It started out as a simple act of kindness.
It was a scorching hot day in the neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers was trying to keep himself cool by dipping his feet in the cold water of a kiddie pool. So when the neighborhood’s friendly policeman, Officer Clemmons, stopped by, Mr. Rogers naturally invited him to roll up his trousers and do the same – and so he did.
We might not think much of it now. But this was 1969. And Officer Clemmons was black.
Of all the public accommodations that had been at the center of racism and protest – from water fountains to lunch counters to public schools – swimming pools were among the last holdouts of segregation. Since the 1920s, when public pools became gender integrated, they became racially segregated – because white swimmers objected to the specter of black men swimming with white women. There was even a riot at Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pool – the only city pool where men and women, and boys and girls, swam together – in which white swimmers attacked blacks with clubs and rocks, to keep them from entering the pool.
In the period after World War Two, when public officials formally integrated public swimming pools, many southern cities simply shut theirs down. And in the north, whites fled for the suburbs, where they could maintain de-facto segregation. Or they joined private clubs, where only whites were admitted as members.
In 1969, the long hot summer that followed the race riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King a year before, racially charged emotions were high again. And Fred Rogers, as he always did, showed the way by sharing his little pool with Francois Clemmons. Because that, he taught by example, is simply what neighbors do. At a time of intense anger and tension in our country, Mr. Rogers fulfilled the pledge he had once given:
“The world needs a sense of worth,” he said. “And it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”
With all the prayers and the petitions and the verses of Torah we share on the High Holy Days, Mr. Rogers’ simple message conveys the essence of what we hope to take away from the Days of Awe: Each of us – every human being – is worthy, regardless of race or color or gender or background or economic status. Everyone is worthy of being our neighbor.
Here’s the way Mister Rogers put it, in one of the songs he often sang on his television show:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
Today, we live in a world where bigots and bullies feel emboldened and empowered to attack – both physically and emotionally — people who do not look like them, or who do not pray like them, or who do not speak like them, or who do not otherwise conform to their narrow vision of belonging in their neighborhood, which they define with a single racial, or religious, or gender identity.
As barriers rise, bridges fall. And a lot – a lot – of people suffer. And, as Mister Rogers knew full well, a lot of the victims are children.
In Oklahoma last month, as families were preparing for back-to-school time, a transgender 7th grader named Maddie was forced to move to a new school district for the second time, after parents of other students threatened her on social media
They called her “it,” and “maggot.” “If he wants to be female, make him a female,” one parent wrote, “a good sharp knife will do the job really quick.”
We are not spared here in Altoona, where we are dealing with the devastating aftermath of the suicide of another 7th grader, after what his father’s lawsuit against the school system calls “a particularly brutal day of bullying.” We may live in a very white neighborhood – but there are differences among us that are more than skin deep. So don’t for a moment think the gay kids, or the trans kids, or the kids who struggle with learning challenges, or the kids who are just socially awkward, or the Jewish kids – always fit in just because of the color of their skin.
Mister Rogers started his television show because he knew that children needed to be loved. More than that: They needed to know they are worthy of love. The inexplicable viciousness of these attacks on children are one way in which we who are different are told we are not worthy. These attacks are coming from adults, or from children who learn this hatred from adults. It is shameful. It is unacceptable. And it is contrary to God’s command to all of us, which we hear most powerfully on this holiest of days.
In our public, civic life, we seem to have no way to talk to one another that is not nasty and hurtful. There seems to be no place today for civil discourse, for actually listening to someone else’s perspective and acknowledging it, even if you don’t agree with them. And the world of truthiness – a word coined in jest a few years ago by television satirist Stephen Colbert – has lost its irony in a deluge of outright lies.
Lies designed to divide us along racial or gender or religious lines. Lies designed to make us believe that if someone else’s life is improving, you are paying the price. Remember the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats? Now it’s shark week, every week of the year.
Columnist David Brooks describes this as the rise of the wolves – leaders who, he says, “don’t so much have a shared ideology as a shared mentality.” And that mentality, he writes, is this:
“Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.”
We are, Brooks writes, in a battle over how we establish relationship: We can do it either at a high level, “based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection” – or at a low level, “based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.”
“The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order,” Brooks writes, “is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power – at all levels – in order to re-inspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects – locally, globally, and internationally – that diverse people can do together.”
It is time to take back our neighborhood from the selfish and the brutal, from the bigots and the bullies. We need to step out of the echo chamber that recycles and dresses up old hatreds in new language, and step into a wind-tunnel that will blow all of that away and make room for fresh air.
Balloons and kind slogans are not going to cut it. We have to get into the difficult work of those common projects right here in our own neighborhood – projects that we diverse people can do together.
Our Temple family does what it can. Donating and packing nutritious lunches for at-risk neighborhood children through the Altoona Mountain Lion BackPack Program. Serving tasty home-made meals to neighbors in need at the Love Feast at Simpson Temple. Some of us volunteer at Habitat for Humanity – which recognizes the dignity and responsibility that come with home ownership. Others have helped rebuild broken-down neighborhood playgrounds, knowing that fresh air and exercise are good for both the body and the spirit. And the Jewish community has been, from the beginning, part of IDA – “Improved Dwellings for Altoona” – a faith-based non-profit that insures that over a thousand needy people in our neighborhood have a safe and healthy place to live.
We do all of this – and we must do much, much more – not because we feel like it but because God commands us to do it.
The Holiness Code – Chapter 19 of Leviticus from which we will read later today – commands us to care for the poor and the hungry, to speak with integrity and truth, not to pervert justice, not to spread lies about our neighbors.
It commands us not to oppress strangers – those who do not look like us, or who do not talk like us, or who do not come from the same background as us: “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens,” says God, “V’ahavta l’re-acha-kamocha. And you shall love them as yourself.”
We may take a cursory glance around our neighborhood and see almost all white faces. But just because we have few neighbors with brown or black skin, or few neighbors who speak a different native language than us – that does not absolve us from the task that God sets for us today.
As Mister Rogers himself taught, using the language that we Jews understand, “We are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.”
Fred Rogers made that public call for neighborliness in a special public service announcement created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, when Muslims and Arabs were under siege in this country. It was a time when, like today, racism and panic and the building of walls took hold among some among us, when what our neighborhood needed most was compassion and reasonableness and new bridges of understanding.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Home We Build Together, wrote: “The best way of breaking down barriers between people or communities is through simple, unforced acts of kindness. One act can undo years of estrangement.”
One act of kindness. How about if we start there? Let’s make it something brave and unexpected and simple, like Mister Rogers sharing his wading pool with Officer Clemmons. One act, when we can say to another human being, created in the image of God: “It’s you, yourself. It’s you I like.”
What a revolution we might start! What a neighborhood we might build.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment. And let us say together: Amen.
©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin