Anniversaries as Opportunities












As we begin 2018, I have been thinking about anniversaries.

Those days on our personal calendar—birthdays, anniversaries, the day of a loved ones death—remind us of the passage of time and invite us to reflection. Who were we then? Who are we now? Who do we want to be?

Events in our national life also can become significant moments requiring --or at least inviting – similar recognition. Many of us pause each year on September 11th and think about how our world has changed since 2001. Where were we then? Where are we now? What kind of country do we want to live in?

On January 21, 2017, the Women’s March on Washington, a response to the inauguration of our new president, became a worldwide event that drew half a million people in over 400 cities. As Saturday, January 20th approached this year, many of us saw it as a time of reckoning.

I knew I would be out in the streets of Philadelphia again for the communal gathering. But I worried the crowd would be smaller and the chants less robust. I worried, too, that my own spirit would be weaker, that all the talk of resilience and resistance would fall on a more cynical, less hopeful soul.

In reviewing the year that had just passed, I realized that it had, in many ways, turned out even worse than some of us had feared (although our more vulnerable friends told us that we should not have been so surprised.) We have seen the fissures in our society exacerbated and the gaps between people widened. At the same time, we have seen a rise in civic engagement as a newly “woke” citizenry mobilizes in ways they never have before.

In my work with Muslim Americans, I keep hearing that this has been a year of “dark clouds and silver linings.” Hate crimes are up and, at the same time, many Muslims are discovering new friends and allies. In the organized Jewish community, for example, interest in learning more about their Muslim neighbors has never been greater. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom has grown so rapidly in the last year that there is a waiting list to begin new chapters across the country.

This fall, as we approached November and the anniversary of the election, some of us were dreading the memories of that night, while others were planning gatherings where folks could join together, take stock, and build hope.  The Jewish Theological Seminary of America arranged for an event precisely on  11/8/2017, Listening, Love and Citizenship, open to the public and still streaming on their website.

As we head into the rest of this month and year, As we head into the rest of this month and year, opportunities will abound to note what we have seen in the year that has passed. 

January 27th will be the one year anniversary of the first “Muslim Ban,” a declaration that was immediately met with protests at airports across the country. How are we doing with keeping up that level of activism on this issue?  January 30th will mark one year since acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to comply with the ban. What can we learn from her about what it takes to manifest courage in professional life?

Looking ahead, in August, we will mark one year since White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Perhaps that will be a time for us to consider the teachings of King and Heschel and other great moral leaders who remind us that the worst manifestations of human character can actually be goads to call forth what is best in us.

In my work related to campus life, I am stuck by how often religious leaders are called upon to respond rapidly to events as they unfold. Anniversaries provide an opportunity to plan ahead, to exploit the calendar for teaching moments and to shore up our spirits for what we will do next.