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  • Tom Wolff

Bridge Building in Divided America: One Small Step in Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World

The following talk was given by HATH member Tom Wolff at the Jewish Community of Amherst on December 15, 2018. It follows the form of d’var torah—word of the book, or a ‘sermon,’ as part of the Saturday service.

I have been asked to talk about Hands Across the Hills, a project to bridge divides in our country through dialogue and community exchange. Our work brought together Leverett, Massachusetts and Letcher County, Kentucky. I will talk about the principles underlying this venture—as I see them from the point of view of today’s parsha (reading from the bible) and from my years of community building.

The setting of today’s parsha is a marvelous introduction for the work of Hands Across the Hills. The story tells of Joseph reconciling with his brothers, forgiving them for selling him into slavery years before. It is said to be the first recorded moment in history where one human being forgives another.

But reconciliation and forgiveness do not come easily. At first Joseph is cautious and suspicious. As he and his brother Judah circle and test each other, Joseph tries to understand: What do my brothers really want? Why now? Can I forgive them? Have they changed? When Joseph finds himself ready to forgive he breaks down and sobs.

It is a story of reunification and restoration of the family, the core community. And these themes apply to Leverett’s exchanges with Kentucky over the last year and a half. They can be seen as a counter force to the present American administration’s emphasis on creating divides and pitting one group against another. I hope you will hear in the story of HATH the emergence of small steps towards the reunification of our American family.

Gwen Johnson from Letcher County KY, describing anticipation of the visit to Leverett in October 2017, stated that she feared “that we would not be heard and that we would not be accepted. And the thing that I kept worrying about was that maybe you wouldn't be able to forgive us for voting for President Trump."

Gwen also said, “I was afraid it was another 'Save the dumb hillbillies' project. We've really been exploited many times by the media, who come and look at the very worst of the worst. When we were invited to this project by email, we decided to write in response—just asking what the motivation was." Despite her trepidation, Johnson said she knew “it was a conversation that needed to be had."

This points to a second area of forgiveness: those of us from the Northeast needed to carry the burden of what has been done to Appalachia over time by those from our part of the country—in terms of denigrating attitudes. Just as those of us who are white Americans need to carry the burden of white privilege and white supremacy as it applies to systemic racism, so do we have to lay claim to the elitist lens through which we have viewed Appalachia.

For me, the work of Hands Across the Hills is part of a lifetime of building healthy communities and bringing them together around their most pressing issues. In summarizing my decades of coalition-building in my book The Power of Collaborative Solutions, I wrote of six principles. The sixth, and hardest, principle for me to articulate was: “Engaging your spirituality as your compass for social change.” The spiritual qualities of acceptance, appreciation, compassion and interdependence are the real core that brings all of us together to work for the best interests of a whole community.

Acceptance involves seeing the fundamental humanity that we all share and recognizing the spiritual essence in each of us.

Appreciation involves honoring and being grateful for that which is. To be appreciative one must be present, thankful and take in the goodness.

Compassion has two components—the willingness and ability to open fully to the others, and wishing the others well.

Interdependence acknowledges our deep reliance on others and our links to all in the system. John Muir states that “when we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

And again in our work on Hands Across the Hills, these qualities—acceptance, appreciation, compassion and interdependence—drove the effort. This was made clear from the time our Kentucky visitors arrived in Fall 2017. After a thirteen-hour drive their van pulled into the parking lot of Leverett Town Hall. Both groups were on edge and did not really know what to expect. We invited the travelers into Town Hall, and, following the lead of Gwen and Ben from Kentucky, we all held hands in a circle and sang together. This was the beginning of the magic that was to follow.

At every turn we were often surprised by our own and their acceptance, appreciation, compassion and sense that we were in this together.

So how did this exchange come about?

In the wake of the 2016 United States Presidential election, many in Leverett were upset and angry. The media was promoting divisive partisan rhetoric which suggested deep divisions. We were being encouraged to see the “other” as different from ourselves and often as “evil” versus “good.” I myself had sent a letter to the editor of the Hampshire Gazette, recalling my father who had left Nazi Germany in 1938 telling me that what happened in Germany could happen here. As a cocky teenager I had said something like “No way.” But now with Trump it seemed a real possibility.

