A Balanced Life, Redux

Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted? Do we live up to our values, our ideals? Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but it has always been a challenge to maintain the delicate balance between the sacred and the secular. [Read more…]

Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change

— Dan Segal, chair of Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Climate change is one of the gravest issues facing our nation and our planet. As I write, over 150 world leaders are meeting in Paris at the UN sponsored Climate Summit which hopefully will address many of the dangers brought on by excessive production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, a dramatic increase compared to the last 1000 years, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

Our reliance on fossil fuels comes with a host of dilemmas beyond its effect on the weather. We must be sensitized to the grave national security concerns created as nations become destabilized over lack of natural resources such as water. Solutions to climate change have an uneven effect on poor nations who are far less able to cope with the damaging effects of climate change than are wealthy nations and yet are being asked to help resolve a problem many of them feel they did not help create.

And yet day after day we flip our light switches, boot up our computers, and drive our cars. What should we do? While we cannot remove ourselves from the necessity of using energy, we have a moral obligation to alleviate the proliferation of greenhouse gasses as it will affect our lives on many levels.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Most scientists agree on what needs to be done, yet there is still doubt among many world leaders that we have the political will to carry through on what the scientists propose. Indeed the politicization of the topic in our country, in which far too many refuse to even admit to the existence of the problem threaten to divide our nation and put our planet further at risk.

As U.N Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told leaders as the UN talks in Paris began last week, “The future of your people, the future of the people of the world, is in your hands. We cannot afford indecision, half measures, or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be transformation.”

Although international commitments and legislation in Washington are critical in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing energy independence, our challenge at the local level, is not to wait passively for policymakers to make their next moves. Policy makers need to hear from all of you. We need to bring our communal, institutional and personal strengths to bear now.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

It is for this very reason that JCRC decided to convene a Protecting Creation Forum for our Jewish community to help us understand the relationship between energy, security and the environment and our moral obligation particularly as Jews. Not that there aren’t many wonderful organizations already deeply involved in the issue of climate change, many of whom are co-sponsoring this program. But because of the critical nature of climate change, we at JCRC felt the need to bring the various groups together so that collectively, we could face this issue as a community. Our goal is for you to take what you learn here today back to your organizations and synagogues.

Climate Change Advocacy 101 for Jews

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Often a failure in communication is not the message or the messenger, but how it is presented. I am not talking about a Madison Avenue campaign to convince people to buy something they don’t need, but an understanding of the audience.

Yesterday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council held a conference Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change. The speakers were clear and articulate representatives of their professional realm:

  • Rabbi Nina Cardin from the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network;
  • the Rear Admiral David Titley, retired from the United States Navy and currently Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State;
  • Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; and
  • Dan Segal, Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I learned that since 2010, Philadelphia has experienced: its snowiest winter, its two warmest summers; its two wettest years; two hurricanes; and derecho (a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms. Derechos can cause hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.) I learned that Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest states, producing more pollution than the country of Chile. And I learned that the fact that the ice caps in Antarctica are increasing is a testament to the warming conditions elsewhere, bringing more water to the Antarctic.

It can be overwhelming to think about a global problem, but we can start with a personal or household exercise in calculating our carbon footprint. We can promote community-based resiliency planning, because the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has showed us that the most vulnerable were the elderly and handicapped who were without access to transportation out of their disaster area. So, a contact list of individuals who live alone or cannot drive in our neighborhood would result in faster response than relying on the National Guards.

Promoting our concerns for the environment means knowing how to speak to those who do not share our beliefs. It means advance preparation, so we are aware for example that a particular Congressional representative has a relative with asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution. It means meeting our audience on their terms, incorporating their concerns.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom spoke from the audience about his inter-faith work, in which his fellow clergy face difficulty talking about climate change when their parishioners are facing unemployment and eviction from their homes. It is easily dismissed as a problem of white privilege. The Sierra Club found that by reaching out to disparate niche populations, they were effective in integrating their cause. They now work with veteran groups, a particularly effective ally in capturing the attention of Congress.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

A few years ago, I was given a platform from my synagogue for environmental issues. So, each week I was able to present one environmental fact to the kehillah through our shul bulletin. This was well received until the week I wrote about meat consumption being a major hazard to the health of our Earth. In the flurry and fury of complaints to the rabbi from meat lovers, I lost my forum. (Rear Admiral Titley said, “We will not convince people with the scientific facts, because scientists have tried for 30 years and failed.”) I learned yesterday that the way to influence my shul peers is not to bludgeon them with the facts, I have to re-frame my approach to make it a religious value, a mitzvah.

