My Sukkot Message Given at Camp Be’chol Lashon

20 Oct 2011 In: JVoices

Years ago, when I started playing the guitar I wanted to play blues, I hired a blues teacher, listened to blues music, but no matter what I did it came out sounding like the Indigo girls. Probably because at that point in my life the Indigo Girls spoke to me, they were queer and at that time there just were not a lot of out gay or lesbian musicians. When I started working on this dvar, I was going to connect Sukkot and creating the temporary structures to the Occupy Movement and the global social protest that have happened this year. I saw it as the perfect theme. Perfect for me, I mean after all I am an activist and now a rabbinical student and I thought I could deliver that message. But I’m not going to deliver that message because just like when I started playing the guitar, I have another message about Sukkot that speaks to me and that message is about welcoming the stranger.

When I think about Sukkot, I remember Abraham, he was 99 years old, in his tent recovering from his circumcision when three strangers, angels, payed him a visit. When Abraham saw the men approaching his tent, he ran to welcome them, knowing that the importance of hospitality to strangers took precedence over his own needs. Our tradition places such strong emphasis on the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger that no one should be made to feel like an outsider especially during a holiday.

When I think about Sukkot I remember a little over 10 years ago when I met a man–his name is Joshua Lesser. I spoke a little about him last night and called him my angel. I had no interest in religion but Josh was my friend and I thought he was a pretty cool dude who just happened to be a Rabbi. As our friendship grew, he would often invite me to his shul for services and I would politely say no. Then every time there was a holiday he would invite me. Finally, I agreed, and I remember the holiday was Hanukkah. I was worried, I was worried about how I would be treated. Would they see me as an outsider? Would anyone speak to me? The opposite was true. The community was warm and loving and welcomed me, a stranger into there community to celebrate the holiday. In fact, until recently, this was the only Jewish space that did not treat me as an outsider. This community, Congregation Bet Haverim, lived in a temporary home. We can call it a sukkah. They were searching for their permanent home and they welcomed me the stranger into their community.

I also think of another time during Sukkot when a friend invited me to her shul. I was new to Baltimore and wanted to find a synagogue. When she invited me, I got worried. Would they see me as an outsider? Would anyone speak to me? I thought I could sit in the back of the shul and somehow go unnoticed. But it was Sukkot, the time when we open our hearts to strangers. The Rabbi, Elizabeth Bolton, and the community welcomed me, the stranger, into their community. Like Rabbi Josh, Rabbi Liz became not just a friend, but an angel.

During Sukkot we build a sukkah and we become surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches, sparse enough to allow a glimpse of the heavens. Although the sukkah has specific requirements regarding how small or tall it can be, there are no limits to how wide and long it can be. In fact, the Talmud says that it can be big enough to accommodate the entire Jewish people.

If our tradition places such strong emphasis on the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger, then why should anyone be considered an outsider, especially during the observance of a holiday?

During Sukkot we welcome the stranger, we think about welcoming the marginalized strangers. So many of us today, have felt marginalized within Jewish spaces, we have to remind our brothers and sisters in synagogues that the doors to the sukkah, as well as the synagogue, are supposed to be open. The Sukkah reminds us that our structures and institutions need to be opened up.

The sukkah is a sign to open our hearts at this season. Just as its roof opens to the sky, so too many those celebrating Sukkot be open to the stranger, the other, and the guest who they do not see everyday. Even in a world where many synagogues require membership or tickets to enter into the building for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, all are welcome in the sukkah. The sukkah invites the community to be welcoming even the living quarters themselves become open and we are ready to receive guest.

I believe this holiday, and the sukkah, expresses the peace and wholeness that we can share with every Jew in the world. Haskivenu, “u’phros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” (spread over us your sukkah of peace).

Today is Tisha B’av, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av, a day when Jews traditionally remember the destruction of the Temples and other tragedies of our history by fasting and reading from the Book of Lamentations, culminating a three week period of remembering and mourning. As I fast, I am remembering the destruction that so many teachers, advertisements, politicians, a lobby group, and synagogues have tried to instruct me to ‘forget’ or not know: the destruction of Palestine. This destruction continues today, as we see the actions of modern day Israel in repressing freedom of speech, movement, and quality of life.

The idea of destroying someone’s sacred site had always been appalling to me – shouldn’t holy grounds remain beyond the reach of warfare, just as the lives of children should remain untouchable by the clutches of warriors? My naivety has waned as I have grown to understand that warfare is a blind beast that cannot help but harm the innocent and the sacred, like a bull in a china shop. Nonetheless the reaches of the violence of occupation are still unnerving. One year ago I was standing in a destroyed Palestinian village in northern Israel, staring at what was once a sacred mosque, and is now an off-limits crumbling building, sealed by the same barbed wire that kept my not-so-distant relatives in the death camps in Poland.

