2017 = 1933 — yes, no, sort of?

Sort of. Enough to be worried & to be vigilant, organizing. But different enough that it warrants avoiding the mistake of oversimplifying or misreading the situation. Here are my thoughts on what’s similar to Germany in the early ’30s, and what’s emphatically different:

Similar

  • Scapegoating as a staple of the regime’s political strategy.
  • Contempt for democratic institutions and a message of the great leader cutting through the red tape and “getting things done.”
  • Alpha-male posturing and misogyny.
  • “Enforcers” serving the leader, using threats, intimidation, propaganda, lies, public humiliation, harassment, and at times violence to shut down all opposition.
  • Message to the masses that they’ve been humiliated and taken advantage of because of their weakness, and that the great leader is going to make the nation “great again” and that the nation is going to assert its dominance and resume its rightful place as the alpha-male nation in the world.
  • Well-developed instruments of disseminating fake news, lies, stereotypes, fear-mongering, and other kinds of propaganda.
  • Promises of positive economic changes for working class members of the majority culture.
  • Alliance building with other autocrats, strongmen, fascists, and totalitarian leaders.

Different

  • Germany in the 1930’s was sunk in an epic depression with hyper-inflation and massive unemployment. The U.S. never hit that level of economic distress even during the worst of the recent Bush administration’s economic meltdown and its aftermath, and despite the ongoing structural class/wealth/income inequality in this country, things have actually been getting better economically for most Americans, even though it’s been a slow improvement in parts of the country. And the peril and uncertainty that existed for so many working class Germans back then – I’m talking “will we be able to afford the food at the grocery store in 3 months” kind of peril – doesn’t exist for working class people here.
  • Germany had, at the end of WWI, been utterly overrun by Allied troops and much of it had been flattened. Huge numbers of German soldiers had been killed, and huge numbers who returned had PTSD. Germany’s surrender agreement saddled it with huge international debts, and it had been forced to disarm. Much of the rest of the world felt disgust and horror towards defeated Germany, because of its inhumane and shameless conduct towards civilians during WWI. There’s just nothing comparable to that going on here and now in the U.S. We’ve not been invaded or defeated by foreign powers, our infrastructure wasn’t reduced to rubble, and we weren’t forced to sign humiliating surrender agreements that assured that we would have a miserable economy for decades to come. Most of the world admires the U.S. and despite all our faults we actually have continued to represent many of the highest hopes of people all over the globe. In Germany just before Hitler, the vast majority of Germans felt humiliated and oppressed by other nations. In 2016 America, at least half the country, if not more, doesn’t feel that way. Trump has taken the discontent of his followers, which is real, and connect it to a perception of the U.S. being weak and humiliated internationally that is not shared by at least half the population of the country.
  • The U.S. is way, way more racially, ethnically, religiously, and otherwise diverse than Germany was then. Some of its most powerful states, economically and culturally, are already white-minority states or are places with a century or more of a multicultural way of life, beginning way before the term “multicultural” was even coined.
  • This one may sound a bit odd, but the U.S. just twice elected a black / bi-racial president, a champion of a multicultural, religiously tolerant, LGBT positive, eggheadish guy with an Arabic middle name, and his approval ratings are still very strong. Take a look:approval
  • In 1933, Germany’s post-war democracy was less than two decades old, and much of its structure had been imposed upon it by its enemies. The very democratic institutions of Germany were tainted in the public mind with the humiliation of defeat, and with skepticism towards the actual purpose of the institutions, as many Germans believed that their post-war democracy was merely a con designed to keep Germany under the thumb of France, England, and the U.S. Today in this country, I have no doubt that our democracy is in for one of its greatest historical existential threats with the incoming administration. But, the U.S.’s democracy was self-proclaimed 240 years ago, and our society’s mythic story of its origins treats our democratic institutions not only as sacred, but on some level as the essence of who we are as a nation. Also, unlike Germany, the U.S. fought a brutal and horrific Civil War that resulted in a rebirth of the republic, deeply ingraining an American identity of multiracial equality and citizenship.
  • The U.S. Civil Rights movement, which for sure is part of what some Trump voters backlashed against, is nevertheless still the defining series of events in American post-WW2 identity formation. What we know from this election is that a demagogue can win the Electoral College, but not necessarily the popular vote, by running in part against the values of the Civil Rights movement. That’s not insignificant, but at least half the country not only supports the values of the Civil Rights movement, its very understanding of what America is and what it aspires to be are grounded in that movement’s ideals. That’s a formidable force, and it’s a coalition of Americans who’ve experienced the last 8 years as having raised the expectations of our society to be ever more inclusive, ever more equal, and ever more willing to engage cultural change towards those ends. I think it’s safe to assume that many Americans who are part of minority groups, or who are aligned with the Civil Rights values I’m talking about, are going to resent having those achievements treated with contempt by America’s incoming leaders. Having experienced an increase in power, respect, and opportunity over the last 8 years, I believe many of these Americans will respond politically to attempts to reverse those gains. I say that bearing in mind that some in the minority communities of this country were feeling frustrated with the slow pace of progress even in the Obama years. I’m wary of predicting anything anymore, so I won’t. But I do think it’s fair to say that these forces and large blocs of citizens are still big parts of American society, and nothing like that existed in Germany 1933.
  • It’s a bit odd to say, but we still will have Barack Obama. Not as president, but he is still young, and he’s a brilliant political organizer. I have no idea where he’ll put his talents and energies, but I’m pretty certain he’ll put them somewhere. He may step out of the spotlight for a while out of respect for the traditions of the presidency, but he’s already made it clear that he’s still very interested in being a force for change and political organizing. And his civility, dignity, integrity, and ability to read and communicate well in different American sub-cultural frameworks are all still a part of what he brings to the table. Suffice it to say, Hitler’s predecessors in German leadership didn’t leave office with high popular approval ratings, nor did they have the values and talents that Obama does.

