‘We Are Living in a Time of Cracks’

Dialogue and Difference: Navigating the Impact on Cultural and Religious Identity in a Time of Conflict

“We are living in a time of cracks,” said Chaya Kessler, director of Kent State University’s Jewish Studies program. She was referencing the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen that says “There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

Kessler said, “We are living in a time where we are looking for the light. I feel like I live in a time of shadow that kind of follows me and sinks into my soul and I feel like I’m looking for the crack, so I can see the light.”

This program, part of the Dialogue and Difference: A New Understanding initiative, brought together university faculty from diverse backgrounds in an online panel discussion to share personal stories that highlight the challenges of recognizing and appreciating the differences in cultural and religious identities and heritage in times of conflict. The participants shared personal experiences and their perspectives on the importance of fostering empathy and understanding across religious divides.

Navigating in times of conflict graphic.


The panel

The discussion was introduced by Jaquelyn Bleak, an associate professor in Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies and then moderated by Sandra Morgan, director of strategic partnerships and outreach in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Rick Feinberg, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus who began teaching at Kent State in 1974. His decades-long studies have focused on cultural anthropology, specifically on Polynesian societies in the Pacific islands and native North America. His studies have taken him from studies in New Mexico and Kent to remote parts of the South Pacific, including Papua, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

Chaya Kessler has served as the director of the Jewish Studies Program at Kent State since 2010. As director she has enriched the student experience at the university by creating education-abroad trips to Israel and Poland and an annual bus trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Kessler also brought the Midwest Jewish Studies Conference to campus.

Babacar M’Baye, Ph.D., is a professor of Pan-African literature and culture and chair of the Department of English at Kent State. He studies African, African American and Caribbean literature and the intersections between these literatures in their original and new cultures. In recent years, M’Baye has immersed himself in the study of gender and sexuality in Senegal and in Senegalese populations outside of their home country. 

Lydia Rose, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Kent State University at East Liverpool. She enjoys embracing and incorporating emerging social issues into the classes she teaches, including environmentalism, health, violence and race. Rose is a passionate steward of the natural environment and had the opportunity to employ her expertise, firsthand, in studying the community impact of the train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio.

The discussion: Building valuable bridges

While he does not identify with any particular religion, as an anthropologist, Rick Feinberg has had experiences with a number of different religions and the blending of them in his studies around the world. While conducting research in the Solomon Islands, he observed a Polynesian community who attended Anglican services, but also perceived the world to be populated by non-Christian spirits. In another community, he said, “I had the opportunity to observe people casting magical spells on many occasions, and often, they concluded their spells with the words ‘In the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.’”

Rick Feinberg in the Solomon Islands
Rick Feinberg on the small island of Tohua, on the fringing reef of Taumako in the Solomon Islands. It is on this island, Feinberg says, that Lata, a great pan-Polynesian cultural hero, is said to have been born. 


Feinberg suggests that a solution for ethnic and religious animosity is to provide opportunities for people to interact constructively with others who are different than themselves. He said, “Getting to know others as human beings with love, hope, fears and aspirations can build valuable bridges.” He noted the importance of education in appreciation of differences in order to make the most of our encounters with others. “That’s what drew me into anthropology in the first place and has sustained me through a decades-long career,” said Feinberg.

Shaken by the events of Oct. 7

Chaya Kessler grew up in Israel and served in the Israeli Army. She said of the terrible events that happened on Oct. 7, she was “shaken to the core, not only as a Jew, but as an Israeli, on many levels.”

For her, the tragedy was so great that she could not contain it all. She could not contain all the names and the stories. So, she concentrated on the story of one person, a woman whose son was abducted, by following her on social media. Each day, as a way of coping with not knowing the fate of her son, the woman reads a psalm and says a prayer for the return of her son. It gives this mother strength, said Kessler.

Chaya Kessler
Chaya Kessler, director of Kent State's Jewish Studies Program. 


Kessler was overcome with emotion as she said, “We don’t know each other. I know the neighborhood where she lives. I’m a mother. I have children. My kids are older, but the pain is real.”

There are 150 psalms, and the mother has read one every day. After Day 150, she began to read Psalm 150 plus Psalm 1, plus Psalm 2. It is now Day 158.

“There’s a crack,” said Kessler. “I really believe we are in a period of cracks and darkness and we need to let the light in, with the hope.”

A story of a visionary leader in Senegal

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2011) of Senegal is recognized as the first African president to give his power away democratically to his prime minister, without a coup and without violence. Also, he was a Catholic in a nation in which 95% of the population is Muslim. For this, Babacar M’Baye said Senghor is “considered as almost like the father of the grandfather of the Senegalese people.”

Leopold Senghor of Senegal
Léopold Sédar Senghor, former president of Senegal and cultural visionary 


“He brought out in us the importance of cosmopolitanism, but also laicity, you know the separation of church and state,” he said. “But also the creation of a nation in which ethnicity and all other identities do not prevent people from coming together as a nation.”