How do we mourn destruction while it continues in every moment? Even as I write this new settlement homes are being built in the West Bank and companies continue to profit from occupation. For so long many have cried out for an end to the destruction, shook their fists in the air, marched, rallied, lamented, sobbed. It is essential to feel our grief and to vocalize it, but it is not enough. Today is a day that my people do not eat to express our grief. But there is something more we can do. We can refuse to buy the products that continue to destroy people’s lives, homes, and sacred sites. By putting our money where our mouths are, and refusing to imbibe products that have led to the suffering of people elsewhere on the planet, we can embody our values.

And truly embodiment is at the core of Tisha B’av. During the time of wandering the desert for 40 years after fleeing slavery in Egypt, legend says that my Jewish ancestors would dig shallow graves for themselves on the night of Tisha B’av and lie down in them to sleep, so that when they awoke they literally crawled out of their graves and were reborn anew. Tisha B’av is not only about mourning death and destruction, then, it is also about rebirth and renewal, the promise of creative innovation that destruction forces upon us.

Mishna Taanit 1.6-1.7 states that the public ritual during days of fasting include imposed limits on “buying and selling; on building and planting; on betrothals and weddings; and on inquiring about each other’s well-being…” Perhaps we can continue to carry this imposition through for the following weeks until the High Holidays (the Jewish New Year, a time for reflection, mourning, and the creation of resolute commitments for the year to come) and beyond, until a just peace is attained in the Middle East. We can refuse to buy goods made in the Occupied Territories, or do business with companies who are illegally profiting from the occupation; we can refuse to support businesses that contribute to the building of settlements; we can ensure that all people can live, love, and grow in peace.

As I write this, an angry backlash has sprung up in response to one moral act of boycotting a business involved in the illegal occupation of the West Bank: ultra-Orthodox and pro-occupation groups are calling for a buycott of illegally-made Ahava cosmetics sold at Ricky’s, a family beauty supply chain in New York City. The buycott call comes after peace groups CODEPINK and Brooklyn for Peace coordinated a public action outside the Brooklyn store on July 9. An online “mud fight” erupted in the comments section of a Brooklyn article about the peace action, in which people commenting went so far as to equate one activist with pogroms and make comments about her vagina and sexuality. Groups including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) on the East Coast have stepped up to defend the occupation by promoting this product.  Read more about it in Adam Horowitz’s post on Mondoweiss. It seems that when the ugly truth behind fancy skin care products is revealed, the beauty of Jewish teachings in the minds of those who profess to be most observant is more dead than the Dead Sea itself.

May the ancient teachings of Tisha B’av be remembered in place of modern attempts to wipe out the history of a people living in a land that was given to a people without a land.

“Any person who can prevent the people of their household from committing a sin but does not is responsible for the sins of their household. If a person can prevent the people of their city from sinning, they are responsible for the sins of the people of their city. If the whole world, that person is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” ~ Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b


Rae Abileah
is a national organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace and lives in San Francisco, CA. You can join the monthly Jewish Fast for Gaza at http://fastforgaza.net/ and pledge to boycott of Ahava products at www.stolenbeauty.org.

Debating Divestment… all night long

20 Apr 2010 In: JVoices

A former IDF soldier is speaking out in opposition to the occupation of Palestine. An 85-year old Holocaust survivor testifies to the peril of waiting to make a decision rather than saving lives now by stopping war machines. A queer Jewish Latino speaks about his own journey from living in a settlement in East Jerusalem to coordinating a national organization opposing the occupation. A Palestinian student shares the story of his own family’s loss and highlights the lost logic in the room. The Israeli Consulate General admits to the existence of an “occupation” and states that Israel wants to end it! An orthodox man calls in a metaphor of candlelight illuminating goodness, each of us a candle. Facts are flung around like snowflakes that melt on impact spilling into the subjective world of painful stories that pull at heartstrings and paint barbed pictures. It all went down in Berkeley, California on Wednesday night, April 14, as the world watched (and tweeted).

The UC Berkeley student government became an impassioned theater of views on the occupation of Palestine. The UC student government (ASUC) Senate started a meeting to discuss the divestment bill at 10:30 pm that lasted until daybreak. While the ASUC has passed countless bills of political nature – supporting the Dream Act for immigration reform, for example – on the issue of divestment from the Israeli occupation, the Senate ran into blowback and took time to deliberate the issues. This pro-occupation lobby turned the bill about divesting from two specific US companies involved in the illegal occupation into a fear-for-all — suddenly Jewish students were the only marginalized community, and the passage of the bill would somehow make them unsafe and endangered on campus. (Incidentally, marginalization of other minority groups on campus, and the daily dangers Palestinians face in the occupation were not mentioned by the pro-occupation speakers at the ASUC meeting.)

