Rachel Mankowitz on Jews of Color

I’ve got three or four half-finished attempts at an article about the situation of Jews of Color in the present time. Rachel Mankowitz says in this article what I wanted to say, and says it so much better!

Rachel Mankowitz is a writer and blogger and social worker in New York state. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog and her novel, “Yeshiva Girl” I recommend them both.

rachelmankowitz

            The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might…

View original post 998 more words

“There’s No Place Like Home”

Image: Ruby Slippers (XiXinXing/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

It’s a famous line from a famous movie: “There’s no place like home.” Sometimes I wish I could click my ruby slippers together three times and be magically returned to the world before the arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19.

The message of the movie The Wizard of Oz is that home is a shelter from the storms of the world. That theme is Jewish to its core; in Judaism, we talk about the home as a little sanctuary, a mikdash me’at. For Jews in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) the world outside the home runs on the calendar of the dominant culture, the holidays are the holidays of the dominant culture. Even the clocks are not Jewish: days in the United States begin at midnight, not at sundown. Outside the house, the Jew is to some extent a stranger, trading time off for Rosh Hashanah with a colleague who would like an extra day after Christmas, and rolling their eyes at the “Happy Yom Kippur” food display in the local supermarket.

Home is a holy place, a Jewish place, even if we are not religious Jews. It’s the place we don’t have to listen to Christmas carols unless we like them.

Now home is also the place we are supposed to stay unless we have important business out in the world, keeping some critical part of the society running. The nurse, the doctor, the banker and the grocery checker go to work out in the perilous outside world while the rest of us #StayAtHome, working at our laptops, trying to remember enough from the sixth grade math to help our children learn.

Under these circumstances, home can acquire a rather unholy feeling: it’s a workplace, a schoolroom, and a bit of a jail, with an angry virus buzzing outside. Days slide one into the other, forming a fog.

Jewish tradition can help us in dealing with this new situation:

  1. Shabbat – Even for the most thoroughgoing secular Jew, Shabbat can be an antidote to the foggy “What day is this?” feeling. It can be a night for a nicer-than-usual meal, or an easier-than-usual meal, followed by a day of a change in routine. Shabbat can be about permission: permission to not work, permission to abandon the algebra puzzle, permission to watch a movie together. Synagogues everywhere are streaming services online – you can visit a different synagogue in a different city every week, or reconnect with a familiar community near home. Shabbat runs on Jewish time, sundown to sundown; we begin with candles and finish by looking for three stars before Havdalah.
  2. Shabbat can be nontraditional. If traditional ideas about Shabbat have bad connotations for you, try some variations on a theme. Maybe Shabbat is the day for a long walk around the neighborhood (socially distanced, natch.) Maybe it’s the time for a No-Nagging Zone. Shabbat can be the day to look for tiny miracles.
  3. Shabbat routines – Shabbat can give shape to the days before and after, too. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done.
  4. Jewish learning opportunities abound during these weeks of #StayAtHome, and many of them do not require Hebrew or any prior knowledge. I am offering free classes on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, and HAMAQOM is offering a Spring Festival of Jewish Learning – free tastes of our offerings via Zoom. If you’ve always wanted to learn some Hebrew, there are apps for that and online programs for it as well.
  5. Jewish values and mitzvot can inform how we treat one another in the home. Kindness (chesed) is a Jewish value. Caring for the body (shomer haguf) is a Jewish value, everything from brushing our teeth to getting exercise. Here is a list of 50 mitzvot, most of which have analogs in this time of pandemic. Oh, yes. and did you know that hand-washing can be a mitzvah and there is even a blessing for it?

Most of all, Jewish history gives me hope. Our people have been through horrific difficulties over the centuries, and we have endured. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, but it is only one of many plagues our people have survived, from the last terrible plague in Egypt, through the Black Death, influenza, smallpox, polio and now this. Our customs and values got us through those, as a people if not always as individuals, and they will get us through COVID-19 as well.

We do not have ruby slippers to carry us back to a happier time, alas. What we do have are the tools to survive this moment in history. Lean into your Judaism, and make your home even more a Jewish home, a little sanctuary, a safe haven in a dangerous world.

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

A Letter to Mr. Khruchchev: Remembering President Kennedy

Image: JFK and Nikita Khruchchev in 1961. Public Domain.

It’s 56 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. I remember it vividly, even though I was a very small girl then.

Writing a different blog post for this day some years ago, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination. It struck me as having a special resonance today, after a week of impeachment hearings and memories of impeachment hearings past. It strikes me that while we are not as worried about nuclear war as we were back then, that we are in a war of words here in the United States. This war of words and of versions of the truth threatens the fabric of our democracy. Mrs. Kennedy’s words still stand: It is possible to be allied in pursuit of peace even when we are on different sides.

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

In Memoriam

Image: A white rose at the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. ( Wallula / Pixabay)

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.

Meet The Great Organizer

Image: Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, a slide shown at the 2019 Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Cincinnati, OH, March 2019.

