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I moved to Reading five years ago when I was looking for a new residence closer to extended family and my adult children. I spent the first 3 years here commuting north to a teaching job I would eventually retire from.
My retirement coincided with COVID, and so I spent a couple of years watching and waiting for a chance to find real community here in town. After learning about Reading’s efforts to create an office of equity and inclusion, I was excited. With so much divisiveness permeating our culture, I was looking for a way to ‘plug in’ to my new hometown and help create paths toward understanding and accepting differences.
When a new friend told me the town was going to get a menorah to display along with holiday lights on the common, I watched the select board meeting of November 17 with interest.
At the meeting, I saw a comprehensive explanation of how to create space for such displays without creating legal problems and in a spirit of inclusivity. Questions were asked, and there seemed to be consensus among members of the select board that a menorah would be a welcome addition to the town display. The fact that there were lighted trees, wreaths, and other Christmas-themed decorations around town led me to assume there was a tree somewhere.
Then I was informed that there would be a special meeting on Nov 21st to discuss holiday decorations and ways to make this season more inclusive. “Yay,” I thought, “this is a great chance for unity and healing since incidents of anti-Semitism haunt Reading schools, our state, and our country.”
I went to the meeting and arrived to find a rather sizable crowd there. Hopeful that it would be a time of cooperation and welcome, I took a seat to hear our townsfolk speak.
As soon as the first speaker rose, a woman to my right started filming with her phone camera. I could hear her mumbling swear words and calling the lawyer explaining the context of the proposal “an idiot.” Next to her, a woman stood with a giant white flag with a cross on it. “This is America!” someone whisper-yelled.
“What is this?” I wondered. “Why are these people so mad?” I didn’t get it at all. I hadn’t heard anyone say there couldn’t be Christmas, just could there also be a celebration of Hanukkah.
Almost everyone who spoke said they welcomed having a menorah and a tree. Everyone said they wanted to show inclusion and unity, but that’s not at all how it felt. There was a subtext and an agenda that was very subversive and not at all friendly. I wondered how the Jewish people in town felt about a Christian flag being waved at them. I wondered why people were being jeered at and name-called. How did we get here in a matter of days?
Misinformation! Rumors! Assuming wrong-doing! That’s how it happened. Somehow, the telephone game got played, and so did we.
I want to live in a town that has the courage to stand for peace. I want to live in a town where people can coexist without thinking that being more inclusive of others means they’re somehow being erased. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Some people expressed that we should have nothing representing the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, so we didn’t exclude other people. “If we can’t include everyone, let’s exclude everyone,” I interpreted.
I left the meeting sad and discouraged. I felt the pain of my Jewish friends who had the audacity to hope that they might finally have their beautiful symbol of sustaining light and peace grace our town common. I felt the sting of shame familiar to me when my own naivety about human goodness is tested by a riled-up crowd looking for a fight, not unity.
When will we come together for humanity and love? What will it take to trust that our neighbors aren’t looking to ‘cancel’ you because they want to be included? This life is too short to be short-sighted, and these issues are too important for us to be ill-informed.
The majority vote was for a tree and a menorah to be placed beside each other on the common. It was a victory that felt bittersweet because of the contentious climate in which it was considered.
I pray that we will all visit these symbols of joy, love, peace, and unity and imbue them with the strength to heal these wounds of division. Whatever lies at the root of this mistrust can be dealt with if we want to try. Both Jews and Christians are asked to love their neighbor, and I’d like to see us try.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” John Lennon, Imagine