Let us brainstorm together on ways to create a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable world for future generations. Time is running out, as the Arctic ice caps melt and coastal cities and island nations face flooding and contamination of their water tables (ruining their supply of drinking water). We all aspire to a good and meaningful life, we just have differences in how to meet our goals.

Tikkun Olam or The Stuff That Should Not Happen

I was profoundly distressed to hear how flippantly Gov. Jed Bush’s dismissed concerns about the tragic shooting of nine people Thursday at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon:

I resist the notion, and I did — I had this challenge as governor. Because, we have — look. Stuff happens. There’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s not always the right thing to do.

A child drowned in a pool and the impulse is to pass a law that puts fencing around pools. Well it may not change it. Or you have a car accident and the impulse is to pass a law that deals with that unique event. And the cumulative effect of this is, in some cases, you don’t solve the problem by passing the law, and you’re imposing on large numbers of people burdens that make it harder for our economy to grow, make it harder to protect liberty.

Asked for a clarification, the Presidential candidate doubled-down.

No. It wasn’t a mistake. I said exactly what I said…. Explain to me what I said wrong…. Things happen all the time. “Things” is that better.

Having worked for the past three years in traffic safety, I refuse to settle for the laissez-faire philosophy of “Stuff happens”. This attitude is not appropriate for anyone, let alone a candidate to the highest office.

If an aircraft crashes, would we tolerate a “Stuff happens’ from the FAA officials?

Typically an investigation takes place and remedial steps are put in place to prevent the same type of accident from happening again. Airplanes crashes are now extremely rare.

In the words of Stephen Colbert.

One of the definitions of insanity is changing nothing and pretending something will change.

110404-fatality-rate-per-100-million-vehicle-miles-traveledLet us take traffic fatalities as an example, my current area of research. Improvement in safety is usually measured by the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles. This rate was dramatically cut through the years from 24.1 to 1.1 between 1921 and 2010. These results were the direct outcome of improved technology (seat belt, airbag, active safety), improved education, and changed behaviors. When child injury researchers observed children deaths that were caused by the airbag deployment, she took on the airbag manufacturers to improve both technology and legislation. Airbags are now safer for everyone. Of course, crashes still happen, we lose over 30,000 people every year but my colleagues and I work hard towards safer roads. Emergency Braking and driverless cars will hopefully bring us closer to the “Vision Zero” when no one dies on the road.

Coincidentally, deaths by guns will surpass car fatalities this year, and we are due for change.

So I believe it is important for everyone to live with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam in mind (repairing the world). Parents should be responsible for the emotional well-being of their children. Teachers, classmates and co-workers can sometimes observe distress and help. Legislators are in the front line as well and we need to hold them responsible if they do nothing to help us prevent the next massacre. Simple steps like background checks or anti-straw purchase legislation would do much to stanch the needless loss of life and limb.

As hard as it is to set change in motion, we cannot and should not become insensitive to “stuff”.

We cannot and should not feel powerless.

Obama Talks to Jews

It’s okay to disagree with President Obama’s statements or policies. I disagree with some of them too. But too often, we base our opinion on statements or policies falsely attributed to President Obama. That’s why it’s so important to read for ourselves what President Obama actually says, in context, rather than relying on what we are told the president said by people who have an ax to grind (or, for that matter, by people who support the president).

Yesterday, Jeff Goldberg published an interview with President Obama covering the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the nuclear deal with Iran, his relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. If you’re concerned about those issues, read the interview.

Two parts leaped out at me. The first was Goldberg’s statement that “As I listened to Obama speak about Israel, I felt as if I had participated in discussions like this dozens of times, but mainly with rabbis.”

The second was President Obama’s statement that “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind.”

When you look at the world that way, how can you not be pro-Israel? No wonder President Obama’s list of pro-Israel accomplishments is so long.

Video Clip of the Week.

This morning, in honor of National Jewish American Heritage Month, President Obama spoke at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. If this isn’t pro-Israel, I don’t know what is. If this doesn’t make you feel good, I don’t know what will.

