Tuesday, November 04, 2008

2007-2008 Work in The Justice at Brandeis University


April 8, 2008 (with Adam Zemel)
Forum Section
Beer Stance Deprives Students of Social Scene

March 25, 2008
News Section
The Sixties are Over- Politician Urges New Way to Take Action

February 12, 2008 (with Rachel Marder)
Forum Section
When It Comes to Israel We Need to Be More Open Minded

February 5, 2008
News Section
Ambassador to Speak on South African Politics

December 4, 2007
News Section
Global AIDS Campaign Reaches Out to Brandeis Students

November 20, 2007
News Section
Business Center to Open in NY Brandeis Alumni House

October 16, 2007
News Section
German Ambassador Gives Speech

Monday, February 04, 2008

Obama's Resonant Faith

For some time, and all the more so since President Bush’s move into the White House, the American public has associated faith and its infusion into politics as characteristic of the political Right. When raised in the public sphere, faith has meant believing in a more Judeo-Christian America whose foundations and well-being depend on a conservative social agenda- especially opposing abortion and gay marriage. It has meant a faith which holds that allowing a woman the right to reproductive choice and a person the right to choose his or her partner in matrimony can somehow rationalize an America in crisis; a faith which denies that a liberal can cling to his religion and maintain his integrity. Americans believing in a more nuanced faith have long lacked a champion of an alternative vision of religion, faith and politics behind which to rally. Some have fallen to the right where, although sometimes misrepresented, their religious allegiances are at least understood while others have gravitated to the left where seemingly few understand their convictions. Frustrated, still some others, often alienated youth, have ignored a politics with which they cannot identify.

Early this past summer, as candidates for the presidential nominations led their campaigns into full gear; anticipated questions about faith arose frequently. Republican candidates besides Minister Huckabee dealt cautiously with faith in order to avoid either alienating the Right’s Christian base which so handily supported President Bush or horrifying Republican moderates who saw Bush’s religious pandering as ultimately misguided and costly. Meanwhile, one candidate defied the analysts who assumed the left would struggle again with a long apparent weakness- continuing to ignore issues of faith and failing to inspire the faith which lies still in millions of Americans.

On June 28, 2007 Barack Obama stood before an evangelical audience at the “Building a Covenant for a New America” conference of the Christian poverty fighting organization, “Call to Renewal”. In a speech which a June 30, Washington Post Op-Ed called the “most important pronouncement by a Democract on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy…declared his independence from the Vatican in 1960”, Obama laid out his deeply impassioned religious calling and unique perspective. Remembering the nagging attack opponent religious-righter Alan Keyes leveled on his Christian faith during the 2004 Illinois Senate Race, Obama spoke of wrestling with his own faith and its tensions. With the “grounding of faith in struggle,” Obama affirmed that “faith doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts.” In his groundbreaking presentation, Obama acknowledged the problematic liberal tendency to shy away from discussions of faith. While emphasizing the need to bridge religious-secular gaps towards efforts of collaboration, he spoke of religion as an inspiration in his life and as a powerful force for social change.

Addressing the diversity of religious views and identities which makes America so dynamic Obama leveled, “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” Such an affirmation could not be timelier as religion around the world increasingly pursues particularistic, exclusive, us versus them, ideologies and behaviors. “No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack,” Obama reminded the audience. Carefully addressing the inherent contradiction between religion fundamentally rejecting compromise and politics fundamentally demanding it, Obama instructed further, “To base one's life on uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.” He acknowledged that, “faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.” Discussing the ultimate leaper of faith, “we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what [he] sees, true as those experiences may be,” Obama reasoned that arguments in the political realm require explanations, “accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” He advised further, “Let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been.” His message, to which these few excerpts do limited justice, continues to prove it rings true for so many so marginalized by the faith-politics status-quo in America.

Many credit Obama’s oratorical talent alone for his execution of a wildly successful grassroots campaign for the Democratic nomination. As critics continue to call his policies vague and his experience insufficient, Obama’s bid for the Presidency will ultimately depend on how he responds to these claims and if he proves himself capable. But for some time, neither a voice for a religious vision providing solid grounding for the left nor an ambassador for a left reaching out to the religiously inspired emerged. Moreover, no voice for religion as a tool for uniting rather than dividing the country prevailed. As a young liberal Jew, I believe Obama represents this emergent voice as a figure whose profound expressions of faith are both unique and deeply resonant. A dear friend of mine and leader of Students for Barack Obama on his campus recently shared with me how he continues to find contributing to the Obama campaign nothing short of “spiritually uplifting”. Judging by the truly diverse array of Americans giving in whatever ways they can to support Obama, I have to believe that he is not alone. That Barack Obama has dragged so many Americans off of the political periphery is a great testament to his personality, message and vision, and to his faith.