Let’s rewind for a little background on the Berkeley debate: On March 18, Berkeley’s Student Senate voted 16-to-4 to divest from two American companies, General Electric and United Technologies, because of their role in harming civilians as part of Israel’s illegal occupation and the attack on Gaza. A week later, the Senate president vetoed the bill. The bill’s opponents waged a fierce campaign of misinformation; student senators were flooded with letters from many persuasions. UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine mobilized over 35 campus groups, and dozens of national and international human rights and interfaith organizations, and many well-known voices for justice, including Naomi Klein, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and Noam Chomsky signed on to support the bill.

Finally after weeks of debate, the student Senate had an opportunity to overturn the president’s veto. More information about the bill can be found here.

The democratic process of the CAL student Senate meeting to vote on overturning the president’s veto created an opening for dozens of testimonies on all sides of the issue on Wednesday night in a ballroom on campus where over 1,000 students gathered. 85 year old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein gave a moving opening statement in which she said, “[Student Senate] President Smelko does not speak for me, nor for over 20 Jewish and Israeli organizations who endorsed the bill, and whose members sent him more than 1,000 emails, nor for many more in the Jewish community, some of whom are in present in person here, or in spirit, in support of this bill.” Epstein went on to cite Israel’s war crimes: “Throughout its 62 years of existence, Israel has been in flagrant violation of international law, even some of its own laws, the fourth Geneva Convention, more than 70 UN & Security Council resolutions, besides 32 US-vetoed Security Council Resolutions. Israel’s attack on Gaza amounted to war crimes were all confirmed by the UN’s Goldstone commission report. 62 years make not only Israel culpable, but all of us, who stand idly by, or who veto resolutions like the one before us. I have lived 85 years; I have not witnessed one other war crime theater allowed to exist for this long.”

Professor Judith Butler gave a moving testimony as a Jew and an academic. Many students with Students for Justice with Palestine and many other campus groups spoke eloquently on the bill. Penny Rosenwasser, who teaches a course on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, stated, “For 20 years I have organized marches and rallies and nonviolent civil disobedience. I have lobbied senators, signed petitions, and toured the country giving educational slideshows. But none of this has worked, none of this has ended the occupation – in fact things have only gotten worse. More Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost. I am asking you to vote for this bill for two reasons: 1. It supports a nonviolent strategy 2. It targets US – NOT Israeli – companies who are profiting from the occupation.”

Matthew Taylor, a Jewish Bay Area resident, wrapped himself in the Israeli flag, and brought the occupation issues home to US history:

“When Americans took action against slavery, against segregation, and for women’s rights, were they anti-American? Of course not. They were patriots.

Imagine that the year is 1960 and you are being asked to divest from companies that sell busses to segregated US southern states. On one side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans who would claim that the bill marginalizes white students, that you can’t possibly understand the complexity of the US South enough to cast a vote. And they would claim to speak for all white students. On the other side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans saying, ‘Please vote for this bill for the benefit of the South, for the benefit of blacks and whites.’ They’d be a diverse multicultural group [like the group of students advocating for this bill last night]. I am a patriot of Israel, of the Jewish people. I beg you please vote yes.”

Those of us who spoke up as Jews implored the senators to not be fooled by the baseless claims of anti-Semitism from our Jewish brothers and sisters. After all, the majority of Jews, 55%, oppose Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land. We drew attention to the reality that holding Israel accountable to the same standards of international law that the rest of the global community must follow is not an attack on Jewish identity. I spoke about feeling safer as a young Jew in the Bay Area since ASUC passed the bill.

I also stated, as a representative of CODEPINK Women for Peace, which also signed onto the letter of support for the bill, “When I critique or protest the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not anti-American or un-patriotic. Passing a bill to divest from US corporations who are profiteering from an illegal occupation is not anti-Israeli. It is in the best interest of Israel to end the occupation. This bill will take a bold step towards doing just that – ending the occupation. I yearn for a day in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, with dignity and human rights for all. If you share that vision you will vote to again pass Senate Bill 118A.” I also yearn for the day when all war profiteers will be held accountable and when our nation will reinvest our resources in life-affirming pursuits.

On the final day of the women’s suffrage movement struggle, one state’s vote came down to one person. Those in the audience wore colored roses to show which way they would vote. On Wednesday night many of us wore neon green stickers, which said “Another (fill in the blank) for Human Rights. Divest from the Israeli Occupation!” People in the room wrote in “mother” “Jew” “Israeli” “person of color” “self loving queer Jew” and such. These stickers signified that we were not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine – we were on the side of justice. There was a time when our country asked if women had rights like men did. On Wednesday night the underlying debate was about whether Palestinians, and all who live under occupation, have rights like people who are free. What would the Berkeley Senate answer?