In 1889, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise decided that America’s rabbis needed to organize. He founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical association of which I am a member. The year the rabbis of the CCAR are celebrating the 150th years of existence.

Sometimes people wonder why Cincinnati became the headquarters for HUC and the CCAR. Why not New York, or at least Los Angeles or Chicago? All are bigger cities. The answer is actually pretty simple: this is where Rabbi Wise was living, as rabbi for the Lodge Street Synagogue, and then later for the Plum Street Synagogue. He was truly the Great Organizer: he founded not only the first rabbinical school on the continent, but also a rabbinical association and the organization of synagogues that would support his school, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.

The entire body of American rabbis did not stay under one umbrella for long. Some rabbis had already set up the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, feeling that Rabbi Wise was teaching far too liberal a stance at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. By 1901, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) began as an alumni association of JTS, and in 1923 the modern orthodox rabbis on the continent formed the Rabbinical Council of America.

Rabbi Wise originally envisioned American Judaism as a unified expression of rabbinic Judaism. His vision was both too bold and, as it turned out, too limited: American Judaism is far too diverse to be contained under one roof, and I for one think that is a healthy thing.

For a more complete biography of Rabbi Wise, check out the article about him at the American Jewish Archives.

July 4, 2019: Honor the Vision

Image: Voting for Independence (Photo courtesy of nps.org)

In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power, largely because they were frustrated with taxes. They knew that the document might well be their death warrant, because it was going to bring the wrath of a mighty empire down upon their heads. They were imperfect men, God knows, and some of the ideals they articulated were not ideals they actually lived, but the ideals themselves have continued to inspire people ever since.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Declaration of Independence, 1776

“All men” in that document meant “white property-owning men.” Over 233 years of debate, disagreement, and once, outright war, we have managed to broaden “white property-owning men” to include (ideally, and incompletely) all races of men and women. We still have far to go if our true goal is to reach a state in which all human beings are treated equally under our laws.

The mid-twentieth century saw great strides in that direction, and in the years since, white property-owning men and their supporters have done their best to roll back that progress. Today we have a Supreme Court with a majority of judges who seem devoted to the idea that the 1776 ideals were sufficiently embodied in 1776. The Congress is deadlocked between a Senate dedicated to the notion that the 1776 state of affairs was the ideal, and a House that hungers for the rights of all human beings, women, races, and orientations. Our Executive Branch is headed by a man who embodies the worst of the 1776 situation: he is an aging white man who inherited his wealth, who has no respect for women, minorities, or the poor, and whose great concern is maintaining his and his family’s advantage over others.

I am not celebrating until this country recovers its soul. That soul drove us through debate, disagreement, and war to broaden “white property-owning men” towards an ideal in which all human beings were treated equally under the law. That soul led us to include, not exclude; to give an ear to the voices of the oppressed; to open our gates, if not our hearts, to the refugee.

I persist in believing that we are capable of this better, expanded vision. I persist in doing what I can to make a better day come. I pray that with God’s help, we will find our way out of this darkness.

In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power. They signed a document that they did not realize dripped with irony, and thereby set in motion a process and a nation that would lift that document from its small purposes into a greater destiny.

In 1790, one of those men, much older, much wiser, wrote words that still inspire me, the vision I hold for my nation. George Washington was writing to the congregation of a synagogue, a house of Jews, when he wrote:

For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

George Washington, Letter to Touro Synagogue, August 1790

Again, he, the owner of enslaved people, failed to see the irony in his words, but he was well aware that in no other nation of the world at that time did Jews enjoy the rights that the Jews of the fledgling United States already enjoyed. I like to think that he felt the expansion – he felt the need to open his arms, our arms, to a more complete vision of humanity.

May we all feel that expansion in the days to come, and conquer the contraction upon our hearts!

Lights for Liberty

Are you frustrated, watching stories on the news about the situation of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border?

Today I learned from a source I trust about this coalition of groups working to improve things.

If you are looking for something to DO, check them out:

Lights for Liberty

Whatever your feelings about the politics of the situation, our own government – the DHS Office of the Inspector General – has published a report calling the current housing for these people “dangerous” and “unsafe.” There are concerns about disease in “inhumane conditions.”

We can and must do better.

After Poway: Feelings and Coping

Image: A single candle flame. (Image by Pezibear from Pixabay)

Here we are again, dealing with feelings from an attack on a synagogue. This time the synagogue was in Poway, a sunny place outside of San Diego, CA.

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. This shooting came exactly six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. We were still digesting that event; now it has happened again. Stress accumulates.
  2. This attack was not an isolated incident. Not only does it bring back the memories of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016.
  3. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events may heighten the feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that help me cope:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offering opportunities to come together – take advantage of those. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues will have extra security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Selfie with Rabbi Wise!

We Reform Rabbis look up to the Great Organizer, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. He founded Hebrew Union College, organised the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and pushed for the establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism.) All that, and he was a pulpit rabbi and a prolific writer! This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Continue reading Selfie with Rabbi Wise!