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Mary Gendler: A life of peaceful protest

It was during an audience with the Dalai Lama the very next month that the Gendlers suggested the Tibetans might have more success if they learned new ways to struggle nonviolently.

Great Barrington — Mary Loeb Gendler exudes patience. This quality is evident in the lush, secret gardens she has been cultivating in the shadow of Monument Mountain for the past 40 years; it is evident in the exquisite color photographs that grace the walls of her home, works of art that she not only shoots but also prints. Perhaps her patience is most evident when considering the 26 years she waited to pursue her lifelong dream, one she possessed at the tender age of 23, which was to work her way around the world. “I think, for me, the out-of-doors is my spiritual place; it always has been,” said the 78-year-old, who has hiked Machu Picchu, trekked through Asia and the Middle East, and made more than 23 visits to Dharamsala, India, to promote strategies for nonviolent resistance among the Tibetan exile community.

Upon her graduation from Stanford University, the young Mary Loeb had big plans; with a college degree and two years spent living in France under her belt, she was determined to work her way around the world. It was 1963 when Loeb — who describes herself as a dutiful daughter — got a call from her father, summoning her back to Kansas City where her mother was not well. Loeb found life in the Midwest to be rather dull and, to fill her time, she began dating an assistant rabbi at her family’s temple. On an otherwise unremarkable evening, she attended a lecture being given by another young rabbi — who was in town from Princeton, New Jersey — based on his experiences with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. His name was Everett Gendler, and Loeb remembers thinking it was “the most interesting thing to hit Kansas City in 23 years.” Loeb was immediately drawn to Gendler. His activism echoed the influences of Reform Judaism, under which she had grown up, where the focus was not on ritual, but rather the Prophetic tradition of challenging tyranny, poverty, oppression and war. “The importance of social justice is really what I imbibed from my Jewish upbringing,” said Loeb, and “this is how [Everett and I] met.” For the girl who had long been considered the rebel at home and at school, Mary Loeb did something terribly conventional: She married a member of the clergy — not her date to the lecture in Kansas City, but the very man whose lecture she had gone to hear.

Suffice it to say, Mary Gendler’s path was irrevocably altered as a result of her auspicious meeting with Rabbi Everett Gendler. “I was headed for Japan,” Gendler said, half joking. “Instead, I became a rabbi’s wife in New Jersey.” Speaking with great candor, Gendler explained, “I had not been active politically, but that’s where all my instincts were.” In 1964, the same year the Gendlers were married, they traveled to Selma, Alabama, where they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in what Mary Gendler called “a very powerful experience.” Despite the couple’s shared commitment to social justice — they protested nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and were staunch supporters of civil rights — they led a wildly different life and, by 1968, Gendler was the mother to two young daughters. “I felt as though I had disappeared,” she said of a period in her life during which she suffered from depression and struggled with how to change her situation.

Gendler emphatically cites the women’s movement as shaping her as an individual. “It spoke to me,” she recalled, of joining women’s groups and writing about her own experiences as a Jewish woman. It was during this time that she found her voice, speaking on women and Judaism — a tradition that largely negates women. “That was the beginning,” she recalled, of a concerted effort to take off and save the world. “I was using my mind again,” she said, “coming out into the world.” Gradually, things became more equal in their home and Gendler went back to school. After her own experience in therapy, she enrolled in several classes at Boston University — where she ultimately earned her Ph.D. — in the midst of a successful 25-year career as a psychologist.

The Dalai Lama, Mary Gendler and Rabbi Everett Gendler light candles together on the first night of Chanukah in 1995. Photo courtesy Mary Gendler

Fast-forward to 1995. Upon the Gendlers’ retirement and unclear as to what they might do next, the couple returned to Asia where their wanderings eventually led them to Tibet, a country Mary Gendler had longed to see. It was the plight of the Tibetan people, whose land had been invaded and taken over by the Chinese, that ultimately inspired the Gendlers on a path that would sustain the couple for the next two decades. They knew that the Dalai Lama had told the Tibetans that their struggle to regain freedom must be nonviolent, but that they were having little success. It was during an audience with the Dalai Lama the very next month that the Gendlers suggested the Tibetans might have more success if they learned new ways to struggle nonviolently. “That was the beginning,” recalled Gendler.

“There were not a lot of rabbis dropping by Dharamsala,” said Gendler, noting the serendipitous date of their audience with the Dalai Lama — the first day of Chanukah, a season that is all about miracles and nonviolence. The trio made a makeshift menorah out of a Tibetan brass bowl, several beads and two candles; as the Gendlers lit the Chanukah candles with the Dalai Lama, they recited a particularly poignant Biblical reading together: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — said the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).” So began a project firmly rooted in what Mary Gendler calls her favorite of the 10 “blessings of faith,” which she recited at her Confirmation: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” which translates to “justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”

In the ensuing 23 years, the Gendlers have returned to Dharamsala more than 23 times. Their outreach has hinged on workshops at schools and monasteries — anywhere the Tibetan refugees congregate — and they have traveled to all the different Tibetan settlements in India. Their presence has instigated an ongoing discussion — among thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns, students and administrators, business people and others — about how to make their nonviolent protests more effective. “It has been really thrilling,” said Gendler. “[There has been] so much gratitude for what we are doing.”

In 2007, the Gendlers played a central role in the founding of ANEC-Tibet (Active Nonviolence Education Center) in Dharamsala. Their involvement in community education among the Tibetan exile community on Strategic Nonviolent Struggle has meant an ongoing partnership with the Dalai Lama, including at least 10 audiences in the span of more than two decades. As to the Gendlers’ shared commitment to nonviolence? “It makes a nice circle — a nice frame [for our relationship]” said Mary Gendler, who celebrated her 54th wedding anniversary this past May. And as for Mary Gendler’s aforementioned patience? She does not see herself that way. In fact, she was quick to deem herself rather impatient, which presents an invaluable lesson: How we perceive ourselves is often very different from how others see us. This, considering the Gendlers’ legacy of activism for human rights, begs persevering — always for the greater good. As to what has fueled Gendler in this most recent chapter of her journey? “The thought that it would all disappear,” she said before trailing off. “That it would not continue…”

The Gendlers will not travel to Dharamsala this winter; she is 78, he is 90, and the couple is transitioning to a new chapter, despite not knowing exactly what that will look like. “All of a sudden, people are stepping up, [which means] I can let go,” said Gendler, who remains committed to the work of their nonprofit. But for now, employing equal parts patience and faith, she remains on firm footing, one rooted in both humanity and the process. “I keep having faith that I will get the message, be shown somehow, and guided through life,” said Mary Gendler in reflection. “Let me see what happens, what comes along.”

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