Columnist Sara Weinberger: Transforming country into force for good

  • Margie Matuck of Westfield displays a needlepoint piece she wore during a rally at Pulaski Park in Northampton on Jan. 21, following the Women’s March to denounce the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, March 20, 2017

As Bob Dylan warned us during the 1960s, “The times they are a changin’.” These words haunt our sleepless nights, cause heart palpitations when we watch the news and create a pervasive feeling of dread.

Our fears are not unfounded. Despite millions raising their voices to stop the tsunami of executive orders, cabinet appointments, and legislation, our democratic principles are being eroded on what seems to be a daily basis. The checks and balances that might have saved us from unqualified cabinet members, immigration bans, and the destruction of the Affordable Care Act, become impotent when one party controls the executive and legislative branches of government.

We write checks on a daily basis to the ACLU, believing in our judicial system, but the Supreme Court is one appointment away from a conservative majority. We’ve got good reasons to hide under the covers!

But there is also reason for optimism. Resistance has taken the form of a cultural shift that will weather the storm of tyranny. Anyone who has participated in a march or attended a vigil, has experienced the power of people coming together to provide “shelter from the storm.”

I have seen miracles happen since November that make my heart swell. Some examples: On a recent Sunday, I joined some 300 people, who stood outside the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts to affirm our Islamic neighbors. Inside the mosque, I heard Mehlaqa Samdani of Critical Connections, instruct the Muslims in the audience to stand with those who are victims of homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Several days later, I attended a vigil against hate at the Springfield Jewish Community Center. The recent epidemic of bomb threats to Jewish organizations left me with nagging questions: Would anyone stand for the Jews? Would the silence that permitted my extended family to perish in the Holocaust continue in the face of today’s threats to the Jewish community? Dr. Mohammad Bajwa, the president of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, addressed the crowd that had gathered, telling us that Muslims and Jews must stand together to defeat hatred. My fears dissipated.

The more self-serving politicians try to divide and conquer, the more people are uniting, standing indivisible to preserve the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. The times I feel most afraid are when I’m alone, but when I join with others, fear shrinks.

At the International Women’s Day March in Northampton, it was not only the sun that warmed me. I drew strength from a red-robed Lady Liberty, who handed the microphone to anyone wanting to speak. I joined the chorus chanting the now familiar, “This is what democracy looks like.”

Call me naïve, but I believe we are creating a culture of “upstanders.” We already have many examples, like activist Liz Friedman, who spread the word on social media that a vigil would happen at the Springfield Jewish Community Center, even before most of us knew that the organization had received a bomb threat, and Rabbi Justin David, arrested with a group of rabbis leading a protest against the Muslim ban in front of Trump Tower in New York. I have been inspired by the impassioned actions of millenials, like Casey Pease, a young activist who chairs Worthington’s Democratic Committee, and the diverse crop of resisters running as local delegates to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention.

Activism fueled by compassion extends well beyond the liberal enclaves of western Massachusetts. The outpouring of donations by Muslims and others across the United States in response to the news of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis gave wake to a similar response by the Jewish community to repair damage caused by vandals to a mosque in Florida. In the words of Easthampton Democratic Committee Chair Laurie Garcia, “We are all uniting to resist.”

While Trump calls for isolationism, others refuse to let the world forget about suffering that extends beyond our borders. About 150 people showed up at the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton on a frigid Sunday afternoon to create letters and cards of hope for those enduring Syria’s gruesome war. At one table, several children showed folks how to write messages of peace and hope in Arabic. Volunteer Jerry Adams flew in for the event to share the story of how his small Arkansas community, rooted in Christian faith, had partnered with the Syrian Emergency Task Force to support an underground school for 125 orphans in Idlib province.

At a second Sending Hope to Syria event, held at the Islamic Society, a group of Buddhist monks, walking across Massachusetts to support the Sanctuary Cities bill, stopped in to write their own messages of hope.

The compassionate voices of those who stand together to affirm our human connectedness will transform our country into a force for good that will remain strong long after Donald Trump has exited the White House. So yes, “The times they are a changin’.”

Sara Weinberger, of Northampton, is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.