A rabbi and a reverend engaged in an interfaith dialogue Monday about the causes and implications of historical catastrophes.

Rev. Luke Powery, Dean of the Duke Chapel, and Rabbi Raachel Jurovics, of Yavneh—a Jewish renewal community in Raleigh—said it is vital to reflect on tragedies like slavery and the Holocaust. Organized by the Duke Chapel, the discussion focused on both the loss and hope that catastrophes can bring and was moderated by WUNC Radio’s Frank Stasio.

“The catastrophes that are most difficult to understand are those like slavery and the Holocaust that are experienced by one group of people and generated by another,” Stasio said. “These experiences shine a light into the darkest corners of human history, but they also carry universal lessons of resilience and hope.”

Powery and Jurovics said that understanding African-American and Jewish cultures today requires understanding their respective pasts. They agreed that any accurate history of a people must include documentation of its suffering as well as its triumphs.

“It is a travesty of faith and reality to craft a narrative with only highlights,” Jurovics said. “You cannot feel a connection to God if you only acknowledge the good things that have happened.”

Powery added that suffering is paradoxical in that one has to embrace death on the path to life. To illustrate his point, he noted that slavery stripped Africans of their homelands, cultures and personas. But the spirituals—songs created by slaves that encompassed the range of their experiences—offered slaves a chance to reclaim their humanity, Powery said.

“Some have called the spirituals a nonviolent weapon that the slaves used to free themselves from psychological shackles,” Powery said. “They represent the attempts of a people who have nearly been destroyed to refashion their future.”

Powery said that where and how the spirituals were composed is unknown and that this communal origin is part of their miracle.

“What it means to be human is to be a larger part of humanity,” Powery said. “There is a strong sense of American individualism today, but churches continue to provide a sense of community and an affirmation of an individual’s worth.”

Jurovics also spoke about the importance of creativity in response to catastrophe. Even in the most desperate times, she said that the one thing that cannot be eradicated is humans’ creative impulse.

A number of Durham residents attended the discussion, enthusiastically participating in the closing question and answer session.

“This was a great discussion, but I want to go deeper,” said Rinah Rachel Galper, an attendee of the event. “Getting in touch with tears and despair is incredibly important, and religious institutions alone cannot always accomplish this.”

Another attendee, Ricki Friedman, was impressed by Powery’s and Jurovics’ diverse backgrounds but shared visions.

“The speakers came from very different histories, but they were talking about going to the same place,” Friedman said. “This place is one of equality and shared membership in the world community.”