A black guy and a Jewish guy walk into Reeves Theater at Seton Hill University (SHU). Rather than a punchline, the result of this rather comedic event was a productive dialogue about race and diversity in the United States, co-sponsored by the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE) and Westmoreland County Community College’s (WCCC) Cultural Programming and Diversity Committees.
The theater was nearly full on Feb. 27, with almost 106 students and community members of all ages. According to Larry Jay Tish (the Jewish half of the show), the audience was older and more diverse than most colleges they have visited, creating a “great space with great energy.”
“Laughing across cultures allows you to widen circles of empathy and even maybe save the world,” said Andrew Barnett, dean of Public Services/Humanities/Social Sciences and chairman of the Diversity Committee at WCCC, in his opening address.
The show, which is up for Campus Activities Magazine’s “Best Diversity Program in America,” went from silly bouts of costume theater and rapping to serious arguments about race relations and what it really means to be a minority in America. Audience members were warned that “racy language” and “racial epitaphs” would be used.
“History is the same atrocity-filled story for all minorities. America is our last best shot at getting it (racial relations) right,” said Tish.
The main message of the show, according to Ron Jones (the black half of the show), is that “if you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at anyone else.”
Set against the backdrop of the historical partnering and rifts of blacks and Jews, the show made it clear that all minorities are at the mercy of a non-majority group’s stereotypes and fears. The men disagreed on some differences between their cultures’ struggles, but in the end agreed to “take opinions for what they are and be honest with each other.”
“If you don’t recognize the totality of your cultural story, the good, the bad and the ugly, you’re flat out lying,” said Tish.
The show was developed by Tish and Jones after 9/11 when they began witnessing the same fear and blame game that has been happening for years develop against the Arab community, but for both men the program has deeper personal meanings.
Tish admitted to being a rather “selfish” and “lethargic” person in college. After marrying a daughter of a Holocaust survivor and becoming a buddhist (technically a BuJew), Tish started believing that he “had the power to tilt the world.”
“From my own experience, living is more enjoyable when helping others. Take whatever intelligence and heart you have to work with and have forbearance. Continue, don’t give up,” Tish said.
“I believe in employing human resources. We are squandering great human potential by blaming and ostracizing instead of reaching out,” said Jones.
He suggests that if students are overwhelmed by the amount of change that needs to be done, they should “narrow their lense.”
“Calm down. It’s not that big. No one person can solve all the problems, but they can solve one problem. Start with what’s closest.”
WCCC contacted the NCCHE to co host this event because of their focus on Christian -Jewish relations and the venue capabilities SHU has to offer. The two met with many who were involved in the planning the event for dinner.
“The men were clearly very passionate about the subject of diversity and understanding culture. They said they hope to return to SHU next year and we certainly hope they do,” said Rachel Hursen, junior communications major and NCCHE intern.