“So, linguistic differences and ethnic differences, religious differences are important, but they should not prevent us from forming a country and nation brought together by solidarity, by hope and also by the spirit of sacrifices we made through many historical periods, from slavery and even before slavery,” said M’Baye.

He said that Senghor brought them the idea that there would be a point in civilization “when cultural differences would be transcended and humans would focus more on what they share together.”

M'Baye Babacar
M'Baye Babacar at Point des Almadies, a famous district in Dakar, Senegal's capital city in the westernmost point of Africa


“I was born Muslim,” he said. “But it doesn’t prevent me from identifying with the suffering of others and also form learning about other religions and other cultures and also learning about the values of those individuals who do not consider themselves as practicing any religion.”

A truly cross-cultural journey

Lydia Rose is from a mixed family. Her father was Italian and her mother was Mexican. “She wasn’t Mexican from Mexico,” Rose said. “She was from San Antonio, and if you know the history of San Antonio, it was annexed by the United States and all of the citizens who lived in the area became Americans. They became white Americans.”

At home, her family didn’t speak Spanish, they spoke English. “But it had the accent of my Dad’s Italian with the accent of my Mom’s Spanish,” she said.

Lydia Rose, with family.
Lydia Rose (left) with family members in Algers, Algeria, off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. 


Later, when she moved to California, Rose said that people would always ask “what you are.” “And the first thing I would always say is ‘I’m American, right?’ Almost in defiance, it was like a defiance thing,” she said. “You know, I know you can tell what I am and I don’t care. I’m not going to give it to you,” Rose said.

She was raised as a practicing Catholic and at a difficult time in her life, while working on her dissertation, she turned to her religion and asked “Why am I going through this?  I’m tired of this. I just want to find a spouse and live a happy life and just be a normal with kids and all of that. And my husband prayed the same thing. And we met each other just right after that prayer. We meet each other and we click. The only issue was that he was Islamic,” Rose said.

“But the good thing,” she said, “was that I had studied a lot of Islam because I studied social movements and you can’t study social movements in the United States without studying Islam. With all the scholars who were writing from the Islamic literature, I had read the Koran, so by the time I met my husband, I knew what Islam was about and I knew how it was.”

Rose saw the events of Oct. 7 and said that we have to understand the issues involved. She says “It’s really about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad and how do we take care of people. There’s always hope, because people are so creative. We can solve all kinds of problems, so hope is always there. We could get along with each other and learn to be tolerant of people’s differences and we have to share.”

Continuing discussion
After each of the panelists' presentations, there was a period for questions and interaction between the panelists. A recording of the entire panel discussion, along recordings of other Dialogue and Difference events can be found by following this link.

Navigating in times of conflict


About the program:

Dialogue and Difference: A New Understanding is a year-long initiative that will engage our Kent State University community and advance our core values of freedom of expression, respect and kindness in all that we do. The Division of People, Culture and Belonging is partnering with the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and the Division of Student Life to deliver a series of educational programs that will feature diverse perspectives and aims to help us better understand each other.

Programs will be added throughout the year. Follow Division of People, Culture and Belonging social media and Faculty/Staff News Now for updates.  

Upcoming programs:

Understanding and Combating Antisemitism
Rabbi Michael Ross March 19, 2024
12:30 p.m. Virtual
Register Now

Rabbi Michael Ross will explore a brief overview on the role of antisemitism and its impact on the Jewish community.

He has been the senior Jewish educator at Hillel, an adjunct instructor in the Jewish Studies department at Kent State and Siegel College, and the pulpit rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom, in Hudson for the past six years. He will be teaching "Hebrew Bible as Literature" this fall at Kent State.

Understanding and Combating Islamophobia
Lydia Rose, Ph.D. March 19, 2024
4 p.m. Virtual
Register Now

Anti-Muslim discrimination, prejudice and oppression has a history tied to colonialism and internal colonialism. Rose will describe the basic tenets of Islam and situate Islamophobia within the context of the racial formation literature in sociology. This session will include a brief timeline of Islam and Muslim-Americans in U.S. society beginning with Muslims in American from enslavement practices beginning in 1619, the rise of the Nation of Islam and key American figures such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, MENA and Asian immigration waves, to the 9/11 attacks, the implementation of the “Muslim-ban” during the Trump years, and current conflicts in the Middle East. The rise in visibility of American Muslims in our country has brought on a new wave of hate crimes and anti-Muslim sentiment. Combating Islamophobia is part of the movement to be anti-racist and overcome structural racism. 
Rose brings her scholarship and expertise to enhance understand anti-Muslim sentiment and the strategies in combating Islamophobia. 

POSTED: Tuesday, March 12, 2024 04:41 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2024 12:23 PM
Phil B. Soencksen
Photos provided by program speakers and Kent State's Division of People, Culture and Belonging