I strongly recommend that you watch it if you have time, but if you don’t, rather than rely on those who will take bits and pieces out of context, at least read the transcript below and decide for yourself what you think of today’s speech.

Remarks by the President on Jewish American Heritage Month
Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, D.C.

I want to thank Rabbi Steinlauf for the very kind introduction. And to all the members of the congregation, thank you so much for such an extraordinary and warm welcome.

I want to thank a couple of outstanding members of Congress who are here. Senator Michael Bennet — where did Michael Bennet go? There he is. And Representative Sandy Levin, who is here. I want to thank our special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, for his important work. There he is. But as I said, most of all I want to thank the entire congregation of Adas Israel for having me here today.

Earlier this week, I was actually interviewed by one of your members, Jeff Goldberg. And Jeff reminded me that he once called me “the first Jewish President.” Now, since some people still seem to be wondering about my faith — — I should make clear this was an honorary title. But I was flattered.

And as an honorary member of the tribe, not to mention somebody who’s hosted seven White House Seders and been advised by — and been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff, I can also proudly say that I’m getting a little bit of the hang of the lingo. But I will not use any of the Yiddish-isms that Rahm Emanuel taught me because — I want to be invited back. Let’s just say he had some creative new synonyms for “Shalom.”

Now, I wanted to come here to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month because this congregation, like so many around the country, helps us to tell the American story. And back in 1876, when President Grant helped dedicate Adas Israel, he became the first sitting President in history to attend a synagogue service. And at the time, it was an extraordinarily symbolic gesture — not just for America, but for the world.

And think about the landscape of Jewish history. Tomorrow night, the holiday of Shavuot marks the moment that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the first link in a chain of tradition that stretches back thousands of years, and a foundation stone for our civilization. Yet for most of those years, Jews were persecuted — not embraced — by those in power. Many of your ancestors came here fleeing that persecution.
The United States could have been merely another destination in that ongoing diaspora. But those who came here found that America was more than just a country. America was an idea. America stood for something. As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island: The United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

It’s important for us to acknowledge that too often in our history we fell short of those lofty ideals — in the legal subjugation of African Americans, through slavery and Jim Crow; the treatment of Native Americans. And far too often, American Jews faced the scourge of anti-Semitism here at home. But our founding documents gave us a North Star, our Bill of Rights; our system of government gave us a capacity for change. And where other nations actively and legally might persecute or discriminate against those of different faiths, this nation was called upon to see all of us as equal before the eyes of the law. When other countries treated their own citizens as “wretched refuse,” we lifted up our lamp beside the golden door and welcomed them in. Our country is immeasurably stronger because we did.

From Einstein to Brandeis, from Jonas Salk to Betty Friedan, American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect. And as a community, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect. The story of Exodus inspired oppressed people around the world in their own struggles for civil rights. From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights, Jews took the heart of Biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.

Earlier this year, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, we remembered the iconic images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King, praying with his feet. To some, it must have seemed strange that a rabbi from Warsaw would take such great risks to stand with a Baptist preacher from Atlanta. But Heschel explained that their cause was one and the same. In his essay, “No Religion is an Island,” he wrote, “We must choose between interfaith and inter-nihilism.” Between a shared hope that says together we can shape a brighter future, or a shared cynicism that says our world is simply beyond repair.

So the heritage we celebrate this month is a testament to the power of hope. Me standing here before you, all of you in this incredible congregation is a testament to the power of hope. It’s a rebuke to cynicism. It’s a rebuke to nihilism. And it inspires us to have faith that our future, like our past, will be shaped by the values that we share. At home, those values compel us to work to keep alive the American Dream of opportunity for all. It means that we care about issues that affect all children, not just our own; that we’re prepared to invest in early childhood education; that we are concerned about making college affordable; that we want to create communities where if you’re willing to work hard, you can get ahead the way so many who fled and arrived on these shores were able to get ahead. Around the world, those values compel us to redouble our efforts to protect our planet and to protect the human rights of all who share this planet.

It’s particularly important to remember now, given the tumult that is taking place in so many corners of the globe, in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, those shared values compel us to reaffirm that our enduring friendship with the people of Israel and our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel — that those bonds, that friendship cannot be broken. Those values compel us to say that our commitment to Israel’s security — and my commitment to Israel’s security — is and always will be unshakable.