Along with a summary of the key values in Obama’s public statements on faith and politics, the full “Call to Renewal” speech can be found on the Barack Obama campaign website. He closes his monumental address with a prayer, “That we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It's a prayer worth praying,” he says, “and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come.” What an exciting, empowering, and truly novel idea.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Aliyah in Question

ARZA (Zionist branch of the Reform movement) recently asked me to prepare a short reflection on the issue of Aliyah as a person who has visited Israel many times but thus far decided not to move my life to Israel. I struggled with the prompt. I had a hard time coming up with the Jewish/Zionist/Israel inspiration to really present anything too profound. I tried.


Questions, and the search for their answers shape liberal Jewish identity.

Some of the significant questions include, “How will I celebrate Shabbat? Will I celebrate the second day of Rosh Hashana or Sukkot? Will I wear a yarmulke? A Tallis? These decisions define Jewish observance and practice.

And then there are the big questions- on which ideas, lifestyle, and identity are founded. Did God write the Torah? What does God want from me? Why is there such suffering in the world? And after my first visit to Israel, a semester-long program at the age of 16, I began asking new questions- about Israel and Aliyah.

Should I make Aliyah? How can Israel be “home” if I reside abroad? How can I be a Zionist if I don’t agree with some of the actions of the Israeli government? Can I make Aliyah, and become truly “Israeli” without serving the required term in the army? Can I exist fully as a Jew living outside of Israel?

Experiences inform my grappling with the answers.

I delayed starting college for a year to spend a year experiencing Israel- learning the language, culture and country of the Jewish people. I attended the enormous memorial ceremony honoring Israel’s champion for peace, Yitzchak Rabin, in the Tel Aviv square now named after him. The songs and desperate cheers for peace poured forth from Israel’s youth. I too raised their banners demanding, “Peace Now!” I also attended an Orthodox Zionist youth movement retreat featuring an impassioned lecture by the famous “refusenik” Natan Sharansky. I grew to love my Druze roommates’ hospitality, personalities and delicious cooking. I prayed in Jerusalem, swam in Eilat, floated in the Dead Sea, perspired on the Kinneret, partied in Tel Aviv, and learned that in Haifa’s downtown market, if you don’t speak Hebrew fluently, English won’t help you, but Russian or Amharic will. My Israel-acquired high on Jewish life and learning carried into my first months in college and still remains. The possibility of Aliyah comes to mind often and occasionally provokes some online exploration of the logistics; a perusal of Aliyah resources on the Jewish Agency’s webpages.

Grounded in a constantly challenged and evolving identity as a Reform/Progressive Jew, my “Aliyah?” question looms large. For now, I remain at home in the US, longing still for home in Eretz Yisrael.

I identify with Yehuda HaLevi’s lamentation, “Libi B’Mizrach V’Anochi B’Sof HaMaarav.” I read author David Grossman’s eulogy for his son Uri, killed in battle during Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006, and share in the grief of his family and his country, even from ocean’s away. I hear Naomi Shemer’s voice, “Hazarnu el borot Hamayim laShuk v’la kikar” and see Jerusalem’s splendid stones, bustling alley-ways and abundant street vendors. I listen on, “Shofar kore bhar habayit b’ir ha-atikah”, and hear simultaneously the shofar's blast from before the kotel and the imam’s to prayer from just beyond it. Israel captivates my soul.

I aspire to vacation on Israel’s beaches of the Mediterranean rather than on the popular party beaches of Cancun. Checking The New York Times morning headlines always follows a look through Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post online, or both. Emails about Israel speakers, events and advocacy flood my inbox. Israeli artists dominate my music collection. I’ve accumulated a modest and yet diverse library of Israeli literature, history and politics. Israel is part of my consciousness.

And still, I’m not sure I’m ready to serve in the army. I’m not sure I’m ready to leave my family so far behind and to make the inevitable adjustments. I’m not yet committed to building my life and future in Israel rather than in the states. But, perhaps someday sooner or later I will be. It certainly remains a question.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Welcome to Limmud NY

Welcome to a one-of-a-kind conference of Jews. Welcome to a Jewish model helping to revolutionize the Jewish world across the country and around the globe.
Limmud NY 2007 didn't feature big screens or high-paid performers. Participants' badges didn't display a dozen boastful add-on ribbons and name tags didn't indicate your college or profession, whether you went to Harvard or SUNY, or worked at a clothing store or were a high-up at Goldman and Sachs. You didn't know who you were talking to or what your fellow participant had accomplished, or what high paying, status indicative title they held in their day-to-day life. You had to talk to them first. All you knew, until you ate lunch with, sat in a session next to, or stopped to chat in the halls with a fellow program-goer was that they probably cared. You don't go to Limmud unless you care.

