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How a viral protest photo gave this rabbi a chance to spread a message of hope

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell and his 9-year-old son Adin joined thousands of protesters at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Monday night to voice their disagreement with President Trump’s recent executive order on refugees and immigrants.

While he was there, Bendat-Appell met another father, Fatih Yildirim, who had brought his daughter, 7-year-old Meryem. Both children were sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, holding up posters and smiling at each other, when a Chicago Tribune photographer captured what would became a viral photo of them — two families, one Jewish, one Muslim — inspiring many people by the sign of solidarity and acceptance in a time when the country feels more divided than ever.

I spoke with Bendat-Appell, a program director at the Jewish Institute of Spirituality, about the protest experience, why that photo was so moving, and, as a father of three, what his thoughts are on teaching tolerance and empathy to children.

Nesima Aberra

What motivated you to attend the protest at O’Hare?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

We were really moved to participate in the protest and inspired by friends and colleagues and thousands of other people around the world who have gone out to protest these policies. We felt especially moved as a family to protest the recent immigration ban because we just feel so deeply in a time of greatest need our country should not be closing its doors to people. And really, from our perspective as Jews, this is a personal thing. My wife, her grandparents are refugees and survivors of the Holocaust. In our tradition, we are all connected, and we need to be aware of our own suffering and the suffering of people today. It didn’t feel extraordinary and heroic, just ordinary people standing up for what we believe is right.

We thought it was really important to bring our son, because he has been really concerned about the political situation and interested in what’s going on. When we asked him if he wanted to go to the protest, there wasn’t any hesitation. He was curious about what it was like and all for it. We want to teach our children that this is a tremendous responsibility we have as Americans to be really active parts of our democracy and speak up for what is right.

Nesima Aberra

Can you tell me more about the signs you were holding and the significance of the messages?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

My wife made the signs with our son. As they spoke about the protests, they really just tried to clarify what were our two core messages and the first one, “Hate has no home here,” is to affirm that we are standing up for love and not for hate. The second sign, “We’ve seen this before. Never Again. Jews against the ban,” again connects to our own particular story and our own sense as Jews of the responsibility to speak up at this moment. Also, one of the most beautiful things of the protest, besides meeting Fatih, there were a whole host of Muslim people who came to shake my hand and were curious to ask, “Why are you here as a Jew?” It was so beautiful to shake people’s hands and connect with them.

Another thing is I saw three other rabbis that I know and other Jewish friends at the protest, so there were so many other people from our community who were there, and we were really proud of that.

Nesima Aberra

What did you think of the response to the photo of you and your son with Fatih and his daughter?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

It’s been really pretty amazing to hear people’s responses. It’s been moving. When people see the photograph, they see the promise of hope and the possibility that ordinary people, parents, children, anybody can really in real ways bring light and love and connection into the world, even if there are reasons why we may feel that we need to be separate from each other.

Nesima Aberra

As a parent, do you think it’s important to include children in advocacy? What are the potential downsides?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

I think it’s important to talk to children in a way that doesn’t demonize anyone. We really didn’t want this to be about being against Trump, but for human rights, for people. We found our son could really understand that. Some of these issues touch upon fundamental issues of right and wrong that children certainly can understand, and I think it’s so important to involve our children in this work, so that they can really experience firsthand what it means to be a citizen of this country and play an active part in our democracy.

Nesima Aberra

What do you recommend for parents who are concerned about the negativity of the political discourse and don’t want it to affect their kids?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

There needs to be an appropriate balance, and it depends on the age and temperament of the kid. We try to strike that balance by talking about the issues and not increasing fear, but emphasizing the opportunities to advocate for what we believe in.

Nesima Aberra

What does empathy mean to you, and how do you teach that to your children?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

Empathy is a cornerstone of our spiritual practice, and it’s something we feel like we always have to be training in. As a family, we try to talk about understanding how other people feel. I know that for my wife and I, as adults, we are always striving to strengthen that.

There’s always the possibility that when we have experienced pain, we have the impulse when we’re in a position of power to put that pain on other people. But our tradition teaches us, our spiritual practice, that we also have the opportunity to really learn from our own experiences of pain when we are empowered to respond to others in pain. We see that as a moral obligation.

Nesima Aberra

Can you tell me about meeting Fatih at the protest and what your relationship has been like since that night?

Jordan Bendat-Appell

Fatih and I exchanged information, and I wanted to stay in touch well before any of this happened with the photograph. Yesterday, I invited him and his family for Shabbat dinner next week. Today, we spoke about my family going to visit him and his home. We’re also starting to think about how to bring our communities together and are hoping this will be the beginning of something, certainly of a personal friendship, and if it’s just that, I’ll feel really happy.

I want to add that ever since the election, I felt like one thing I could do better is just to connect with people outside of my own community. When we were at the protest, meeting Fatih and speaking with him and his family, I was thinking, such a nice guy, sweet family. My kids go to Jewish day school. They have no Muslim friends, so what a great thing it would be to connect our families. I think that’s something we all can do, reach out of our comfort zone and the confines of our communities and just meet new people.

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