A Place to Hide

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Associate Professor Counselor Education Central Michigan University

I have been sitting shiva with my Jewish daughter-in-law and her family. She quite suddenly lost her sister to a very malignant Cancer and the loss of a young, vibrant, talented woman has brought us all closer in this time of grief. But compared to what is happening in the Middle East our loss seems at least explainable. So much of what I read and hear concerning the sudden and violent deaths in the Middle East seems beyond explanation. Although I am wanting and trying to understand.

Ed Beck asked me to write as a non-Jewish counselor educator about what being a member of SPME has meant to me personally. At first I was reluctant to write. I know so little. I can only speak from my heart. I’m afraid that I may inadvertently offend someone with my comments, and I’m afraid that I have nothing worthwhile to say. So many of the members seem very well-versed on the situation in the Middle East and I am truly a student in this area. I print out much of the information through the SPME digests and share it with my husband. We are novices, beginning to learn and beginning to understand.

Why did I join SPME? Throughout my life there has been an on-going “flirtation” with Judaism. That’s the best way I can explain it. My grandparents, who both died when I was a child, used many yiddish phrases that I have recalled throughout my life. Very early in my life, I was aware of the Holocaust and remember my parents talking about a “place to hide the Jews” as animportant and significant part of a home. In college in 1960, I went to hear a speaker on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. The speaker was Palestinian and the pain he spoke of stayed with me over the years, although I understood little of his lecture. An elderly client of mine worked in the Dutch Resistance and shared many of her experiences with me. It was apparent that all that she did and all that she witnessed had left deep wounds and big scars on her psyche. Anne Frank of my childhood reading was now exemplified by a warm, wonderful human being fighting to remain mentally healthy with my help.

I grew up in a community with a synagogue, but went to schools where I knew only one Jewish girl. She refused to say The Lord’s Prayer in an 8th grade English class, and I admired her and felt badly that the teacher tried to disgrace her in front of the rest of us. Even then I asked “why on earth were we saying it in unison in a public school English class?”

At Northwestern, I had a Jewish roommate, and we were so into our studies and our social life, that we rarely discussed religion or heritage. However, she invited me to her home where I met her grandfather who was a Rabbi. I was very impressed by this scholarly, gentle and wise man who welcomed me into his study. I attended services at a synagogue because my non-Jewish boyfriend sang in the hired choir and I loved the music. I still have several records of their Cantor that I could listen to for hours. I nodded in agreement when I heard a Rabbi say recently that he regretted the loss of the musicas modern trends moved away from deeply held and felt traditions.

I recalled the people at the synagogue who shared their books with me with tattooed numbers on their arms and tried to help me read in Hebrew.

As a counselor, I have had a few Jewish clients who have taught me much about being Jewish in the 21st Century in small town America. As a graduate student, I had Jewish friends who invited me into their homes and their hearts. At Central Michigan University, the Jewish population is 120 out of an enrollment of 16,000. Hillel does not have many members, but they are very active and tell me that CMU is a welcoming environment for Jewish students. There are 3 courses offered in Jewish studies and a study abroad program with Haifa and Ben Gurion Universities. There are vegetarian dining alternatives in the cafeterias and Kosher food is available locally according to the Jewish Student Organization. These seem like such small accomodations in a largely non-Jewish community. That the students are so appreciative adds to my feelings of existential guilt.

What has SPME done for me? It has made me more aware and more eager to learn. I cringed in embarassment when my new Jewish Dean’s first meeting on campus was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah. I “noticed” when several Michigan Universities reported students demanding that their schools divest themselves of their interests in Israel. [One of thetruths about being in the majority is that vision is selective and based in one’s privileged position.] I am grateful for my “virtual” relationship with Ed Beck who I have never met, but who I admire and appreciate as a dear mentor and friend. Ed has been supportive and has encouraged me to participate and to learn. He has been a wise teacher explaining patiently what I really ought to have learned by this time in my life!

When I have met with my daughter-in-law’s large and gregarious family and have listened to them earnestly debate the Jewish faith, the Jewish culture, the “Road to Peace”, I have felt such warmth, knowing that these are healthy, vocal and concerned Jews who do not need a hiding place!

Nevertheless, when we built our home, we incorporated accessible but hidden spaces [hiding places] as a memorial, as a remembrance, and as a sign that we are one with victims of evil everywhere. I have explained this to my children [and now to my grandchildren] and they have continued with this tradition. It is our own personal reminder to stay aware and to care.


Mary Lee Swickert

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