The student senators most likely did not bargain for an international political debate when they were sworn into office. But on Wednesday night, faced with history in the making, many senators rose to the occasion and made excellent points on occupation, justice, and moral responsibility. One student of color senator commented, “This bill did not marginalize me; I was marginalized when I stepped on this campus. To veto this bill is to marginalize the majority of the student senate.”

Finally, in the wee morning hours, the bill came (yet again) to a vote. After countless testimonies, recesses, heated cheering and clapping (contrary to the asks of the Senators), and discussion within the Senate, the roll call began. The final vote was 12-7, which was not sufficient to repeal the president’s veto. But it was still the majority of the student senate. The majority of student senators in favor of the bill then took another tack and entered into more rounds of discussion, and ultimately the bill was tabled with the added suggestion for the writing of another bill focusing on war crimes and profiteers in several nation states. (Or at least that’s what I thought the outcome was, after 12 hours of listening and a sleepless night!)

While the veto was not overturned, the all-nighter meeting represented a huge step in building the global movement for justice in Palestine and Israel. The eloquent testimonies and words from the senators moved many who listened to tears and heightened awareness. As Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, stated, “If the enemy is the status quo, which feeds on silence and invisibility, then that enemy fell tonight. An incredible coalition of Jewish groups, student groups, human rights groups, prominent activists, authors, and Nobel Prize winners, came together to take a stand for justice. This is the future, right here in this room.”

As the final speaker before the vote, a Palestinian student in favor of the bill said, “This bill asserts that I am human, that Palestinians are humans, that we are equal.” May the University of California, and all campuses and governments, speedily realize these words and divest from the corporations in violation of human rights and the basic principle that we are all one, we are all equal. And may the UC Berkeley campus continue to create safe spaces for dialogue between students of many perspectives and exposures.

The 12-hour meeting ended on Thursday morning, April 15, Tax Day, just hours before Tea Partyers would begin pouring into American streets to protest bloated federal budgets (among other issues). How fitting for the local debate on war funding to end on this day, when taxpayers will fork over the funds to give Israel another $3 billion in military aid (which last year was used to break international law in Gaza) and potentially another $33 billion to fund the occupation of Afghanistan. While many may not yet be ready to engage in war tax resistance, or feel that Congress is listening to the call to stop funding war, local divestment campaigns such as the courageous bill in Berkeley offer an avenue for putting our community’s money where our values are – for justice and peace, not endless war and occupation.

Rae Abileah is an American Jew of Israeli decent who lives in San Francisco, CA. She works with CODEPINK Women for Peace and can be reached at rae[at]codepinkalert.org.

Let justice ring in Sheikh Jarrah

5 Mar 2010 In: JVoices

This Saturday night (March 6 2010) will witness one of the most important demonstrations in years, in the struggle for human rights and justice here in Israel. The struggle against injustice and dispossession, against the Hebronization of East Jerusalem, and against the anti-democratic processes undermining Israeli society. In this struggle, Sheikh Jarrah has already become a symbol. But as in any struggle for justice and equality, that has never been the goal. The goal is justice and equality, human rights and a future that embraces all human beings without distinction. Saturday night’s rally organizers hope to attract thousands and to finally make justice ring in Sheikh Jarrah. If successful, it may gradually become possible — to move beyond symbolism to the true purpose of the already months’ long Sheikh Jarrah struggle: justice.

The asymmetric legal situation in Israel, through the Absentee Property Law, makes it possible for Jews to return to property that was owned by Jews before 1948 — while Palestinian property return is completely impossible. This is both unjust and unwise. In Sheikh Jarrah, this has resulted in Palestinian refugees, originally housed in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government after 1948, becoming refugees a second time. Of course, unlike the settlers forcing the Palestinians out of their homes, the Palestinians cannot return to the homes they owned before 1948 — not in Jaffa, nor in West Jerusalem or anywhere else.

So far, four families have lost their homes: Al-Rawi, Hanoon, and the two Al-Kurd families. Many more families face a similar fate if the plans of the Simeon the Just Company materialize, to destroy their homes and instead build 200 housing units for Jewish settlers.

By itself, what is described above is already more than sufficient to require us to demonstrate against. But the injustice does not stop with that: what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is part of a larger process — the Hebronization of East Jerusalem. In the raging struggle over Jerusalem’s future, facts are already being determined on the ground, and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are forced to pay the price upfront, their human rights violated in a great variety of ways. Inadequate to non-existent infrastructure, shortage in classrooms, social, health and mail services, revocation of residency status, lack of planning programs that would have allowed for legal construction and the constant fear of house demolitions – all these are added to the destructive processes sadly familiar to us from another city: Hebron.