Stand by for more – I’m still working on this, but I’m posting it for now incomplete.

Narrative Wreck

Along with at least 63 million fellow citizens, I’ve been all kinds of a wreck since the election. I don’t see myself as having any special insight, wisdom, or forward-looking strategy to offer, and I’ve been ambivalent about blogging for all kinds of reasons. I’m not sure if what I might have to add to the conversation is useful, but this morning I find myself following my instinct to write. Maybe it’s the coffee.

The one idea that keeps resurfacing for me is that the election of Donald Trump is an event that has so profoundly disrupted, frightened, shocked, and disoriented me that it has thrust me, kicking and screaming, into what some have called a state of “narrative wreckage.” I’m working on an upcoming book about an ancient 1st – 2nd Century rabbi (I know, another big money making book, right?), and I’m going to excerpt a small part of the current draft, because as I’ve been working on this book I’ve gotten into this whole narrative wreck idea. Here goes:

Arthur W. Frank is a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, and he is the author of The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics published in 1995. In the book, Frank discusses the ways that people cope with the disorientation, disruption, and chaos that come with the arrival of a serious illness or disability, with a special focus on how illness affects their life narratives. I was assigned readings from his book in rabbinical school in some of my pastoral counseling classes.

wounded

This is a great book. To this day I’m a bit baffled by the publisher’s choice of image for the cover. I guess they were going for a sense of someone vulnerable (i.e. naked) suddenly being off balance, falling backwards. But I’m afraid the cover really just looks a lot like … well, I’ll let you decide.

As a congregational rabbi, Frank’s ideas aided me in my efforts to provide people with helpful pastoral counseling during times of crisis and loss. …

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank claims that when someone discovers that he or she has a serious, life-altering illness, the person becomes a “narrative wreck” (Frank credits this phrase to the American philosopher, Ronald Dworkin). The idea is that each one of us has an operating narrative that orients our lives. Serious illness interrupts that narrative and, initially, throws its subject into narrative chaos. …

Let me be clear that I’m not saying I think the election = the country suddenly having a serious illness. In the book I’m working on, I also explain that the illness metaphor doesn’t exactly fit the point I end up making about the time of the ancient rabbis’ historical situation.

What I find helpful, however, is the idea that sometimes life brings incredible disruptions – a death, a war, an epidemic, a shocking election with serious implications for millions’ of peoples’ safety and future – and that Frank’s description of the ways that we sometimes confront these narrative earthquakes may be helpful to us in our situation now.

Let me quote Frank again. In describing his work with people facing the news of serious illness or disability, he observes that for each of these people, the operating narrative each of them functioned within, whether consciously or not, became suddenly “. . . wrecked because its present [was] not what the past was supposed to lead up to, and the future [was] scarcely thinkable.” I think it’s fair to say that about half the U.S. population, at minimum, is feeling something like this, not to mention who-knows-how-many people around the world who are still trying to pick their jaws up off the floor in response to last November 8th.

