Exclusive interview:
NYU International Relations Professor builds bridges with Crown Heights neighbors

NYU Adjunct Professor for International Relations Roy Germano tells Arutz Sheva about his work and impressions from visiting Crown Heights.

Mordechai Sones ,

Roy Germano
Roy Germano
Courtesy Roy Germano

NYU Adjunct Professor for International Relations Roy Germano lives a few blocks from the hasidic Jewish community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His work in bringing different perspectives to contemporary conflicts was instrumental in bringing him closer to the local Jewish community after witnessing recent violence directed towards his neighbors, by his neighbors. Arutz Sheva asked him why he does it, what it taught him, and how he sees his future role.

Please tell us something about yourself, and what in your background may have spurred you to explore a culture foreign to you in general, and the Crown Heights Lubavitch community in particular?

"I’ve been curious about other perspectives and cultures for as long as I can remember. Prior to making videos with the Chabad community, I spent many years in Mexico and Central America doing research on the root causes of migration to the United States. That research resulted in a film called The Other Side of Immigration, a book called Outsourcing Welfare, and a documentary series called Immigrant America. I was initially drawn to the immigration issue because I was shocked by all the xenophobia I was seeing in the U.S. It’s a big problem here. I wanted to make films and write books that would put a human face on this highly charged issue.

"Something similar happened with the Chabad community in Brooklyn. About a year ago I started noticing news reports about a spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in Brooklyn, particularly in Crown Heights, where I live. I realized that after living in Brooklyn for ten years, I had never had a conversation with anyone from the Hasidic community. But the rise in hate crimes made me realize that no matter our differences, more people from my side of the neighborhood should be standing united with our Jewish neighbors during this difficult time."

How did you first meet Yoni Katz?

"Last summer, shortly after noticing all the news about the increase of hate crimes in Brooklyn, I read an article in a local newspaper about Yoni. It talked about the tours he was giving of his community in Crown Heights and the work he was doing to promote unity through a project called Unite the Beards. I was intrigued and thought that going on his tour could be a good opportunity to build a bridge and get to know my neighbors. I really enjoyed the tour, and Yoni and I stayed in touch in the weeks after. We’d meet for coffee and have some great conversations. After about two months of hanging out, we decided on a whim to make a video about the process of getting to know each other. There was no plan, just walk and talk and stand together during this difficult moment."

Have your personal views changed since beginning this project, and how?

"They have. I’m not Jewish. I’m not religious in general. It’s always been hard for me to understand why anyone would make religion the center of their life. But in the course of getting to know Yoni, I’ve come to recognize the value of religious practices in ways that I hadn’t. I now appreciate how they can foster a sense of community and bring joy, hope, and a sense of purpose to people’s lives. These are all things that secular people could use more of."

What has been your single greatest surprise? Disappointment?

"Perhaps that’s been my biggest surprise—that I’ve come to see the value of religion in a way that I hadn’t previously. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that in coming to appreciate these religious traditions and commitments, I’ve also seen how naturally they create bright lines between groups of people. We just have to make sure that those bright lines don’t stop us from trying to get to know each other.

"I understand how challenging that can be if you believe with all your heart that the teachings of your religion are the only true way. But I think the world is better off if there’s a two-way exchange—an effort from all parties to see and understand the world through other people’s eyes, even if you disagree with them on fundamental questions. That’s really at the heart of my philosophy: It’s okay to disagree and hold different views. In the end, we’re all human beings who deserve love, recognition, and respect."

As an Adjunct Professor at NYU for International Relations, do you see local community relations as a microcosm for international relations, and if so, what have you observed that could be extrapolated to benefit the cause of peace between nations?

"If individuals learn about each other and learn to empathize with each other, there should be more trust and more desire to compromise and coexist peacefully. We don’t have to agree on everything to get trust and peaceful coexistence. The need for more empathy is why I think international travel and cultural and educational exchange are so important.

"The problem, however, is that some politicians and group leaders derive a lot power from conflict. So they use their platforms to stoke fears, scapegoat, and fuel mistrust. That’s a difficult force to overcome. But I’m optimistic that if we promote empathy at the individual level, it will aggregate and possibly change how our leaders and our nations interact."

Do you see your role in this project more as a reporter or an activist?

"This feels different than journalism and activism. A reporter would try to tell the whole story and get different perspectives. I’m obviously not doing that here. An activist is fighting for a particular cause. I’m not necessarily doing that either, although I hope the videos play some small role in reducing anti-Semitism. But really my goal is to listen and learn and build bridges with neighbors."

Have you considered visiting Israel as a continuation of this project? Do you see any future for yourself in conflict resolution given your skill in bridging and facilitating understanding?

"I’ve never been to Israel, but I’d love to visit and capture the experience on camera. Do you know any sponsors? And yes, I’m interested in conflict resolution. One of my strengths is the ability to empathize and understand different sides of an issue. I encourage your readers to reach out to me through my website if they think there’s any issue or conflict that I can assist with."