9 Steps Across the Narrow Bridge

Image: Narrow suspended footbridge. Photo by skeeze/pixabay.

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Nachman’s advice, “the main thing is to have no fear at all” seems like a bit of black humor. If a bridge is high and narrow, how can we NOT be afraid?

And in times of political uncertainty, how are we not to panic? But at the same time, the stakes are far too high for panic – the real question is, how are we to endure?

Here are nine Jewish strategies that will keep us grounded as we cross the “narrow bridge” of the coming years:

  1. Choose One Issue or Institution and Make it Yours. A young man I know who lives with a mental illness has been wonderfully calm through the past several weeks. I asked him how he did it, and he said, “If I try to pay attention to everything that is happening that is bad, I’ll just panic and get sick. Instead, I called Planned Parenthood and volunteered. I decided that my issue is reproductive rights. Someone else will have to take care of other things.” For those prone to anxiety, this seems to me to be a genius move. Pick one thing, and pour yourself into it.
  2. Make a Routine of Activism. Just as water is both gentle and powerful, trickling through stone to make the Grand Canyon, you can make a powerful routine of activism. Make a certain number of phone calls every day or week. Write a real letter to your congressperson and/or senators every week. Staffers tell us that phone calls and “snail mail” are the most powerful way to persuade elected officials, especially if they arrive regularly. Consider making a regular “writing date” with some friends over coffee or tea.
  3. Plan a Budget for Donations. Tzedakah, giving to relieve suffering, can be a very empowering mitzvah. Even a small donation, combined with others, can be helpful to a struggling organization. However, it is important to give the right amount for our resources: not too much, not too little. Review your monthly budget, and then come up with a figure for monthly giving. Then you will know that you are doing what you can to support good organizations or people but you are not giving beyond your means. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is forbidden to give beyond our means, because if we do it too much, we’ll wind up in need of tzedakah ourselves.
  4. Choose News Sources Wisely. Don’t get your news from Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to a respectable newspaper or two, learn to recognize the names of good journalists. If subscriptions are too expensive, your public library has free access to all the main papers, either electronically or in print form.
  5. Use Social Media Wisely. Be a canny consumer of social media. As tempting as it is to click on “clickbait” headlines, ignore them. They are garbage.  I follow some of those journalists I like on Twitter, and they often point me to articles in respectable media that I might have missed. I use Facebook to connect to friends, and I minimize contact with people who seem excitable and who pass along that nasty “clickbait.”
  6. Join a Synagogue. Synagogues keep us connected with other Jews. We combine for social action. We learn together about anti-Semitism and ways to fight it. We pray and study Torah together. We equip our children to live as Jews in the world. Joining a synagogue is both a gift to yourself and an investment in the Jewish future.
  7. Pray. Find a Jewish prayer that works for you. A regular siddur (prayer book) will have prayers for the government. It has prayers for sleep. It has prayers for all sorts of things. I have some articles on this blog that look deeply at certain prayers, and I’ll post more. Find prayers that speak to you, and say them again and again. Prayers can help us shape ourselves into the people we want to become. Attend services both to pray and to learn more prayers.
  8. Study Torah. Torah study can ground our activism, and remind us of things we might otherwise forget. I have been posting weekly lists of sermons on the Torah portion every Friday. It’s as much for my own benefit as it is for readers. What are you doing to deepen your engagement in Torah?
  9. Attend to Ordinary Mitzvot. Political activism is important, but the needs of our neighbors are important too. Visit a sick friend. Take food to someone who needs it. Help make a minyan at a shiva house. Rejoice at a wedding. Keep Shabbat. Do deeds of kindness to friends and to strangers. Study Torah. Invite friends over for a meal or coffee. Smile and be patient with the immigrant at the cash register. All these things make a real difference in the world, and each of them grounds us in mitzvot that will strengthen us.

All of these are things that will perform two jobs at once: they will make the world better, and they will keep us calmer, as well. All the world may be a narrow bridge, but if we put one foot in front of the other, we’ll get across.

 

Doubling Down on Justice

This past August 5, the Movement for Black Lives published a 47,000 word platform that has hit a nerve in the American Jewish community. Most of the furor has focussed on a single hot-button word in the document: genocide. The rest of the attention has gone to a call for support of BDS, divestment from all things Israeli.

I have been quiet while I read and studied the document itself and read reactions from Jews whose opinions I respect. 