Here’s another quote from the current draft of my book:

Frank writes that, having become a narrative wreck because of the shock and disruption of serious disease, the person coping with the illness faces the challenge of having to find a way to re-narrate his or her life going forward.

That’s part of what’s been so hard for me, and I assume for so many others, these past 12 days. The many competing theories of why Trump won, what the Democrats did wrong, what the media did wrong, what the Russians did to us, what the Republicans did with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the competing rants about what the Democrats should do going forward all have added to my sense of confusion and disorientation. I don’t know whose analysis is right, and I don’t know what the best way forward is. I still can’t accept what happened, and I can’t simply shift into a posture of hunkering down and helping to do the work that now needs to be done because I’m confused about what exactly that work is. (Okay, on some of the immediate issues, like Bannon, or objecting publicly now to the creation of any kind of national registry for Muslims, I’m not having confusion about what to do, but I’m talking bigger picture than that.)

I’m still stuck somewhere in the swirl of “did this really happen?” and, to quote John Oliver, “what the f*** are we supposed to do now?”screenshot-2016-11-20-at-11-17-06-am On the second question, I hear various activists, pundits, and politicians offering very different recommendations.

Some people are saying organize, resist, and fight! Others are saying try to understand our white working class & rural neighbors!  Some are saying there needs to be a combo of both. And some are still saying it’s not too late to stop this from happening! I’m thinking of the petitions to the Electors urging them to either put Hillary in the White House or cause the House of Representatives to select the next president, presumably a Republican other than Trump. No, I don’t believe there’s any chance that’s going to happen, and yes, I signed on to all those petitions.

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank describes the people he has worked with as ultimately responding to the crisis that serious illness has brought into their lives by trying to find a way to re-narrate their lives going forward in one of three common ways: the Restitution Story, the Chaos Story, and the Quest Story. Some of his patients would move from one of these coping strategies to another. Frank clearly thinks that only the third option is the most helpful, though he doesn’t judge people who end up going with either of the first two strategies. Here’s what I’ve written in the draft of my book about these three kinds of coping responses to the experience of narrative wreckage caused by serious illness:

The Restitution Story treats the illness as something temporary that medicine is going to heal completely. The subject tells herself that the interruption it is causing is only transitory, and that her pre-illness self-narrative will resume shortly. If this in fact is medically true, then the Restitution Story can work well for the subject. But, the Restitution Story can also be an expression of denial, serving only to delay the subject’s need for a new life narrative.

When a seriously ill person embraces what Frank calls a Chaos Story, he gets “sucked into the undertow of illness and the disasters that attend to it.” His new story is, in some respects, not even a coherent story – there is no viable narrative, except maybe the expectation of continued chaos or doom. He has no sense of a path towards a viable future meaningful life narrative. Here’s the contemporary American Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, quoting Hannah Arendt as she reflects on this idea. Salzberg writes:

In commenting on the power of a story to give our lives cohesion, writer Hannah Arendt says, “The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.” To perceive the events of our lives as “sheer happenings” is indeed unbearable. [I wanted to explore a new story that] would take the scattered shards of my life and fit them all together in a new and different way.

The Chaos Story is full of panic and disorientation, and it is painful to witness someone who is living within its brutal and sorrowful grip.

Finally, there is the Quest Story, which Frank argues is the healthiest and the noblest kind of new narrative for the person facing severe illness to adopt. “Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.” When a person facing severe illness develops a quest narrative, she engages in an act of courage and creativity that enables her to tell a new story about her life that incorporates the disruption of her previous life narrative, accepts the parts of that narrative that are permanently lost, and designates new meaningful destinations and goals for her life.

For a Quest Story to be successful, Frank writes that it needs to be what he calls a “good story.” A good story” is one that is honest about the past and what’s been lost, while also setting forth a new direction in which the subject’s goal is to “rise to the occasion” that has been created by the changed reality – including the losses and new challenges. The Quest Story that is also a good story . . . meet[s] suffering head on . . ., accepting the illness and seeking “to use it” so that it propels the subject into a quest to create meaning and goodness within a new and unexpected framework that couldn’t have been anticipated before the arrival of the illness.

