A Room Full of People

I meant the title to read “A Room Full of Jews” but was afraid it would be misconstrued as anti-Semitic. While it is not, I am very critical of my people.

Allow me to describe the setting of an event that recently took place at a major hotel here in Los Angeles. A group of like-minded people gathered to hear a major speaker.

It was an activity planned by an organization to which they all (or most) belong. Officially, some are “Board Members” (which primarily means they donate a certain amount of money each year to the organization) and others were “invited guests.”

Of the many organizations whose activities I attend, this one long ago taught me an important lesson. The lay leader, who today suffers from an illness of old age and thus was forced to focus on his health, was a ferocious leader, almost cruel: efficient, effective, concise, practical. None, superseding him, managed to remain long in his position.

The lesson was inclusiveness: Members of the community were invited to attend these briefings, even if they did not donate money to the organization. Some were very active elsewhere and others were unable to afford the cost.

At that time, those of us “invited guests” were seated along the wall, while “Board Members” were seated around a very large table. But I never felt, not for a second, “Second Class” or otherwise different than those seated at the main table. We were treated to the same presentation, were offered the same dessert reception and were otherwise VIGs-Very Important Guests.

It did not cost the organization extra, nor did it detract from those who already made their contributions-some very substantial in size. Rather, it made us feel welcome and exposed us to some of the very best speakers I can remember (me included).

This tradition continues, and whenever possible I highlight it, an example to others to follow suit. The “small things in life” apparently make a lasting impression on me.

Likewise, the owner of the hotel has for many years provided a venue for these meetings, charging nothing for the use, the dessert reception or the equipment rental (unlike any other top hotel in the vicinity that makes a handsome profit off such events, including those one would expect to set a different example).

The hotel owner never once asked for anything in return, and most people do not know of his generosity. Once again, I highlight his “silent” contribution and the example it should set for others.

A friend once termed these “random acts of kindness.” A Superintendent of Schools, she clearly defined such behavior as that of a leader, of doing and expecting nothing in return, of setting the tone by example and doing so simply because it is the right thing to do. Whether inclusion or silent-contribution, they both cost little and bring so much. They affect behavior and more importantly, they effect change.

To this very day I periodically attend these events, although today I am invited for other reasons, altogether. I still consider myself the guest of yesteryear, and I still prefer to sit with those who are not part of the organization and relate its praises from first hand experience.

Thus, when at one point during the recent meeting, a lady adorned with many diamonds (just one of several who attended the event) turned to me and asked, loudly for all to hear: “Are you a member of the board?” I stopped myself from answering, equally as loudly and in a very sarcastic manner, and instead smiled to myself.

You see, she wanted to highlight the possibility, for she had no clue if I am or not, that I did not pay $500, while the lady sitting next to her usually writes checks for a thousand times more per check.

She often does not attend these events, so her question, asked so everyone in the room would hear, was vicious and designed to hurt and humiliate.

Since she did not produce the climax she expected, she returned to my comments while we stood in line for the valet. “You would have opened a Pandora’s Box,” she said, “You should have not raised the issue. It had nothing to do with tonight’s presentation!”

The speaker was second in command in a very well known international organization. An e-mail circulated earlier that day with a list of possible questions to the speaker regarding an issue that organization has deliberately been trying to avoid.

The speaker apparently knew of the attempt to “ambush” him, and so as soon as he finished his presentation, he rushed out of the room, for another-apparently time-conflicting-event. I have never seen such a rapid departure, particularly of a speaker who would normally stay as long as possible to rub against the shoulders of those ladies-with-many-diamonds (and even larger bank accounts).

So I raised my hand, apologized for possibly not having heard the answer earlier, and asked if the speaker’s departure had anything to do with the e-mail that circulated earlier that day.

The room was stunned. All heads turned to see, “who had dared ask the question.” There was no further evidence required-the plan was exposed. But everyone was already a willing participant, so the question needed to be asked.

In a room full of like-minded people, many of whom sit on numerous boards of non-profit organizations and are regularly mentioned in the media, there should not be any secrets. If a head of a fellow-organization is invited to speak and there is something important on everyone’s mind, it should be raised face-to-face. Not only does it help clear the air, is it not the fiduciary responsibility of the head of an organization to answer truthfully and provide reasoning for the group’s behavior, actions and decisions?

If asked to rank by order of importance, clearing the air would rank ahead of the night’s topic, or any other topic. A House Divided cannot be successful in any endeavor.

If among friends we act like the worst of enemies, what happens when the other side, who think we are all colonialists, imperialist, heartless right-wing extremists or worse, raises these same questions in attack?

Truth, I discovered long ago, is the best weapon, and facing it straight on is the most effective way to administer it.

The lady who wondered so loudly, with a blaming look, whether I were a member of the board, clearly does not think along the same lines. I would still do the same. If we contain what is about to burst, we only hurt ourselves. If we ask in an environment of respect and trust, then we prepare the speaker for those same questions when asked by an enemy on the attack. Preparation means a better chance of survival, unless, of course, there is something to hide.

Since the speaker made such a hasty exit, we were treated to another presentation, hastily arranged at the very last minute, a surprise to us all. We remained in our seats, and listened to a talk on a subject I knew nothing about yet was faced with for a second time in ten days: Is there any connection between the Bible and the people of Israel, between modern Jewish-Israel and the Land of Israel and is what is described in the Bible even authentic?

In short, there is a growing attempt today to disconnect the Jewish people from our Bible, for if the Bible is a creation, and if Jews have no connection to the Land of Israel, then Colonialist-Zionists in the last century and a half stole land that not theirs and must return it to the rightful owners. It is an attempt to rewrite history, strip the Jews from their very mark of identification and target in the process God the Almighty, Lord of Hosts.

Although very few people had ever seen the presentation the speaker is hoping to publish shortly, we sat mesmerized at the findings being presented to us. Suddenly, the name of a very prominent rabbi was raised. Mayhem broke out, and what I remember from the presentation were two themes: There is historical evidence of the Story of Exodus (the main, pivotal story of the Jewish People and God’s greatness) and how bad that rabbi is.

Every few minutes, irrespective of the point being made, the rabbi’s name was raised-over and over again. I was reminded of the time when “Where’s the Beef” was being shouted in movie theaters, out of nowhere, and everyone would burst out laughing until it became too distracting.

We were a group of like-minded people, and we could not focus on the issue on hand. Instead, we elected to be as cruel as children in a sandbox. Children may not know better, but we do-in theory at least.

It was a room full of people, my people, and I felt greatly ashamed of the way we behaved.

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.