Thursday, February 21, 2013

Diverse city: Stamford demographics are reason to celebrate (Stamford Advocate Op-ed)

I've had the privilege of living in Stamford for 25 years. While the true natives will never consider me indigenous, I'm feeling more like a native all the time.

I was particularly interested to see The Advocate page-one story of Feb. 17, "Changing Tides," discussing the demographic shifts that have taken place in the public schools. I consider our splendid diversity to be among the most positive aspects of living here. But demographic heterogeneity, like biodiversity in an ecosystem, is fragile, and needs to be nurtured and carefully sustained in order to enrich the lives of all. My concern is that people fitting my demographic profile might read these statistics and choose to opt out of a community of unparalleled richness, for all the wrong reasons.

When you look at it objectively, there is simply no better place to bring up kids.

So much has changed in our city over the past quarter century, almost all of it positive. When I got here, no supermarkets were open all night, and, to be honest, there were hardly any supermarkets at all. When I got here, downtown at night was a dark, forbidding place, and it wasn't much better by day. Now it has become a mecca of entertainment and great food, pulsating with street life and youthful energy. Now we've got Chelsea Piers and the spectacular Mill River project and the Balloon Parade and "Alive @ Five," and it just keeps getting better.

Beyond its variety of age and ethnicity, Stamford has an unparalleled religious diversity too. Fifteen years ago, I became the first pulpit rabbi to serve as president of what was then called the Council of Churches and Synagogues of Lower Fairfield County. Back then, I considered it amazing that a rabbi could be warmly embraced in neighboring communities that have not always been so welcoming toward Jews. But now, interfaith cooperation has become the norm, and we've added Muslims, Hindus, Baha'i, Sikhs, Buddhists and others to the mix, and Spanish- and French-speaking congregations as well.

When we all get together, and we often do, the effect is spellbinding. On March 21, my synagogue will host our community's annual interfaith Seder, with this year's timely theme, "From Egypt to Sinai, Selma and Sandy Hook: Liberation from a Culture of Violence." At last year's Seder, we heard a Muslim talk about the figure of Moses in her tradition and members of a Spanish-speaking congregation talk about their recent pilgrimage to Israel. Such lessons in loving our neighbor cannot easily be taught in a homogeneous classroom. In Stamford, our diversity enables the city to become that classroom.

A few years ago I had an eye-opening experience as the rabbinic consultant to the all-city production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Students from every school in the city were in the cast, including public and private, parochial and day schools; a hundred of them on a single stage, kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Tevya was Catholic and two of his daughters were African American and Asian; yet as a story of Jewish wanderings and perseverance, it all seemed to make sense.

Both my kids have attended Westhill and thrived there, socially and academically. They have been able to go as far as they wished and most of their teachers have challenged them to do just that. They both got into their first-choice colleges; but more importantly, they have been prepared for life, real life, in a nurturing atmosphere respecting difference and embracing diversity.

I do alumni interviewing for Brown University, speaking to students from all over Fairfield County, which includes some of the top private schools in the nation, and I can tell you that the students from Stamford's public schools often top my list. Why? Because not only are they highly motivated and wonderfully talented, they are interesting. Why? They can recount tales of family migrations and insurmountable challenges surmounted, they project a passion for learning and an ability to view the American experiment from fresh eyes, and their diverse community has prepared them perfectly for the interconnected, fully integrated 21st century global environment they will be entering. Colleges recognize that.

Those students who spend their formative years in cloistered, homogeneous settings are, frankly, at a disadvantage when they get out into the real world, into an America whose demographic makeup is fast coming to resemble -- drum roll please -- that of the Stamford schools.

Let me make it clear that I see great value in private and parochial schools too. They are part of the fabric of a diverse community -- my kids attended a local day school for several years and they received a superb education. We need both options in order to attract the widest array of families here, and we have them. If the kids don't meet in the classroom, they meet at dance class or on the ball field. Diversity is for everyone, not just the public schools. So I encourage people to move to Stamford and, if they've already set down roots, to stay.

I recall words I spoke 20 years ago at Stamford's other congregation across town with the same name as mine, Bethel AME, noting that our collective name, derived from Jacob's famous dream, means "House of God."

"Stamford has two very different Beth Els who wish to bring the entire city to an understanding of how we can build that ladder to heaven. We can become a healing city, a place where all citizens feel sustained and nurtured in its midst. We can become an organic city, not of disparate neighborhoods and conflicting groups, but a collage where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. If we can come together, the rest of the city will have to follow. If they see that we can care for each other, we who are so different, we who still have somewhat differing agendas, but we who do care for each other, if they can see us holding hands, if we can pull this off, the rest of the city will take notice."

Over the past two decades, that vision has been, to a large degree, fulfilled. While we still have miles to go, I, who have brought up two children here, from infancy to college, have seen the great power this community has to nurture its children to adulthood. And that power begins with its schools.

Who would not want to live in such an amazing place?

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