There’s another part of the challenge of embracing a Quest Story that Frank discusses that I think is important to mention here. He writes that a surprising number of the patients he works with use some version of the metaphor of being shipwrecked to describe their experience of being confronted with the news of their serious illness or new disability. He writes:

Almost every illness story I have read carries some sense of being shipwrecked by the storm of disease, and many use this metaphor explicitly. Extending this metaphor describes storytelling as repair work on the wreck. The repair begins by taking stock of what survives the storm. The old map may now be less than useful, but it has hardly been carbonized. Disease happens in a life that already has a story, and this story goes on, changed by illness but also affecting how the illness story is formed. (p. 54)

What stands out to me in this quote is that if the moment we’re living in is calling upon us to develop a Quest Story, Frank reminds us that that task will involve identifying which parts of our shipwrecked narrative are truly lost, and which parts are still intact and are going to be important components of a successful Quest Story, a “good story.”

One thing that’s clear to me now as much as any other time in my life: I need a narrative to operate within in order for my life to feel meaningful and worthwhile. I need a new personal life narrative – a mythic story of Maurice’s life – because of this election. I’ve come to accept that this election in particular is that personal, that huge, for me, and that the narrative wreckage I’m experiencing is literally on par with some of the worst narrative-wreck-moments I’ve experienced in my life, including the sudden and traumatic loss of my father when I was 18. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Beyond my personal need for a new, good, functional life narrative, progressives in this country collectively need a new organizing narrative that gives meaning and purpose, and a sense of hope, to guide and focus our activism and provide us with an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual bedrock that can give us inner calm and strong faith in our vision. What is that narrative? I still don’t know.

But. Frank’s work on narrative wreckage and illness feels really useful to me right now. Listening to him, I feel a little bit more clarity and hope. His writing says to me that even if we are currently stuck in Restitution Stories and Chaos Stories – and I am definitely still shifting back and forth between those two a lot – our aim should be towards a Quest Story. I can picture getting to a Quest Story for my personal life narrative. I don’t know what it looks like, but Frank helps me remember that it will still include a lot of the elements of my pre-Trumpocalypse personal operating narrative.

The same applies to progressives in America. Frank reminds us that despite this shipwreck (or earthquake, or whatever you want to call it), we have a lot of maps and assets that have survived intact. That includes the religious, moral, and historical wisdom of the Jewish people, which given the devastations and crises Jews have survived over many centuries, is probably more prescient than we realize. It includes the remarkable social progress that African-American leaders and organizations have brought into being in our society through many decades of creative organizing, moral suasion, inspiring preaching, and inspiring leadership. It still includes countless lessons learned and battles won by progressives throughout American history. Trump’s win doesn’t erase the power of MLK. Or Stonewall. Or Cesar Chavez. Or Harriet Tubman. Or even the fact that, as Jon Stewart recently put it, the same country that elected Trump also elected Obama twice.

That said, some things have been permanently lost in this shipwreck, and identifying them and letting them go is, according to Frank, part of what makes the difference between working with a dysfunctional operating narrative or developing a healthy Quest Story. At this moment I’m not sure what those things are, but I expect that’ll become clearer.

I’ll close out this post with some early thoughts about what some elements of a new Quest Story might look like for progressives. In order for a new, shared progressive narrative to be what Frank calls “a good story,” I think it needs to include a moral imperative to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors” (Lev 19:16) and to be our brothers and sisters keepers (Gen 4:9). For me, as a white Jewish man with a middle class job and a graduate degree, my freak out over Trump, while intense, frightening, and excruciating, does not include the sudden dread that my cousins or school mates might be deported. It doesn’t include the threat of a national registry for people of my religion (though I’ve signed a pledge to register as a Muslim if such a policy is attempted, and I hope others will do likewise). My trauma and disorientation doesn’t include what millions of women in this country now have to face in the form of increased fear of consequence-free sexual assault, nor am I stuck suddenly having to wonder whether in a couple years my marriage to my beloved partner will be reversed. I’m not saying that as a Jew I’m scot free – not by any means. For the first time in at least 20 years, I’ve been on the direct receiving end of anti-Semitic hate speech, and many of my rabbinic colleagues have described the same. Shit got real for me, for sure, but I’m less in the cross-hairs of the most aggressive and threatening aspects of the angry right wing than a lot of my neighbors. Anyway, my point is that a Quest Story for progressives needs to include a mandate to stand up for the most vulnerable and viciously targeted groups in our society, now and going forward, and not just for the less vulnerable to stand up for the most vulnerable, but for all of us who share these values to stand up for each other.