Today Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles published an article in the Jewish Journal that says what I’d like to say, only much better than I could ever say it. So instead of blathering here I will post a link to it for you.

Guest Blogger: Action on Racism

Bailey Nichols is a businessperson in Oakland, CA, and my friend. She posted this very practical suggestion on her Facebook page, and I asked if I could repost it here. It’s important that we let our public servants know when we taxpayers and voters are not satisfied with the behavior of the police or any other public servant who represents us. Fussing on social media (or in a blog!) is well and good but it is not action. I’m planning to take Bailey’s suggestion and I hope that my U.S. readers will do so as well.

Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board meets twice a month.

The Mayor of Baton Rouge (the city where Alton Sterling was murdered) is Kip Holden.
(222) 389-5100 mayor@brgov.com

Baton Rouge city council contact info https://brgov.com/dept/council/

The Mayor of Falcon Heights (the city where Philandro Castile was murdered) is Peter Lindstrom (651) 917-2977 mayorlindstrom@gmail.com

Falcon Heights city government contact info can be found here
http://www.falconheights.org/index.asp…

These are just 2 names out of countless others. Behind every person of color murdered by the police there is a network of city, county, and national officials who are sitting idly by, allowing Americans to be killed (by the force employed by the community to protect them) because of the color of their skin. They allow this to happen because of their own racism or complete apathy to the plight of their non-white constituents.

Pick a name, pick a city, let them know that racism is real and unacceptable, apathy is culpability, black lives matter and the whole world is watching.

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Two entire worlds disappeared in the last 24 hours when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died at the hands of police. Witnesses recorded both shootings, and the police do not look good in the video.

Late last night, my son posted on his Facebook page: “I am up late tonight, unable to sleep, sad angry and scared. I didn’t know these men, but I could have. Next time this could be someone I know and love.”

Do not tell me that “All Lives Matter.” I know that. The question is, do we American taxpayers know it? Because right now it looks as if we do not know it. It looks like those in power in America believe that black lives don’t matter. It looks like we and our police believe that all African American males are so dangerous that one must shoot first and ask questions later.

 

That is why it is necessary to say #BlackLivesMatter. We say it because we must learn it. “All Lives Matter” is a platitude that attempts to cover our inadequacies with the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter points to the problem – the fact that this morning, two more families are without beloved fathers who were primary breadwinners.

Two entire worlds were destroyed. It matters.

 

 

A Time for Work, A Time For Change

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (people) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid road of human dignity.” – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. King wrote those words over 45 years ago, but they remain true today. Then was the time for positive change, and now is also the time to make change in our institutions and in our hearts, if justice is truly to be done in the United States.

I have watched and listened as the recent violence in France has been discussed in the press. One thing seemed to me to stand out above almost everything else: it seems to be a human inclination to regard those different from ourselves with fear and anger. If we are to progress as human beings, we must fight against that inclination with every ounce of our being. Whether the perceived “other” is dark-skinned, or wearing a hijab, or Jewish, or has a foreign-sounding last name, underneath it all they are human, exactly like ourselves, and they deserve the respect and dignity we give everyone else.

Here in the United States we created a web of legal and cultural barriers to equality that still bedevil us, and it is up to us to do something about it. Lip service is worse than doing nothing at all; lip service is nothing but soothing laziness. This Martin Luther King Day, we white Americans need to challenge ourselves to do more, to do today, to speak up when something is not right and to keep speaking up until it is made right.

We cannot distract ourselves with list-making for persons of color – they are more than qualified to make their own to-do lists. We cannot distract ourselves with celebrations for work done 50 or 40 or 30 years ago; we need to focus on the work that remains undone. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by those who benefit from the current situation, either; our task is to hunger and thirst and work for justice until justice is manifest among us. This is our time; it is up to us.

 

Justice, Justice

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף

Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.

We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.

One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.

So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.

Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.

President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.

If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.

The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:

  • We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
  • If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
  • We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
  • There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.

I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.

There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.

 

Justice, Justice, Part One

English: Logo of the .
Food Stamps, if you can get them, will provide $31.50 a week. After that, it’s time to go find a line for the Food Bank. Can you live on $31.50 a week for food – indefinitely?

Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.

One was this morning.  I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.

My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”

The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up.  I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.

That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.

Justice, justice you will pursue.

Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.