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City Year Founding Story: Night into Day

Art by Maria Payano

It was dusk on the bank of a river that curved from the sea to the mountain. There, perched in the deep bend of a branch of an oak tree, sat a rabbi, and at his feet were students from nations near and far. As the evening slowly reached up from the horizon and spread across the vast expanse of the sky, the rabbi and his students spoke of the great issues of the day. As they did each night, they spoke of issues of the heart, of humanity, and of hope.

The rabbi peered into the distance and turned to his students to ask, “Tell me—if you can—how we will know when the night is over and the day has begun?”

The students sat back for a minute and gazed at the horizon and witnessed as the deep blue of evening began to blend with the golden canvas of sunset. And they knew that the rabbi spoke neither of timetables nor of the earth’s rotation on its axis. No, the rabbi spoke of larger things.

After regarding the question for a while, one of the students raised his hand and said, “Rabbi, we will know that the night is over and the day has begun when we can see the difference between a goat and a lamb.” The rabbi paused and said, “No, that is a good answer, but I don’t think that is it.”

Soon, another student offered her hand and said, “Rabbi, I think the night is over and the day has begun when we can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree.” The rabbi shook his head and said, “No, you have made a thoughtful effort, but that is not it either.”

The students seemed confused and were discouraged. Quietly, they gazed upwards where scattered stars and a full moon replaced the sun and brightened the deep dark of the endless sky.

After a moment, a soft voice could be heard from the bank closest to the river. It came from one of the Rabbi’s most reluctant students. Shy and somewhat hesitant, she began... “Rabbi, I think we will know that the night is over and the day has begun when we can see a rich man and a poor man and hear them say, ‘He is my brother.’” The student continued, her voice growing stronger.

“When we see a black woman and a white woman and hear them say, ‘She is my sister.’ It will be then when we know that the night is over and the day has begun.”

The rabbi nodded his head, pleased with the wisdom of his student and said, “That is right.”

– Masechet Berachot of the Babylonian Talmud

Within the long history of the human spirit and condition, there is an ancient competition between the dark night of prejudice, racism, and bias, and the daylight of community, inclusiveness, brotherhood, and sisterhood. It is a struggle that we must ensure is won finally and fully by the light of day. We must be deliberate and assertive in forming bonds of friendship, partnership, and common purpose among people who, on the surface, seem different than ourselves. We must take personal, professional, and social risks to do so. We must be the willful force that turns night into day.

About the Artist: Maria Payano, a New York City native, says she’s always appreciated the City Year AmeriCorps members serving in her community. A certified graphic designer, Maria loves to create art that moves people. She combined the two faces of night and day to represent unity: “We are not alone, there is a strength from within that helps us to carry on, and if we keep our eyes on the prize, we can cross the obstacles that may stand in our way.”