As if watching the replay of a movie whose ending we have already seen, here in front of our eyes the Hebron processes are taking place once again, this time in Jerusalem: the entry of settlers to the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood, the provocations and violence, the one-sided actions of the security forces – always serving the interests of the Jewish settlers over the rights of the Palestinian residents. And then, what follows: restrictions of movement, segregation, life becoming a nightmare, and all this in the name of “security considerations”. Shuhada Street in Hebron is already closed for Palestinians for years — a street that was part of the bustling heart of one of the largest Palestinian cities, and has become a ghost road in the service of extremist settlers, the human rights of local Palestinians thrown to the roadside.

A similar process to what has already happened in Hebron is now happening in Jerusalem. Sheikh Jarrah now has police checkpoints at the entrance to the neighborhood. During certain hours on Friday the entrance to the neighborhood is generally blocked, but is open to Jewish worshipers. In contrast, Jews wishing to enter Sheikh Jarrah to express solidarity with the Palestinian families are prevented from entering the neighborhood. Violence against Palestinians ends with arrests — of Palestinians. The mechanism of dispossession and the construction of security excuses are already at work. And all this is happening right here, in Jerusalem.

In tandem, the Jerusalem Police tried to break the Israeli activists who wanted to express solidarity with the Palestinian families and protest against the injustice done to them. Only after nearly a hundred false arrests and a series of hearings at the Jerusalem Magistrate Court, did the police finally allow for the protest vigils to take place. For many weeks, each Friday, rain or cold, arrests or no arrests, hundreds of Israelis gather to protest in Sheikh Jarrah. Now, the Police is trying to keep Saturday’s planned demonstration as far as possible from the neighborhood, perhaps fearing the thought that the Palestinians will be able to hear the voices of those who consider them human beings, not objects for removal. High Court justices will hear an urgent petition on this matter Thursday morning; hopefully they will not forget the Court’s ruling in a similar context almost twenty years ago: “The location’s effectiveness is the lifeblood of a people’s assembly.”

Whether the police will succeed in distancing the demonstration or the Court will intervene in defense of freedom of speech is yet to be seen. Either way, what is at stake is the process that has not begun in Sheikh Jarrah nor will be stopped there, unless we begin to change course. It is the process of dispossession and the constant injustices against the Palestinian residents – while canonizing acts of violence. Israelis demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah are no longer regularly arrested, but that is not the heart of the matter. The question that should concern all of us — and mobilize all of us — to demonstrate in Sheikh Jarrah this Saturday night is this: How to stop injustice and how in its stead promise a shared future, common to all people, based on foundations of human rights and equality. It is this voice that will ring this Saturday night from Sheikh Jarrah — a strong voice that we must ring for Israelis and Palestinians, a resonant voice that we must ring for the world to hear, a personal voice that we must ring for ourselves. And this can only happen in one way: for each and every one of us to come this Saturday night at 7pm to Sheikh Jarrah. Together, let us bring justice to ring in Sheikh Jarrah.

Hagai El-Ad is the Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). He blogs at the Huffington Post.

VeNahafoch Hu: The Force of Creative Destruction

26 Feb 2010 In: Holidays

Purim is a celebration of reversals. The Book of Esther, which is traditionally read twice on the holiday, states in Chapter 9 verse 1:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them

This notion, of things being turned on their heads, called “venahafoch hu” in Hebrew, is at the core of this lively, raucous little holiday. The very purpose of our celebrating is intertwined with this overturning “from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Irving Greenberg puts it in his essay “Confronting Jewish Destiny: Purim,” in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays:

Part of the dizzying paradox of Purim is the extraordinary and capricious reversals it reflects. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Esther wins favor for the queenship because of her modesty…Mordecai, in one day, is raised from gallows candidate to prime minister. The very name of the holiday – Purim (meaning lottery) – suggests the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night’s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king, spells the difference between degradation and exaltation, between genocide and survival.

On Purim, we wear costumes, get drunk, and let go of the daily inhibitions – the cloak of order – that characterizes our lives, in order to acknowledge that our lives can change on a dime, and that a situation that looks devastating and grim can in fact become uplifting and celebratory.

But what is lurking beneath this notion of “venahafoch hu?” And what does it have to teach us, as a Jewish community, about our relationship to innovation and change, and those who turn, and sometimes overturn, the strictures of our community?

