Thursday, April 6, 2017

Four Questions of Freedom (Tzav and Pesach 5777)

Circa 1950 Flyer Against Jewish Support for Civil Rights

One of the most prominent features of Pesach - our annual rehearsal of ancient liberation - are the Four Questions. As we seem to have become obsessed with strangers in our midst - those who look or act or think different from us - I propose four additional questions.

These additional Four Questions are inspired by an attack on Jews nearly 60 years ago. It is not the attack itself that inspires me. Rather it was the reaction of 'strangers.' 

The attack occurred nearly 60 years ago when an Atlanta synagogue was fire-bombed. Fifty sticks of dynamite causing nearly $1.5 million in damage (in today's dollars) just a few hours before the building was filled with students. 

The firebombing was a reaction to local Jewish support for de-segregation and advancing civil rights for blacks. Jewish pursuit of social justice for strangers is the modern expression of a biblical imperative to elevate our treatment of strangers. Shortly after our ancient ancestors are liberated from Egypt, they are exhorted "not [to] wrong or oppress a stranger, for we were strangers [ourselves] in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:20.) No other exhortation is repeated so often.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Time For Taking Off Masks (Purim and Ki Tissa 5777)

Between Mardi Gras (or Shrove Tuesday) and Purim, this is a season for masks. Wearing masks is associated with these days as a way of bringing history to life, temporarily adopting a new personality, hiding, or, even, subverting reality.

We often wear masks to make fun of ourselves or others. And not just by wearing them. For instance, “Why does Batman wear a mask but Superman doesn’t?” “Because the citizens of Gotham City are much smarter than those in Metropolis.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The ‘Other’: A Framework for Learning, Questioning, and Acting

Two fathers (one Muslim, one Jewish) and their children protesting
immigration and refugee executive order in Chicago
on Jan 30, 2017 (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

Here is the message I shared today with the Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) : 

The diversity of the JCHS school community is powerful. We come from different parts of the world and grew up in different types of families. We represent a broad range of economic circumstances and hold different perspectives about politics, society, and even Judaism.

For example, nearly 40% of JCHS student homes include an adult born outside of the United States. In Jewish terms, some of us identify most with Mizrachi heritage and others with Ashkenazi culture. Some with Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Reform, and others with secular expressions of Jewish life.

One thread that links all these differences is the Jewish core idea of being different, being the other. Torah refers to the first Jew, Abraham, as ha’ivri -- literally, “the one who stands on the other side.” (Genesis 14:13) Abraham’s legacy developed through the centuries into becoming among those who stand up for the other. As we read repeatedly during this season from Torah, “We should not oppress the stranger (the other) because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Freedom's Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose: #Wrong (Va'eira 5777)

By HogArtDesign Available on Etsy
Last week marked the 74th anniversary of the birth of Janis Joplin. Though her career lasted barely a decade (she died of a drug overdose at age 27) Joplin still made Rolling Stones lists for “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” and “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” One of Joplin’s last hits was Me and Bobby McGee, with lyrics: "Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin' for a train, I was feelin' nearly faded as my jeans. . . . Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose."

Joplin's lyric (written by Kris Kristofferson) is soulful but it's wrong. Freedom is not nothing left to lose. It is everything to gain.

Freedom is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion as we read about the plagues that fall on Egypt when Moses tries to convince Pharaoh to release ancient Israel from slavery. Freedom comes not when one has nothing left to lose; but when a community confronts those who are close-minded and hard-hearted.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Face Off: As in There Are Times I Want To Tear Your . . . (Shemot 5777)

Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman Face Off (Photo: Sam Morris)
This weekend comes at a momentous time. It comes during a week when we begin reading in Torah about our people’s exodus from slavery to liberty, when we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and when we inaugurate a new president. For me, this signals a need to deepen our personal commitment to creating an inclusive school community in which every member can thrive as a learner and leader. 

Creating an inclusive school community goes beyond simply asking each person to be tolerant or even kind. It depends on each person valuing others for who the other is - on developing a sense of belonging. This requires active, mutual respect. As Martin Luther King Jr wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Elwin Wilson: My Daddy Always Said Only A Fool Doesn't Change His Mind (Martin Luther King Jr Day 2017; Vayechi 5777)

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, left, with Elwin Wilson (Andy Burris/AP Photo/The Herald)
Elwin Wilson did something few of us have ever done. He publicly and sincerely apologized and asked forgiveness. It took nearly 50 years. Nearly a half-century after Elwin Wilson (then a young member of the Ku Klux Klan) beat and kicked U.S. Congressman John Lewis (then a young Black minister) at a South Carolina bus station because of the color of Lewis’ skin, Wilson asked Lewis to forgive him. Reflecting on his change over time, Wilson reported, “My daddy always said only a fool doesn’t change his mind.” Some learning is a very long time in coming.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Unmasking the Mysterious Dr. X: Wrestling Toward the Light (Vayislach 5777)

When I was nine years old my uncle took me to a wrestling match in a car dealership parking lot. Until that evening, in my mind wrestlers were real costumed superheroes -- battling forces of evil and darkness. That view was shattered when my uncle ushered us 'backstage' to meet the mysterious Dr. X. Wow!

In the ring, he was mysterious and fierce. But backstage he was an ordinary guy -- a really big, sweaty, ordinary guy. He wore no mask. He sat in a folding chair. As I waited for his autograph, the man behind the mask mystery was talking to another wrestler. They were deciding which of them would "win" the next bout. Huh!?! 

Wrestling is faked?!? 'No way,' I thought. But the evidence was clear. I was devastated. 

Dr. X comes to mind often when reading this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach. It seems especially relevant this year as this particular portion comes at the start of winter break and just a week ahead of Chanukah.

Friday, December 2, 2016

When Competing Worldviews Collide: Rebecca's Response (Toledot 5777)

The 2016 presidential election reflects the collision of two competing worldviews. It is an awe-inspiring conflict leaving some angry and confused about what it means for them and their values. Others are elated and confident about what it means for them and their values. And others are not sure what to think or feel. The aftermath of the election is prompting existential questions for many of us about what we value and how we stand up to others whose values differ from our own. 

This week's Torah portion begins with similar existential questions. It also offers insight and raises questions about how one might respond to this type of collision. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Bending the Long Arc of History (U.S. Presidential Election 2016)

Pictured at right: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Martin Luther King, Jr. 1968

Here is the message I shared with students and educators at JCHS during an all-school gathering earlier today:

For nearly all of us something completely unexpected has happened. In response many of us are crying, angry, frustrated, or confused. Many others are celebrating, excited, hopeful, or emboldened. Completely unexpected.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Tower of Babel Turned Upside Down (Noach 5777)

"Tower of Babel" by Theodor 'Dr. Seuss' Geisel
This week Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS)  honored Hispanic Heritage Month (deferred for us a few days because of the Jewish holidays). Our students were inspired to hear from classmates and educators about their Hispanic heritage made them feel special and what made them feel different. 

One feature discussed by the panel was the variety and number of languages embraced by the term Hispanic heritage." As I young person I knew only one language. Only later did I study Spanish and Hebrew. One helped me to feel part of one community and the other a different community. (More on diversity in language below.)  

I confess, however, that mostly in junior high school I feared standing out by seeming different. It is a common teen fear. I just wanted to fit in or, even better, disappear. I learned over time to treasure what makes me different and what makes others' differences so valuable.