I’m also guessing that while a Quest Story that works will need to motivate an organized and honorable defense of the vulnerable, it will also need to motivate organized and honorable efforts to try to connect with and have transformative experiences with Trump supporters. I say “with” because I do believe there’s a role in a new progressive Quest Story for insisting on the humanity of our neighbors who went for Trump and for trying to better understand their needs, hopes, and fears, and yet there’s also a need to hold firm to the convictions we hold that bigoted and dehumanizing beliefs don’t get a free pass under the banner of economic insecurity or perceived cultural disenfranchisement. Perhaps this looks something like MLK’s core civil rights message, which never wavered in its determination to advance the rights of African-Americans, but which invited white Americans to join in the creation of a society of equals and insisted that we would all be – and it hurts to use this phrase but I will – stronger together in this new vision.

I’m out of steam, so I’m going to stop writing now. If you read this, thanks. If you have ideas about what a healthy Quest Story might look like, I’m very interested.

Note #1: I need to get back to this and add in some citations for works that I’ve quoted or referenced. Sorry not to have done that just yet.

Note #2: I want to thank my teacher from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Dr. Barbara Breitman, in whose course on pastoral counseling we read The Wounded Storyteller and discussed these ideas at length.

What I’ve learned so far as a HRC campaign volunteer in Philly

So, I got a job just outside of Philadelphia, and one small but important reason I’m glad to be a Pennsylvania resident at this time is that I get to vote in a meaningful swing state in the election next month. I’ve also been volunteering with HRC’s campaign, mostly doing voter registration shifts with one of the campaign’s 7 offices in the greater Philly era. (Side note: Trump campaign has 2 offices in the same area.) I’ve also done a little bit of phone banking and participated in my first ever text-a-thon last Wednesday night (more on that later).

hrc7

Two of my co-campaigners registering voters outside a Wal-Mart in NE Philly. On the left is an intern for HRC’s campaign who has been working for a few months. She’s 14 and was the seasoned expert volunteer. Next to her is a retail store manager who decided to respond to her fear of a Trumpocalypse by joining a campaign for the first time in her life.

Doing this work has been inspiring and emotionally grounding for me during a campaign that, thanks to Trump & the accompanying cray cray, has managed to freak out huge portions of the population unlike anything in my lifetime.

First of all, HRC’s ground game – at least as I’ve experienced working with it – is organized, friendly, and fast. Beginning with my initial visit to http://www.hillaryclinton.com and navigating to their very user-friendly web page for volunteering, I’ve been repeatedly impressed.

When I started looking into volunteering, I thought I’d do two things: register voters in Philly, and then fly to Florida to do GOTV the last few days before the election. At the time I was thinking this way the race was pretty much a tie and I figured FL was the place where I could have the most impact. So I followed their interface, which made it very easy for me to input my preferences to do the voter reg in Philly and the GOTV in Florida.

Within a couple days, I’d received calls and emails from the Bustleton Ave HRC campaign office in Philly, which was the one I had selected even though it isn’t the closest one to where I live. (What inspired me was shopping at a Ross in that part of town and seeing the overwhelming diversity of the folks there, and thinking “we should be doing voter reg right here”). I also received a personal email from a campaign office in Orlando, FL, which was the place in FL I had indicated I wanted to work (I’d read that there were large #’s of newly arrived residents from Puerto Rico in Orlando, and because they’re already U.S. citizens, they’re able to vote in FL as soon as they establish residency). The FL person

warmly encouraged me to come take part in GOTV there. She also asked if I needed a place to stay (!) and whether I might be able to bring a friend along.

So, get this. Back in Philly, when I go out for my first voter reg shift, I have a great time. They pair me with an affable 40-something white guy who it turns out is an osteopathic doctor, is Jewish, and is every bit as extroverted as I am shy. We only registered a couple new voters outside a Shop Rite, but probably 200 people or more saw us with our Hillary gear as we called out “Registered to vote?” to passers-by. We had lots of conversations, which I enjoyed a lot. I’d say about half the people who came by were Black, maybe a quarter Latino, a tenth Asian, and the rest White. Probably 2/3 were women. Occasionally women wearing hijabs came by. Most people who responded to our barkers’ call told us they were already registered. This neighborhood is solid D, so there were only a few Trumpsters, and in fact they were, at least by appearances, young or middle-aged white men.