A weekend full of sessions and workshops included URJ educator Jan Katzew's articulation of religious reform throughout Jewish history, Yitz and Blu Greenberg's stories of inter and intra religious dialogue as Orthodox Jews, and Joel Grishaver's cartoon telling of Berachot 27a and b and more. Shabbat offerings ranged from a thoroughly energetic renewal service with a guitar and bass to a traditional davening with mechitza. The evenings featured performances by little-known Jewish musicians from around the city and a black Hassid rapper named "Y-Love". The trans-generational "Late Night Shake Down" brought dozens- college students and grandmas; orthodox, conservative, reform, recontructionist, renewal and various combinations of the above at once- to the bar and then the dance floor to release after grueling days of debate and discussion on the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

If you're at Limmud you probably don't fit the typical New York Jewish stereotypes. You don't pay multiple thousands of dollars to belong to a Reform or Conservative synagogue where you mingle in the multi-million dollar, newly renovated lobby on the one or two holiest days of the year. And you certainly don't prance around in a holier-than-thou black suit or slightly too tall fidora. At the conference, many Limmud-ers went to Shabbat services while others went to a documentary film on the Jewish community of Morocco. Some woke up early to put on tefillin and a few professed their devout atheism. Some wore a kippa and tzizit and some didn't. Some flipped on their lights on Friday night, and others kept the bathroom light on. All came searching for a community which would inspire them and challenge them to try something new, think outside their box and ultimately nourish their appetitite for Jewish learning and life.

So what does it take to put on a Limmud NY? What's the formula for creating such a communtiy? It's not millions of dollars, posh offices and dozens of directors. It's a cadre of volunteers, activisits and motivated leaders giving of their time and energy for the sake of the Jewish people. Limmud only has two full-time professionals! Remarkable.

Limmud-ers see Judaism's challenges ahead and take them on. They recognize the diversity of the Jewish community and embrace rather than slander it. Growing to 2500 strong in the UK, 800+ in NY and spreading to cities like Paris, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Istanbul, Limmud brings together much that is too often divided in our Jewish community; stressing Talmud Torah as if it answered to a Soloveitchik and promoting "I-Thou" relationships as if it were fashioned after Buber. It's not a substitute for synagogues, religious schools and JCC's, but rather a network for those seeking to re-energize them- those willing to join forces to build a sustainable Jewish community which will meet the needs of our times and remain relevant in our world.

I'm in. Are you?

( limmudny.org; limmud.org)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Highs and Lows #2: Diamond in the Rough

Working in the Jewish world sometimes feels like riding a roller coaster- prospects, results and experiences hit highs and lows and everything in between. One gloomy minute you sense Judaism's impending demise and another you revel in the little things which give us hope.
These last two weekends, as my social life falls to non-existent status, I took a bumpy and jarring, but ultimately telling ride in the figurative amusement park of Jewish youth work. Here's how...

Part II

(Part I is posted below and gives this whole thing context)

There is another way....

After a horrifying BBYO weekend (see Part I), I welcomed an invitation I would otherwise dread to songlead at a 22 person youth group retreat with Temple Sharey-Tefilo, S. Orange, New Jersey.

It's not like I don't know what to expect. I've staffed so many of the things over the last 18 or so months, that I'm no longer shocked by Jewish teens not knowing the difference between an alef and a beis. I assume the vast majority of "Reform" teens don't know how to or want to pray. I'm aware that many see programming, especially Jewish programming as a nuisance- Enough said! Reform youth programs typically don't leave me satisfied or feeling confident in the future....

And then there are those times which remind me of my past, only a few short years ago, when I couldn't get enough Judaism, immersing myself in the movement's many avenues for youth development. These are the times that remind me why I spend the hours and weekends, on trains and in buses for the sake of a Reform-Progressive future.