The Jewish Bible uses the term “hafach,” often translated as “turned,” in a number of different ways. Often, it is used to convey a reversal from one state to its opposite state, as in the case of the Megillah, or, as in Deuteronomy 33:6, “God turned the curse into a blessing for you.” It is also used to indicate any change, and not always necessarily as predictable as from a state to its opposite. Exodus tells of Moses’ staff, which turned into a snake (7:15) and of the water in the Nile river, which turned to blood (7:17), and the psalmist reminds us of God’s having turned the rock into a pool of water (Psalms 114:8). The term is also used to convey destruction, as in Jonah’s warning to the people of Ninveh: “Another forty days and Ninveh shall be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). This is not only a change from one state to another, but a change from a state of order to a state of chaos, from civilization to destruction. And, finally, the term is used, simply, to convey movement. Lamentations refers to the heart that spins and turns within our midst (1:20), and Genesis describes the Garden of Eden as being guarded by the cherubim, holding a flaming sword “turning every which way” (3:24). This is not simply motion, but implies a spinning that is just barely in control, hovering at the edge of turmoil.

On Purim, then, we are not simply acknowledging that despair can turn to joyous exaltation. That is merely the tip of the Purim iceberg. The holiday, in fact, is intensely sobering. It reminds us that the world is spinning beyond our control, and, despite what we think, we cannot predict its direction, nor can we be certain that it won’t spin into a state of total destruction. This, perhaps, is why joy must be dictated during this month: mishenichnas Adar marbim be’simcha – when the month of Adar arrives we abound in joy (Talmud Megillah 29a) – because it is counter-intuitive to face the notion of “venahafoch hu” and to celebrate.

Perhaps this understanding of Purim can shed light on the Jewish community’s complex relationship to its innovators.

Our innovators keep us spinning. Paul Light, in his article “Social Entrepreneurship Revisited” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, describes social entrepreneurship as “a wave of creative destruction that remakes society.” Innovators are involved in all levels of the “venahafoch hu” process, changing things from one state to another, sometimes to their opposite states, and keeping the world in motion, even sending it into turmoil. Jewish social entrepreneurs, as they spin and blow through the community, hover on the brink of overturning the Jewish world as we know it.

The field of Jewish innovation, like the holiday of Purim, may appear celebratory and joyous on its surface. It marks the possibility of renewal, which, in the Jewish community, ultimately means survival. But, like Purim, there are cold depths beneath this surface. There is something profoundly threatening about the field. New Jewish ideas and institutions often, and sometimes by definition, threaten traditional modes of operating and thinking in the Jewish world. In creating something new, Jewish social entrepreneurs sometimes destroy the old. In painting a new portrait of our community, they sometimes eradicate the faces and images that have defined us over time.

This Purim, perhaps our challenge as a community is to approach this field of innovation, this realm of “venahafoch hu,” with the same simultaneously tremulous and unwavering joy we bring into the month of Adar. Light writes: “social entrepreneurs are driven by a persistent, almost unshakable optimism.” This attitude of hope in the face of potential adversity is a very Jewish notion, one of which we are reminded during the month of Adar. When we face the spinning world, the possibility of unending turmoil and the potential destruction of all that we hold dear, we are reminded to approach it with joy and hope, with an eye towards redemption and possibility, with merry-making and feasting. With a celebration of our innovators, and the belief that, ultimately, when the book ends, we will have survived, flourished, thrived, and come out stronger for all the motion.

This Sunday, February 21st, prominent Jewish activists and artists will share their skills at Inside the Activists’ Studio SF, which will feature workshops on art, food justice, spirituality, and other topics, a spoken word performance by poet Josh Healey, and a panel discussion with leading activists. Daniel Kaufman, one of the panelists, shares his thoughts on creating infrastructures for philanthropy, engaging young adults, and expressing Jewish values through giving.

Daniel is the founder and president of the One Percent Foundation.

Tell me about the One Percent Foundation.

The One Percent Foundation is basically the missing piece of the civic engagement puzzle. There’s a lot of engagement around voting, volunteering, and activism, and we’re trying to be the giving piece. We want to create an infrastructure that will engage and empower people in their 20s and 30s – average, run-of-the-mill millennials – who perhaps haven’t thought of what it means to be a philanthropist.

The core program is the One Percent Giving Circle. We ask people to commit to giving one percent of their annual income, and at least half of that through the One Percent Foundation. Once people start giving, they’re considered Partners, and can nominate organizations to receive our quarterly grants. Our Working Group identifies the top five nominees, posts them online, and all Partners log in and rank them from 1-5. The top nominee gets the grant. The whole process lets us see what we’re doing as civic engagement.

There are three barriers to philanthropy for young people. First off, they feel like they can’t afford it. They’re earning money for the first time, and there are lots of demands on that money. Secondly, they don’t have the tools to identify a good nonprofit from the hundreds out there, so they don’t know who they want to give to. Finally, even if they have the money and know who they want to give to, they think, what’s the point? It’s not going to make a difference. So we really want to get people engaged.