Ok, so after enjoying my first venture, I re-up and return the following week for another shift. This time they pair me with the two women in the photo above. When we arrive at hrc2the Wal-Mart, we find this guy already there with a clipboard, asking everyone who passes him if they’ve registered. Is he with the Trump campaign? was my first thought, admittedly based on a kind of profiling that I found myself having to actively resist in this toxic and hateful climate (which yes I frankly blame fully on Trump and the GOP’s long years of promoting racist memes and giving succor to extremists). Well, turns out he was also with HRC’s campaign – from another campaign office – a duplication of efforts that I took as a sign of health in the ground game. I mean, you want the left hand to know what the right hand is doing in a campaign, but this is the kind of inadvertent inefficiency that is borne out of having lots of offices, lots of staff, and lots of volunteers. He was a long-time union guy, with a Philly working class accent (“Who sent youz guys?”) The white woman who was part of the crew I showed up with also had a working class Philly accent. The black young woman – a high school frosh – was from the Philly suburbs, her accent and presentation reflecting suburban middle class life. And then there was me, the middle-aged Jewish white guy who has lived a bunch of places.

Continue reading

Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s letter to her congregation re the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

Offered here out of my personal admiration for the work of my colleague, Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, MA.

A letter to congregants about BLM and the Jewish community
by  Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Friday, August 19, 2016

*****

Dear congregants,

Two weeks ago, upon my return from a four-day retreat at the Weston Priory in Vermont, I discovered in my accumulated email that in the short time I was away, a storm had engulfed much of the Jewish community.  During that week, a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement released a platform entitled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. <policy.m4bl.org>”  It is an extensive, powerful document, and I would highly recommend reading it for all those interested in issues including everything from economic policy to criminal justice reform to voting rights to reparations to U.S. foreign policy.

It was in reaction to a part of this latter section, “Invest-Divest,” that the firestorm in the Jewish community broke out.  In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. role in that conflict, the document uses very strong language that, to many in the Jewish community (and I will include myself in that group), seemed out of proportion and extreme (including the use of the word “genocide” to refer to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people).  There were a number of hasty reactions to this portion of the document, including from our Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which seemed to condemn the entire Black Lives Matter enterprise, because of this one section of the platform.

The reason you have not heard from me sooner on this issue is because after my initial sense of dismay and confusion at reading the “Vision” document, I began seeing a whole variety of responses – all from within the Jewish community.  While some individuals and organizations felt the need to question and condemn the language about Israel, even if praising much of the rest of the platform, others within the community – many, but not all, Jews of Color – expressed a deep sense of hurt by what they deemed organizational Jewish abandonment of the cause of racial justice, and/or an unwillingness to face up to the realities of Israeli policies.  My head and my heart have been in some amount of turmoil, as I have tried hard to really listen to a wide variety of perspectives and to think about how my own perspective as a white person frames and limits my understanding. I realized I had a lot of listening and thinking to do before I could say anything of any benefit or use.

What I wanted to offer you here is not one more response to all of the issues raised by the “Vision” document and the reactions it provoked – there have been some very good pieces written about that, and I have included links below to a variety of explorations of the complex issues involved, everything from the complicated reality of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. to anti-Semitism on the Left to racism within the American Jewish community to the legacy and impact of the Israeli occupation.  Today I wanted to share with you where I see the opportunities arising out of a painful few weeks.

In observing my own evolution over this time, and in witnessing the heartfelt wrestling of many of my rabbinic colleagues, I am appreciative of the deep questions that have arisen in the wake of the release of the Black Lives Matter platform. Questions about what it means to be a white ally in the struggle for racial justice; questions about how the realities of imbedded, often unconscious racism and anti-Semitism shape our attitudes and our actions; questions about how we as an American Jewish community can do a better job of wrestling with the complex reality of Israel and the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people; questions about what it means to be a racially diverse American Jewish community; questions about how to address the fears and historical trauma that continue to shape so much of our discourse within the American Jewish community.

Two weeks after opening those first emails that made me aware of this issue, I am actually feeling cautiously hopeful.  The level of distress uncovered in these past few weeks signals to me there is, in fact, both a need and a desire within the American Jewish community – in all its fractured complexity, in all its diversity – to wrestle with some very difficult realities that we cannot avoid.  There are conversations happening now that were not happening two weeks ago, in all parts of the Jewish communal world.  There are voices being heard that were not heard a few weeks ago.  There is some heartbreak, but a broken heart is an open heart, and I am hopeful that with open hearts, and a willingness to really listen, we can, as a broader community, reach a new level of understanding, and new kinds of commitments to creating a more just and equitable world.