A small existing group, the Leverett Peace Commission, called the community to a meeting at the Leverett Library – about forty residents showed up. We formed work groups around sanctuary and protection of immigrants, building community, climate action, and building bridges—this last group ultimately became Hands Across the Hills. How powerful and healing a sense of community that gathering was for us! We could take action together to make a difference – no matter how small. In the midst of the hopelessness we were feeling this was an important first step. It gave us hope.

Our eighteen-member Bridging committee attempted to find a local Trump-voting community to engage with us, but we found none. Jay Frost connected with Letcher County KY through an online article by Ben Fink, an organizer for Appalshop, the 50-year-old media, arts and education center in Whitesburg KY. Ben Fink, originally from Connecticut, helped Letcher County develop the concept “We own what we make” as it strives for new economic development in contrast to the decades of the extractive coal industry.

I was shocked to learn that until recently when the mines mostly closed, the miners were paid in scrip – not cash. Scrip was good for use in the company store, and to pay the company rent, water and electric bills, etc. So “We own what we make” is the right slogan for the post-coal era.

Ben Fink was supported by a cast of very smart and strong local women and men.

Our entire Leverett group possessed amazing skills, commitment and open hearts. They included Paula Green, with many decades of experience in international dialogue and peacebuilding; John Clayton, Sharon Dunn and Jay Frost for writing skills; Stacey Lennard’s web mastery; my experience in community building. David Rabinovitz, a professional videographer, volunteered to document our work.

What happened is best understood by looking at the various levels of effect.

At the personal level: We developed greater and deeper understanding, appreciation, respect and even love for each other. This came through the dialogues, many conversations, and living with each other in our homes, singing and dancing together.

At the community level: We built a strong sense of community among our fellow Leverett Hands Across the Hills families. The Sunday night musical jam held when the Kentuckians visited led to more neighborhood musical gatherings in our town.

Letcher County folks reported changes as well: More tolerance for the differences within their community including within families, a greater commitment to their community, and an appreciation for their Leverett partners.

Hands Across the Hills also had an impact in the broader Western Mass area: Over 300 Valley and beyond residents attended our community presentation during the Kentuckians’ visit, and hundreds attended our follow-up forums. All left with hope that the nation’s divides can be healed and overcome.

People often ask: “Well, did you convince any of them to change their vote for Trump?” And the answer as far as we know is “No”: but that was not our goal (which probably contributed to our effectiveness). What we did do both in Kentucky and Massachusetts, is to increase deeply our mutual understanding, appreciation, respect, sense of community and, most importantly, even hope and love. These are the fundamentals of community building.

What are the lessons for others?

Hands Across the Hills counters the message that as a nation we are divided and angry with each other. To that end, we have disseminated our story through the support of the Washington DC- based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The Center funded a local journalist (our own Sabbath bongo player Richie Davis, senior reporter for the Greenfield Recorder) to accompany us to Kentucky in Spring 2018. His reports are posted on our website under Media. This fall Hands Across the Hills won the first domestic peacebuilding award from the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a network of international peacebuilders based in DC. The Hands Across the Hills project has now been covered in the Boston Globe and on NPR’s Here and Now, and has been filmed for European television.

A final story brings this all together.

When we visited Kentucky this past April, on Friday evening everyone in the Hands Across the Hills project gathered at the Hemphill Community Center, housed on the ground floor of an abandoned elementary school in the coal camp town of Neon. The Center was putting on its customary Friday night dinner and dance. Before dinner, though, our Kentucky hosts brought out a challah (provided by Ben, all the way from Ohio), candles and wine, and we proceeded to sing the Shabbat blessings. It was a moving experience, a complete surprise. I asked Nell, who had stayed with me and Peggy in Leverett, how this came about. She explained that when staying with families in Leverett, several Kentuckians had experienced candle lighting on Friday night. They wanted to honor us and also to share this special experience with their community—neighbors from nearby towns came especially to experience the Shabbat blessings.

Last month after the horrendous shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg one of the few emails I received was from Nell:

Hello Tom and Peggy,

I am so very sorry to hear of the horrific pain inflicted on the Jewish community and our nation once again by this awful act of violence in that synagogue. PLEASE know that it was even more painful to think about because I now know and love you all and feel this act so much more personally. I cannot imagine how this must affect Jewish people and communities everywhere.

My thoughts and prayers for Jewish communities everywhere.

May GOD bless and keep you both,


How well this note from Kentucky expresses the human connection, the bridging, Hands Across the Hills set out to foster.

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