The acrimonious exchange during the Presidential debate – and the various media outlet’s take on the Trump/Biden exchange – has left many feeling like there is no longer respect in our society for those with whom we disagree. But something remarkable happened over the High Holidays which is helping me keep my faith – praying on the streets of Manhattan.
To deal with the pandemic and still offer in-person praying, the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) held services for approximately 350 participants on West 87th Street, East 81st Street and downtown on the Pier – all outside and in a safe and socially distanced manner. The NYPD graciously granted us (and other Jewish groups) permits to close off the streets, and something quite beautiful took place. Besides being able to actually pray and connect spiritually in a pandemic, I was struck by how many neighbors and random people passing by our minyan on West 87th Street stopped to wave, take a picture, give us a thumbs up and even join our service.
All day I heard such positive comments like “all the power to you,” “God bless you” or “this is just great” – from Jews and non-Jews alike. One middle-aged gentleman who shared that he was Roman Catholic, said he had been living on the street since he was nine years old and had never seen anything as “spectacular and uplifting” as this public display of religious devotion. Two individuals who live on the street came out to offer us drinks (tempting on a fast day) and a construction worker, when he saw us praying, stopped his drilling and waited until we were done. Finally, a woman walking her dog, pointed to our crowd and said this is what she loves about New York City – the diversity and freedom we have to be who we are.
I’m sure if we got all those people in a room and asked them how they each felt about abortion, racism or health care, we would hear sharp disagreement and perhaps even some acrimony -– but that doesn’t mean we have lost all respect for one another. Call me naïve, but I felt a lot of love on 87th Street this Yom Kippur. Maybe it was the singing through our masks that moved people or maybe – just maybe – it was the sense of oneness we all share. That despite our differences and divergent outlooks, in the end we are all God’s children created in the divine image. If we can hold unto that sentiment – to the image of all people praying together for a better tomorrow – maybe we could find it within ourselves to respect those with whom we disagree.