Here at CDT, I want to express appreciation for our Understanding Race group, which has been doing its own learning about race and racism, and bringing opportunities to the community for discussion and learning.  In the coming year, we will be exploring as a community issues around racial diversity within the congregation, and how to become a more diverse community as well as a community where Jews of Color can feel fully seen and respected.  Under the auspices of the Tikkun Olam committee, we will continue our work in the realm of criminal justice reform, and explore new ways to ally with local struggles for racial justice.  And I hope too that we will build on our trip to Israel and the West Bank this summer, and have opportunities for further learning and discussion in that realm.

One final note – I am heading off for one more retreat, my last get-away of the summer, this Sunday through the following Sunday.  While I’m away, I will not be checking email. But I do welcome your responses and thoughts and questions, so please know that if you send something to me and do not hear right back, it is because I am off-line, and I will respond upon my return.

I wanted to give the “last word,” as it were, to a local Black leader whom I deeply respect, and whom we hosted a few years ago during our Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Shabbat celebration – Tina Chery, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (the organization which we support each year at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace).  She sent this moving testimonial to supporters of the Institute this past week, and I offer it here for those who did not receive it – it’s a 12-minute video, reflections that put Ms. Chery’s work for peace in Boston in the context of the violence of this summer and larger issues of institutional racism (and please see below for links to some of the articles I referenced above).  Hers is both a prophetic and a healing voice, even as she puts into words her own heartbreak.

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu,” the “Shabbat of Comfort” following Tisha B’av.  It signals the turn from destruction toward redemption and renewal.  May we seek that comfort, that renewal, in a willingness to really listen to one another; to embrace the difficult questions; to turn towards – not away – from our own agitation; to persevere in our desire for a more just and loving world.  I want to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and reflection, healing and comfort.

Rabbi Toba

[Links to outside articles for further reading:]

Learning about transgender inclusion on Reform movement webinar

I’m appreciating the chance to gain a better understanding of evolving societal understandings of gender and gender diversity. Great, clear presentation so far being led by Daniel Bahner of Keshet.

Keshet logo

The program is coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, known in Jewish community circles as “the RAC.” The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Youth and Gender Media Project also helped put it together.

I’m especially interested, given my new job as Associate Director of Affiliate Support with Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, in learning from the wisdom and experiences of these sponsoring organizations. They’ve done years of great work.

Because I’ve blogged about Rocky and Creed (and fully acknowledge how much I enjoy both films), there was a fun connection that came up in my mind when this webinar began. The first activity asked participants to generate stereotypical words and phrases that we associate with the gender binary notions of “boys” and “girls” / “women” and “men”. Not surprisingly, one of the words that came up a lot in reference to “women”/”girls” was pink. Daniel did a good job of reminding everyone that a lot of the aesthetics people in our culture tend to associate with men and/or women are so profoundly temporary and culture-bound. He did it by saying, “Remember, the founding fathers of this country wore wigs and high heels.” Anyway, this led me to remember that in the first Rocky movie, in 1976, when the big fight at the end finally happens, Rocky and his manager and trainers come out of his locker room and walk to the ring wearing pink. Pink robes, and for the manager and trainers, pink sweaters.

rocky pink

Anyway, I’m just appreciating this opportunity to learn and thinking about how I can work to be of service to the communities I will be serving in my new job.

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

A guest sermon I offered this weekend at First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ in Eugene, Oregon.

 

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.

My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.

Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.

Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.

On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.”[1] And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”[2]

I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.

I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few

Vera Brittain

 

women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.

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Exploring Connections btw Midrash & New Testament

I just had the pleasure of presenting a two-part series on connections between Midrash and New Testament writings to an interfaith audience in Corvallis, Oregon. We met at the Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal), and a local synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, co-sponsored the course. (Shout outs to Rev. Simon Justice and Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of the respective congregations!) Members of at least 3 other Christian churches in the area attended as well.

I used PowerPoint slideshows and I think they were really effective.

I’m using my blog to share links to them on Slideshare.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can find them here:

 

I’m interested in getting feedback, or in coming to your community to teach. It works great with a Jewish, Christian, or interfaith group.
thanks!