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.

“Disturb us, Adonai!”

Image: A “do not disturb” door hanger, with “do not” replaced with “PLEASE” (Shutterstock with amendation, all rights reserved.)

Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayer and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One caught my eye this week, and I spent the rest of the service sneaking back to reread it and think about it some more:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;

Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,

the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,

the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to use the false Shabbat which gives us

the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us

from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by

half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears…

Mishkan Tefilah, 173

The prayer was precisely what I needed that night: a kick in the pants.

Curious, I went to the back of the book to see who wrote it, and I discovered a wonderful, almost-forgotten character, Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate for a law practice in 1930 because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. More about him in a future post!

I’ve held off from copying the entire prayer out of respect for the copyright, but you can find this prayer in any copy of Mishkan Tefilah.

If ever there was a prayer for our times, it is this one.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

Al Vorspan z”l: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Image: Al Vorspan, image from ReformJudaism.org.

I don’t often use the word “tzaddik.” A tzaddik (tsah-DEEK) is a person who seems almost to embody Torah, his righteousness is so great. A true tzaddik is also a person with the humility to laugh at himself and to laugh with others. There just aren’t many of those people, so it’s always sad when we lose them.

Al Vorspan was one of those rare individuals, and I was sad to hear of his death on February 16, 2019. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, when I worked for the Union of Reform Judaism (at that time it was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) but I remember his broad smile and his warmth. He leaves a multifaceted legacy, the most tangible part of which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which he helped to found.

I did not know him well enough to do him justice, but I can recommend two articles that include some great stories about the man, by people who knew him well:

Al Vorspan was a Jewish Giant of Justice by Rabbi Jeff Salkin

Remembering Al Vorspan z”l: The Prophet who Loved to Laugh by Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Zikkrono livracha: May his memory always be for a blessing.

Teshuvah: Doing the Work

Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.

Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow (JB) has been accused of a racist act or words.
  2. Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
  3. JB insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
  4. Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
  5. Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
  6. JB hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
  7. JB says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
  8. Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.

Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.

Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
  2. Talking heads do their thing.
  3. JB meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
  4. JB issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
  5. JB says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
  6. JB says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
  7. JB says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
  8. JB executes action plan.
  9. JB says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”

Notice that the person doing most of the talking is Joe Blow, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.

Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.

You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.

Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.

NO. MORE. HOSTAGES.

Image: Two American hostages in Iran. Nov 4, 1979.

The “partial government shutdown” has now been going on for over a month. Federal workers are working without pay or not working at all – and will never be paid. People are losing their homes, dodging bill collectors, and having to worry about food for their kids.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

The Trump Administration decided to discourage asylum-seekers from applying to the U.S. at our southern border. To accomplish this, they have separated parents from children, in many cases not bothering to track where those children went after the separation. Their apologists say, “Well, don’t break the law” – but those children will be scarred forever and will probably hate the U.S.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

Not quite 40 years ago, our country was enraged and horrified when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage and held for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. There was a lot of talk then about how dishonorable this was as a tactic for international relations. There was a lot of talk then about the savagery of a government that would do such a thing. There was a lot of talk, and we’ve had a hostile relationship with the government of Iran ever since.

But now we have an administration that takes hostages: little children, people running from unimaginable trouble, and its own workers.

It’s time we stood up to this government that has no shame and no morals. I’m contemplating what an all-day-5-days-a-week picket of the federal building in Oakland would do to my body, and I want to cry at the thought, but I feel a moral imperative to take action.

Ideas, my readers? What shall we do? Watching TV and railing on Twitter isn’t enough. Arguing about Women’s Marches isn’t enough. Sending letters doesn’t seem to be doing the job.

I’ve had enough.

In Every Generation, We Must Leave Egypt

Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

Pesachim 116b

This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.

In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.

What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.

I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.

Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.

I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.

You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.

If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”

This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.

It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.