What made you decide to make philanthropy your primary form of activism?

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine – actually, the cofounder of the organization – when I was in law school. He was working with big donors, linking them with political organizations. I had never really thought about philanthropy in my entire life, but as we were talking, I realized that there wasn’t really an infrastructure to support people who wanted to learn to give in a meaningful way. There were programs that targeted young kids or wealthier high-end donors, and there were some programs for people in their 20s and 30s, but those were very targeted. So we started talking to friends and creating this infrastructure. There was more and more unsolicited interest, and that organically became the One Percent Foundation. I gradually acquired an interest in philanthropy – I never set out to do it.

Where do you think you’ve made the biggest impact?

I think more and more people are taking notice and starting to think more strategically about what it means to create a broad-based movement for philanthropy. Our goal is to make giving a core component of the average citizen’s engagement portfolio, like voting. People who give to and engage with innovative nonprofits are more able to engage with their communities. Even giving a couple of dollars a month is very valuable to supporting good ideas.

The concept of ordinary people coming together to give sounds like it’s very rooted in traditional forms of tzedakah. Do you view your work as grounded in Jewish tradition?

Totally. I grew up in the Reform movement, which shaped who I am, and how I view the world. This organization sprouted from a group of friends who worked together at a Jewish camp. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jewish values drove the creation of the One Percent Foundation and continue to drive the growth of it. One of the things that’s so appealing to people about it is that it allows them to express their Jewish values in a very broad way, a community-based way. It’s not as insular as other Jewish experiences that they’ve had. Not that insular experiences are bad – this is just a different way to think about it. But, yes, my work is driven by Jewish values, tzedakah, and tikkun olam.

Do you have any goals for Inside the Activists’ Studio? Any particular ideas you want to bring to the table?

I don’t have a specific agenda. I love the concept and I’m excited to participate. It’s going to be an incredible program. The One Percent Foundation is totally organic and peer to peer, and what we’ve found and what has really surprised me is that there’s incredible interest when the demographic is presented with an opportunity to engage in a really meaningful way. They feel really empowered. It’s going to be very helpful in building the next generation’s philanthropy movement, which is ultimately what we’re trying to do.

Obviously, You Were Not Born Jewish!

17 Jan 2010 In: Jews of Color

This past Shabbat, I was at this pretty progressive shul in Baltimore. I say progressive because I want you to understand that what I experienced is typical of my experiences in synagogues, and also typical of the experience of other Jews of color. Anyway, the service was really cool and we had this awesome discussion on King and Heschel.

During the oneg, after the service, this woman comes up to me. Let’s just call her “S”. The discussion went something like:

S: “Hi my name is S.” I replied with same. “…are ya Jewish”
Me: “I’m wearing a Kippah (pause breath)…Yes I’m Jewish”
S: “Well obviously you weren’t born Jewish!”
Me: “Why do you say that.”
S: “Well…Because you’re black!”
Me: “Well at least you’re honest.”

What was so surprising about this exchange was not that she asked me, “was I Jewish?,” or that she assumed I wasn’t born Jewish. It’s the fact that she was actually, to quote Mixedjewgirl, an honest bigot. Does that mean she should get applause? No, of course not. But usually when faced with these questions, and I ask back, I get every conceivable tap dance that one can imagine.

I did use the opportunity as a teaching moment and quickly educated S. on the diversity of the Jewish community, and the sheer numbers of Jews of color in the United States.

x-posted from TBLJ

Are Today’s Innovators “Leaders?”

6 Dec 2009 In: Jewish Life, Leadership

Bob Goldfarb, in his recent piece “Innovation, Management, and Leadership,” raises an interesting question about the relationship between “innovation” and “leadership.” He writes: “From a structural perspective… [innovators] have simply added independent, entrepreneurial elements to Jewish communal life that complement the established, centralized bureaucracies.”

But is that really all they have done?

Goldfarb points out that leadership and management are two separate activities. He claims that “leaders [should] resist institutional inertia, challenge fashionable ideas, question the trends of the moment, articulate new visions, and rally a broad following so that true transformation is possible.” Leadership, then, is as an activity that draws attention to a community’s pressing hidden issues, and that challenges and mobilizes the community to deal productively with those issues. I would argue, then, that the innovation movement as a whole, and many of today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs, are exerting vital leadership in our community.

The San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s 2004 demographic study revealed that the vast majority (80%) of Bay Area Jews do not participate in programs offered by existing Jewish institutions. This is a profound challenge for the Bay Area Jewish community. People do not agree on the problem – why do these people who self-identify as Jews not participate in communal offerings? Is it a problem with the institutions? Is it the nature of the Bay Area Jewish community? And people do not agree on the solution – should we reevaluate our existing institutions, and change them? Should we offer new programs for this 80%? Should we focus on providing quality programs for the 20% who are engaged?

