. 30. Photo: Peter Wine.

In doing so, interacting with people in an attempt to really get to know them, one soon learns the experiences of those people that have led to the convictions they share, the actions they take, and their views on so many matters.

It is quite easy to find out where a person is coming from; after all, he or she will quickly tell you, particularly if you are working together to settle a dispute or to achieve a common goal. However, if we do not take the time to understand that person, the life’s experiences that person has had which have, undoubtedly, shaped that person’s viewpoint — if we do not know why that person believes what he or she does, then we do not know that person, we have no understanding of him or her, and it is virtually impossible, coming as we are from different life’s experiences, to either resolve our differences or at a bare minimum, leave our interaction with any respect for that person’s beliefs, ideals, and moral compass.

If, and I emphasize if, the person I am interacting with knows my reasons for taking my position, based upon my life’s experiences and the perspectives stemming from those experiences, and in the same vein, if I know why that person is taking a partially or entirely different position, then it is possible, even probable, that the two of us (or the two or more groups, depending on who is at the table) can reach a solution, meeting everyone’s common interests in arriving at a resolution that works for all.

Moreover, if we engage in such a process, we might, just might, move what we have always intellectually known to be true — that there is no difference between us other than the meaningless difference in the color of our skins, our religious faiths or ethnicities — into our hearts and souls, to truly believe this and to look for opportunities to act upon this belief.

We must take advantage of the opportunities to meet others, first on a superficial level of course, and then on a deeper level where we know their life’s experiences, experiences that we can easily infer have shaped their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

This community provides numerous opportunities to work on matters of common interests — in the schools, in the non-profit sector, in various artistic and cultural venues and, of course, on one’s own street and in one’s neighborhood.

Where once we sat on our front porch on a late spring or summer evening, watching the whole neighborhood go by, with persons stopping to talk and exchange bits and pieces of their lives, we have now, thanks to the marvels of modern air conditioning, retreated behind closed doors and, for that matter, closed minds and hearts that do not allow us to know even our closest neighbors.

We must look for and gather together others to work on common community interests, not merely to satisfy some diversity percentage, but rather to proactively gain a knowledge of each other’s perspectives and the experiences that have shaped those perspectives.

In doing so, not only is no problem too big to be solved in an amicable and beneficial manner, but the innate suspicion that we have for others, others not like us, will dissipate.

Who one does not know, one fears; who one fears, one feels threatened by; when one feels threatened in any manner, that person becomes “the other,” a person to be shunned, ridiculed and even hated and physically assaulted.

By focusing on knowing, truly understanding the people with whom we interact and missing no opportunity to expand our friendships and acquaintances, we can transform persons from “the other” to those with whom we might be surprised to realize we have so very much in common in terms of values, common goals, and interests.

For members of the Jewish community, I commend the efforts of all in taking care of and making certain that Jewish organizations and institutions flourish. We must continue to do so, for if we do not, who will?

However, I submit it is not enough; we must increase our efforts to be active in the broader community, so that our perspectives are always at the table when problems are discussed and decisions made and, not least of all, so that we might gather the perspectives of others in order to help solve problems that affect every community, regardless of faith, ethnicity, race, gender or age.

Remember — as a separated community and country, every problem seems to be bigger than is possible to solve. As a united people, and truly knowing and understanding each other, no problem is beyond our ability to address and resolve.

In this effort, we will develop what once we had and what now has been lost, the feeling that our lives are a shared journey, that we must look out for one another, and that when an act of hatred is verbalized or inflicted upon another, all of us are its victims.

May the victims of the Oct. 27 events rest in eternal peace.

Related: 1,300 memorialize Pittsburgh victims

To read the complete December 2018 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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