Perhaps because of our shared histories of slavery and injustice, the Jewish and African-American communities have always been intertwined, whether we are marching together for civil rights or, unfortunately, at odds with each other. One incident from my adolescence stands out in my mind . . .

The year was 1960, and at 17 I had my first after-school job working on the outskirts of Boston in a coat factory. My coworkers were mainly African-Americans, and suffice it to say I felt quite intimidated being the only white Jewish girl in a strange environment. The Jewish and African-American communities have always been intertwinedStill, I met enough interesting—though volatile—characters to make the time go by during what was otherwise very boring work. One day, however, would be etched in my adolescent memory forever.

I went to work straight from school on the long trolley ride. I arrived a few minutes late, having stopped to unobtrusively daven the afternoon prayer in a then still-existing phone booth. When I entered the factory, even before reaching the coat-sorting room, I heard angry shouts, banging and desperate cries. I sneaked in between the waving fists and went to my designated pile of coats. From the corner of my eye, I caught the gist of the argument. Two burly, muscular men were fighting over the affections of a beautiful, slender young woman. One of the men, whose explosive character I had noticed on earlier days, went into a huddle with a few of his friends. I heard him murmur something like, “Okay, guys, this is gonna be the end for him and all his pals. No one messes with my girl and gets away with it. Bring your weapons in tomorrow.”

I took a deep breath and almost swooned from the drama. To my sheltered existence, it was like being on a live movie set—only it was real life! I went home and imagined myself in some heroic role. I had always been sensitive to stories of confrontations and injustice, in both my religious and secular subjects. I was deeply moved by plays like Antigone and A Man for All Seasons, where people stood up for what they believed in. My Torah heroes were Moses, who defended the Jews, and David, who battled with wild beasts to save his flock and with a giant to save his people.

I was up half the night wrestling with myself. Could I, an orphan living on welfare, do anything at all to stave off the potential gang war that could erupt tomorrow? Till that point, I had basically kept to myself and didn’t really know much about any of my fellow employees—their lives, their culture, their way of resolving issues . . . But it could not have been an accident that I was there and overheard the argument. One thing I believed more and more from my recent exposure to chassidic teachings was that we could see the hand of divine providence everywhere, if we took the time to look.

When Moses was at the burning bush, the Torah says, “He turned to see,” and Rashi comments that he said, “I will turn from here to get close to there.” Imagine what would have happened if he had just went on his way and ignored the whole scene—maybe we Jews would not be here to talk about it! We all need, at times, to turn from our comfort zone toward something new and unexpected. As G‑d introduced Himself to Moses, “I will be what I will be.” The future is what we make of it, with G‑d’s help.

This was the kind of self-talk I gave myself most of the night. At school the next day I was simultaneously tired and wired, and I could barely wait for school to be over. With a pounding heart I crept into the coat factory. Sure enough, as if no time had passed, the yelling and the brandishing were escalating. I heard angry shoutsI think I said the 23rd Psalm to myself before I got up the nerve to walk over to the gang leader who had planned the battle. I knew he was powerful and hot-tempered, but what did I have to lose? I strained my neck and looked straight into his eyes. I had a plan; I had to act. And if he resisted like Pharaoh, so be it.

I began, “Is this the only way you can think of to handle this?”

He looked down at me as if I were one of the grasshoppers in Canaan. “And how would you ‘handle’ this?” he said sarcastically.

“Well”—here I paused, more from fear than dramatic effect—“‘I would write a letter.”

“A letter? What the #$%@ would that do? What would I say, and who should it go to?”

“I think you should write one to your girlfriend, and maybe even one to the other guy.”

“What the #$%@ would I say?”

“Just tell her how you feel about her hanging out with the other guy, and how much you care about her! And you can tell the other guy that you don’t appreciate him taking your girl away from you!”

I could see he was actually thinking about it, but he was shaking his head at the same time. Uh, oh, what’s wrong now? I thought to myself. He bent his head ominously toward mine. I cringed. He looked around to make sure no one else could hear him. “I . . . I . . . can’t write . . . I never learned . . .”

Oy, this was not part of my plan. Then I recalled Moses’ words. I believed that Moses was also murmuring to me, “You must turn from here to go there.” And it was as if Moses’ family was encouraging me too. Yocheved, mother of Moses, who was born at Egypt’s border because she had to transmit to her son how to live in two worlds, how to find a path to freedom even when feeling the pains of slavery. Aaron, who was the great peacemaker between couples and friends who had become estranged. And most of all, Miriam, who at five years old defied not only Pharaoh, but even her own parents when they separated. Miriam had walked right up to the most prominent couple in the Israelite camp and told them straight to their faces, “Your decision not to have children is worse than Pharaoh’s decree. He wants to eliminate the boys, but you’re preventing both boys and girls from being born!” Her courage and confidence spurred me on.

Okay, Miriam, I can do it.

“Fine, no problem,” I finally responded out loud to the young man. “I’ll help you write it.” I motioned to him to follow me to a hidden corner of the factory, where there was a stool big enough to lean on. I pulled out a notebook from my school bag, took out a few pens and pencils, and began. “Okay, shoot . . . I mean, speak your mind.”

Everything calmed down in the factory after that. I know that my life matteredI felt empowered, after that event, to handle whatever situation came my way, with G‑d’s help. And from then on, I knew with more resolve than ever that my life mattered—that all life mattered.

Years after my own foray into conflict resolution, New York City Mayor David Dinkins visited the Rebbe after the Crown Heights riots in 1991. The Rebbe blessed him, “May G‑d Almighty bless you to have good news, and to use all your influence in a quiet atmosphere, and much success.”

Dinkins responded, “Well, thank you, I shall do that. I’m confident that with the good people of all our communities—”

“Both sides.”

“—Both sides—we will come together and do those things necessary to protect everyone.”

The Rebbe added, “And to forget that it is ‘both sides.’ It is one side, one people . . .”1

The Rebbe’s sentiments echoed my own experience, that when you take the time to understand another’s culture and point of view, you see how similar you really are. Beneath the conflict, the humanity shines through.