At a middle of no-where camp in Pennsylvania, 22 teens came together for a weekend of singing, praying, learning and growing. The youth director mentioned that outside of youth group, most of the kids rarely, if ever socialize with eachother- but youth group remains a place for everyone. She explained that the juniors and seniors missed a major football/dance event at school and came to the STISY retreat instead. Over the course of the weekend, the Judaism-crazy Kutz alum helped to run the services. The Tiffany's wearing senior demanded Dan Nichols music and then danced along to Btzelem Elohim. The "gangsta", sports jersey, Giants hat wearing sophomore played soldier in a program about Tzahal. The trumpet blowing, tennis playing, goofy junior guy wrote a three paragraph long letter to an ailing Israeli soldier. The Freshmen girls spent 45 minutes crafting just the right prayer to be placed in the Kotel. A couple cool, cute, popular junior girls spent Shabbat afternoon learning Lo Yisa Goi on the guitar and played along during Havdalah. The openly gay, semi-flamboyant senior discussed wanting a Jewish community at college next year. The nerdy, smarty-pants freshman boy spoke eloquently on Israel's right to exist during a debate program. The entire group sang through each service, chanted through each birkat and grappled through each program from beginning to end.

The youth groupers were all a little different. They had their own opinions, interests and quirks and came together to make "them"- to bond and to form a community. This is what "we're about" one of them told me.

Each one made some part of the weekend happen. And they all, for at least this one weekend, placed their Judaism, their Jewish commitment, above everything else in their lives. They made me wish I could be one of them again. They reminded me why I do what I do.

True. It's not quite as good as it sounds. They didn't really know much. They turned to me with the most basic questions about Jewish history and the conflict in Israel. Since their Bnai Mitzvot, their prayers had gotten a little rusty. Yes, I wish someone would have nurtured their appreciation for Judaism, taught them more earlier and provided a stronger foundation. But I admired whoever it was; maybe their parents, the Rabbi, or the youth director, who taught them to care.

True. Their caring makes them unfortunately unique. Too few Jewish teens are willing to contemplate their Jewish identity, asking questions and seeking out the knowledge to form answers. And even those who do think rarely know what questions to ask or from whom to get the answers, guidance and inspiration they crave.

That's where we come in.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Highs and Lows #1: Pretty Damn Low

Working in the Jewish world sometimes feels like riding a roller coaster- prospects, results and experiences hit highs and lows and everything in between. One gloomy minute you sense Judaism's impending demise and another you revel in the little things which give us hope.
These last two weekends, as my social life falls to non-existent status, I took a bumpy and jarring, but ultimately telling ride in the figurative amusement park of Jewish youth work. Here's how...

Part I

Asked how I felt after "songleading" a BBYO event last weekend, I replied, "alarmed", and proceeded to explain that BBYO showcases, as if proudly, all the ways in which the dominant secular culture of our time has doomed the Jewish people.

Every Jewish moment of the BBYO Long Island Winter Convention was a struggle, particularly services. The teen leadership stood before their peers, over 300 Long Islanders, pleading with them to stop talking, disrespecting and ignoring the services before them. Regressing to "apology" tactics, the leaders soon insisted that if the group could just remain quiet for even a few minutes, the Birkat Hamazon, the services, the Havdalah, the "Jewish" programs would soon end, allowing all to return to their flirting, gossiping world of mindless, non-contemplative ignorance.

A "Changing the World" program involved making paper chains to demonstrate how each of our actions effects countless others. In the "Ms. Nassau-Suffolk Region" competition, the girls dressed the boys in tight, revealing clothing and the boys "performed" provacative dances and "booty shakes" on stage to be crowned winner. At the dance, the teens proved they had memorized the newest pop hit by rapping along to "Fifty Cents" even though they could not, would not chant along to the Vahavta only hours earlier. And except when paraded onto the "stage" to lead these pathetic, after-thought services before this careless, "too cool for anything meaningful" congregations, this songleader sat in the back, trying to soak it all in, assessing the desolation and contemplating a seemingly dreary future.....

there must be another way.... (see Part II above)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

From Stuttgart 1

"With the passing of time the knowledge of God has become confused. The more subtle our wisdom, the more multifaceted has our stupidity become. Had God's grace not endured eternally, what would have become of us? Men have once again reached the point where they are lost without a compass in a sea of errors, finding themsleves in the middle of a Noahite deluge of ideas. Where is the ark, where is deliverance? In a time in which humility is paraded for show, because at heart it nourishes pride, it would sound ridiculous if somebody came forth and announced: here is the ark, here is the deliverance! And yet all those who have become conscious of our calling have said exactly that..."

You might assume that the above lamentations belong to a contemporary thinker. Instead, they are lifted from the anonymous 1837 publication, "The Holy History of Mankind," released in Stuttgart, Germany. Only years later was it revealed that revolutionary Jewish socialist thinker Moses Hess, a forerunner of the European Zionist movement, wrote "The Holy History" at age 25.

How much more true are his words today?
From where and whom will the voices of deliverance finally come?
And how can they get people to listen?