From the Rabbi - June & July 2012 Print

Dear Friends:
A few weeks ago I visited a museum exhibit on the campus of Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS.  Tougaloo is a historically Black school founded shortly after the Civil War to give newly-freed slaves access to higher education.  The exhibit was called “Beyond the Swastika and Jim Crow: Refugee European Jewish Scholars at Black Colleges.”

I had known that a number of Jewish scholars had escaped European death during the 1930s and had found research and teaching positions in the U.S.  That some of them ended up at Howard University and Fisk University and Tougaloo was a new insight for me, but at least I had known the general outlines of what had happened.  I also, of course, knew about the sordid history of race relations in the American South during these years, so the exhibit should not have surprised me.

But it did.  Seeing pictures of the KKK marching in their robes and reading letters of rejection because the applicant was Jewish or because he or she was a white person applying to teach at an all-Black school – this shocked and moved me in ways that I certainly did not expect.

Later, I thought about the impact seeing these familiar images had on me.  Maybe it was the setting; seeing them at Tougaloo might have intensified my reaction.  But more than that, I think that my emotional response of shock and dismay caused me to recognize how desensitized we have become to scenes of carnage, oppression, prejudice and destruction.  Perhaps this began over forty years ago when live scenes of Southeast Asian warfare were daily broadcast to the televisions next to our dining tables and into our bedrooms, all in living (or dying?) color.  Remember Platoon and Apocalypse Now?  Today, we hardly react at all.

 -A fourteen year-old boy shot at a fifteen year-old enemy in New Orleans, but the bullet killed a nine year-old girl by accident.  Pass some more coffee.

 -Two people were killed in a motorcycle wreck on SPID last night.  Have you finished with the sports pages yet?

 -Another dead homeless man was found this morning under the Leopard Street overpass.  What time will you be home from work?

 -Eighty more Syrian civilians were massacred and mutilated yesterday by government artillery.  Ho, hum.  What else is new?

The narcoticized syndrome that has developed in the last four decades ought to be called VIET NUMB.  Many, perhaps most of us are incapable of reacting to the horror and repulsive offenses that crowd the daily Metro section of the newspaper and the hourly news on TV.  We have become so numbed by the onslaught of violence that has been our daily diet since the VN war that we remain unstirred by even the most terrible of tragedies.  And unresponsive, we are all-the-more unable to think that there might be something we could do to diminish the disaster, to alleviate the pain or to lessen the chance of recurrence.

Here are a few simple activities that you might consider as steps to resensitize yourself to the human tragedies among which we live – tragedies that ought to shock and appall us, but which leave us largely unmoved.

As you read the Caller-Times tomorrow morning, take a piece of paper and make a mark on it for every crime, every injury, every death.  If there are two or more victims in the same story, make a mark for each person.  When you are done, consider the total and its implications – and how often in the past you’ve read similar reports without reacting.

Take a drive through some of Corpus Christi’s less-desirable neighborhoods.  Look at the houses and at the people.  What did you see that you never saw before?
Spend part of a day volunteering at the Good Samaritan Mission on Alameda Street or at the Corpus Christi Food Bank.  Keep you eyes and ears open.  Talk to some of the staff about the clients and try to grasp the reality of their lives.

If you discover that you’ve become VIET NUMBed – and nearly all of us have – become more self-aware and then find some small way in which your revived sensitivity can be put into action.  You can’t save the entire world, but you can make a difference.
   Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi