This month, we’re certainly offering up, as ever, so many of the things that make our slice of Florida such a paradise. The latest fashions. Secrets of our high-end chefs. Ingenious artists. Glories of kayaking. But … looking around, you can’t help but be aware of some challenges we face. Like why we can’t seem to talk to each other about current issues anymore. And how the headlines seem dominated by reports of sexual harassment.
Thus, we’re addressing both. In “Talk to Me … Please?” we brought together six focus groups of people with diverse backgrounds and views to get at why communication is suffering and what we might do to improve it. In “#MeToo and Us” we report on the conditions of sexual harassment in Southwest Florida.
Along the way, I came across a story in each realm that addressed negative developments in positive ways. And I want to share these brighter perspectives even as we acknowledge the more sobering facts.
Learning to Stand Together
At 2 a.m. Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, a car slowing down on Pine Ridge Road in Naples riddled Temple Shalom’s sign with what the sheriff’s department described as blasts from a shotgun. This was just after the presidential election, and there had been anti-Semitic incidents and comments here and around the nation. Here, says Rabbi Adam Miller of Temple Shalom, “a woman with her grandson drove out of our lot when a truck pulled next to her and spewed out hateful remarks about Jews.”
So in the wake of the attack on the sign, Miller says, “we at Temple Shalom felt that, rather than just pointing to the negatives of the situation, we wanted to say, ‘This happened to us and we want to build solidarity out of it.’ I sent a letter to our interfaith partners that Saturday night inviting them and their congregants to a Shabbat of Solidarity at our temple. The next morning, the message went out all over town from their respective pulpits: ‘There is no us and them. Only us. We need to stand together against racism and bigotry.’”
Miller says the word spread like wildfire. Newspaper, TV and radio reports followed. “We realized the event was going to be far bigger than expected,” Miller says. “I got emails, phone calls, letters, probably more than a thousand of them from Jews and non-Jews.” One memorable message came from a non-Jew who offered to pay for the repairs on the damaged sign. As long as there are those who will do things like this, the man said, there are lovers of peace who will stand together against the hateful.
“We expected 400 to 500 people at our Shabbat of Solidarity,” Miller says. “We got 1,500, filling the sanctuary and spilling out onto the back patio. Cars were parked for a half-mile out in either direction on Pine Ridge Road. Several hundred more people watched online. There were faith and community leaders, including Mayor Bill Barnett, two imams, a Catholic priest and several ministers. More than 40 ministers joined together on the bema to sing Imagine together. The message: only ‘us.’”
Rabbi Miller says he got feedback for months thereafter from people saying what a powerful experience it had been for them. And he feels that this spirit has permeated the community. He points to an interfaith vigil (including members of his congregation) for a woman shot last August when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. On March 11 at his temple’s annual event, it will honor a non-Jew, Phil Beuth, for his work for the Immokalee Foundation. All in the spirit of speaking up for each other.
Watch What You Say
When Kellie Burns, renowned NBC2 anchor and contributing editor for Gulfshore Life, heard we were doing our “#MeToo and Us” piece, she said, with some passion, that she had a story to tell (as so, so many other women do as well). This dates back to July 1, 1995, when she went to do an interview for NBC2 with Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief John McCarthy. As Kellie recalls it, “He said to me, ‘I agreed to do this interview because I pictured you naked and had to see you in person.’ Maybe he didn’t realize the mic was live. My boss at the time was a woman, Chere Avery, and she was as offended as I was and we ran this segment on the air.” McCarthy was suspended and subsequently left the department.
The good news: Kellie says her current boss, Darrel Lieze-Adams, and co-anchor, Peter Busch, are intelligent, sensitive people, and the NBC2 newsroom has remained a progressive place to work for people of different genders, races, backgrounds and all.
In sum … a salute to Rabbi Adam Miller, Temple Shalom and NBC2. You’re getting the culture right, and that’s so critical in moving ahead in these sensitive areas and daunting times.