The Bay Area Jewish social entrepreneurs are exerting leadership around this issue by virtue of the nature of the work they are doing. Organizations such as Jewish Milestones, which provide meaningful Jewish ritual opportunities outside of synagogues, and G-dcast, which creates Jewish literacy opportunities outside of formal Jewish school environments, are “articulating new visions, questioning trends, and rallying a broad following.” In founding these organizations, thereby drawing the community’s attention to the institutional inertia and tried and no longer true patterns that are plaguing this community, the innovators behind these projects are beginning the process of communal transformation, and, therefore, are exerting leadership.

Today’s Jewish innovators are part of a movement that is squarely facing the challenges and opportunities in today’s Jewish communities. They are grappling with some of our most pressing questions – at the end of the paradigm shift currently underway in Jewish life, what will Jewish life look like, and who will be living it? Leadership is a reflective act, and, if nothing else, the flurry and bustle of the innovation ecosystem is giving our community pause, and challenging the perceptions we have taken for granted. Today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs are constantly adjusting their directions in light of their learnings, and, therefore, are poised to profoundly alter human relationships. Let us hope that the broader Jewish community joins their conversations and engages with them in the risky, difficult processes that leadership involves.

Maya Bernstein works as the Director of Education for UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish social entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. Her writings appear regularly online at Lilith Magazine and e-jewishphilanthropy.com.

Last summer, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography teamed up with Project Kaisei to form SEAPLEX, a 20-day expedition to gather data about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a massive whirlpool-like current between North America and Asia that’s filled with trash. SEAPLEX sought to develop a better understanding of the size of the garbage patch, its contents, and its effects on local ecosystems, in hopes of paving the way for further action.

If you need any more proof that modern civilization has a waste problem, this is it: despite all of our sanitation and waste disposal systems, despite our countless landfills, incinerators, and photos of seagulls with soda rings around their necks, unprecedented amounts of nonbiodegradable garbage is ending up in the ocean. Social justice issues often seem disconnected from environmentalism – and with the gyres as far from people as you can get, this issue seems like environmentalism in its purest form – but when you examine the root causes of human exploitation and environmental degradation, they often turn out to be one and the same. Consider, for example, the sweatshops that churn out cheap goods, which are then quickly thrown away because – well, they’re so cheap!

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Miriam Goldstein, the chief scientist on the SEAPLEX expedition, who gave me some information on the trip, the findings, and her outlook in general. Miriam is a fourth-year graduate student at Scripps and a science blogger at Double X and The Oyster’s Garter.

Tell me about the North Pacific Trash Gyre. What is it? How did it form? How is it developing?

First of all, there are lots of gyres. They’re natural features formed when a jet stream goes to the east and an ocean current goes to the west. It pushes the top of the ocean east and the bottom west while the Earth is rotating, creating a big, slow whirlpool. There are five major gyres, and all the stuff that falls off of continents falls into them. Since plastic doesn’t break down, it all gets sucked into these whirlpools. We don’t really know what happens to it then. One of the big open questions we’re trying to answer is whether the plastic eventually breaks down or whether it keeps accumulating. Right now there aren’t any good measures of it.

On the SEAPLEX website, there’s a picture of a stuffed animal caught in a fishing net. What other sorts of recognizable garbage did you find this summer? Anything interesting or bizarre?

Image description: a plush dog caught in a fishing net, surrounded by other debris.The stuffed dog was definitely the most bizarre. We found Lucky the Dog in a ghost net, which is a piece of fishing debris that gets lost. Nets are also made of plastic, so they don’t go anywhere, either, which is a big problem because they go on killing [sea life] even though no one is using them. Lucky was stuck in one and we had no idea how he got there. He’d only been in there for a couple of weeks, because he wasn’t too stinky. Other things we found were plastic bottles, pieces of combs, and seawater filters, which are pieces of boat engines. We saw recognizable debris like construction hats and bits of plastic crates, but the vast majority of it was tiny pieces of plastic. More »

Sarah Lyhall of the New York Times reports that Britain’s Supreme Court ruled against a Jewish high school in London that had rejected an applicant because his mother wasn’t Jewish enough – and so, by extension, neither was he. Yep, she had chosen Judaism years ago and gone through a conversion process, but

By all outward appearances, the JFS applicant, identified only as “M” in court papers, is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — and neither was her son. It turned down his application.

As we say in my home town, oh no you DIDN’T!
More »


Categories

Please note: since August 2010, JVoices has ceased publishing new work. We hope you enjoy the articles that remain live as an archive and trusted resource of bold Jewish writing of our time.

Authors

Jewish Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf