“Hail to our Alma Mater, Old East Orange High!” These words of our school song brought Goosebumps to my arms when those of us attending spontaneously sang them in unison at our 50th class reunion
What a joyous experience the reunion was! It was good to see people I had not seen in half a century, and I was proud to introduce my wife Vickie, who grew up in San Francisco, to the people I knew back then.
I feel very blessed that I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. My class was–give or take–half black and half white. We learned in a laboratory for diversity. Our reunion attendees reflected that ratio, and I can say with pride that it was 100% color blind!
I believe the reason is that respect for racial and religious differences was an unspoken agenda of our high school curriculum in those days.
During my formative years I was one of the few Jews in my school environment. Among my classmates all I encountered was interest in and respect for my beliefs. I was the only Jew in my small (seven-member) high school fraternity, and it was not a problem for the others when I asked that we not hold all of our meetings on Friday nights because I wanted to attend services at my synagogue.
I am a rabbi and a proud Reform Jew, but that does not mean for a second that I think everyone should believe as I do.
Diversity is not just something to tolerate; it is something to respect and affirm as a positive good. We are enriched as a society by the different cultures and religious beliefs in our world.
And yet, I cannot count how many times people have asked me, “Why do we have to have so many religions? Why not just one?”
I answer, “Whose religion should it be? Will it be yours in which the belief in Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven are essential for salvation? Or will it be mine where Jesus plays no theological role at all? The bottom line is we will never have just one religion unless people are forced to abandon beliefs they hold precious.”
Also, I often hear of the problems caused by religion as a reason for abandoning it. My response is, “Religion does not cause problems. It is the inability or unwillingness of some to recognize the validity of beliefs different from their own that causes problems.”
There is biblical warrant for diversity in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). When people ask me why we have to have all of these different religions, why not just one, I point to that story and say, “Once upon a time it was that way. People talked the same, believed the same and acted the same. God thought so little of all that unity that the Almighty scattered the peoples and confounded their language In short God created diversity.”
When I was about five, my mother gave me one of the greatest presents I ever received. It was a phonograph record called “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” One of my favorites went like this: “I’m proud to be me but I also see you’re just as proud to be you. Its just human nature so why should I hate for being as human as I. We’ll get as we give if we live and let live, and we’ll both get along if we try!”
It was good advice when I was five-years-old, and it is good advice to day for all of us today. The “Laboratory of Diversity” that was East Orange High School 50 years ago is a worthy model for humanity today as we share space and strive to coexist in harmony on this ever-shrinking planet!