And I’ve said this before: It would be a moral failing on the part of the U.S. government and the American people, it would be a moral failing on my part if we did not stand up firmly, steadfastly not just on behalf of Israel’s right to exist, but its right to thrive and prosper. Because it would ignore the history that brought the state of Israel about. It would ignore the struggle that’s taken place through millennia to try to affirm the kinds of values that say everybody has a place, everybody has rights, everybody is a child of God.

As many of you know, I’ve visited the houses hit by rocket fire in Sderot. I’ve been to Yad Vashem and made that solemn vow: “Never forget. Never again.” When someone threatens Israel’s citizens or its very right to exist, Israelis necessarily that seriously. And so do I. Today, the military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries is stronger than ever. Our support of the Iron Dome’s rocket system has saved Israeli lives. And I can say that no U.S. President, no administration has done more to ensure that Israel can protect itself than this one.

As part of that commitment, there’s something else that the United States and Israel agrees on: Iran must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to get a nuclear weapon. Now, there’s a debate about how to achieve that — and that’s a healthy debate. I’m not going to use my remaining time to go too deep into policy — although for those of you who are interested — we have a lot of material out there. But I do want everybody to just remember a few key things.

The deal that we already reached with Iran has already halted or rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Now we’re seeking a comprehensive solution. I will not accept a bad deal. As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise. I want a good deal.

I’m interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon — every single path. A deal that imposes unprecedented inspections on all elements of Iran’s nuclear program, so that they can’t cheat; and if they try to cheat, we will immediately know about it and sanctions snap back on. A deal that endures beyond a decade; that addresses this challenge for the long term. In other words, a deal that makes the world and the region — including Israel — more secure. That’s how I define a good deal.

I can’t stand here today and guarantee an agreement will be reached. We’re hopeful. We’re working hard. But nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. And I’ve made clear that when it comes to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, all options are and will remain on the table.

Moreover, even if we do get a good deal, there remains the broader issue of Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. And that’s why our strategic partnership with Israel will remain, no matter what happens in the days and years ahead. And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.

Now, that does not mean that there will not be, or should not be, periodic disagreements between our two governments. There will be disagreements on tactics when it comes to how to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that is entirely appropriate and should be fully aired. Because the stakes are sufficiently high that anything that’s proposed has to be subjected to scrutiny — and I welcome that scrutiny.

But there are also going to be some disagreements rooted in shared history that go beyond tactics, that are rooted in how we might remain true to our shared values. I came to know Israel as a young man through these incredible images of kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and Israel overcoming incredible odds in the ’67 war. The notion of pioneers who set out not only to safeguard a nation, but to remake the world. Not only to make the desert bloom, but to allow their values to flourish; to ensure that the best of Judaism would thrive. And those values in many ways came to be my own values. They believed the story of their people gave them a unique perspective among the nations of the world, a unique moral authority and responsibility that comes from having once been a stranger yourself.

And to a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating. The example of Israel and its values was inspiring.

So when I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object, and I object forcefully. For us to paper over difficult questions, particularly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about settlement policy, that’s not a true measure of friendship.

Before I came out here, the Rabbi showed me the room that’s been built to promote scholarship and dialogue, and to be able to find how we make our shared values live. And the reason you have that room is because applying those values to our lives is often hard, and it involves difficult choices. That’s why we study. That’s why it’s not just a formula. And that’s what we have to do as nations as well as individuals. We have to grapple and struggle with how do we apply the values that we care about to this very challenging and dangerous world.

And it is precisely because I care so deeply about the state of Israel — it’s precisely because, yes, I have high expectations for Israel the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America — that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland. And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.

Now, I want to emphasize — that’s not easy. The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners. The neighborhood is dangerous. And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.

But it is worthwhile for us to keep up the prospect, the possibility of bridging divides and being just, and looking squarely at what’s possible but also necessary in order for Israel to be the type of nation that it was intended to be in its earliest founding.

And that same sense of shared values also compel me to speak out — compel all of us to speak out — against the scourge of anti-Semitism wherever it exists. I want to be clear that, to me, all these things are connected. The rights I insist upon and now fight for, for all people here in the United States compels me then to stand up for Israel and look out for the rights of the Jewish people. And the rights of the Jewish people then compel me to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity. That’s what Jewish values teach me. That’s what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches me. These things are connected.

And in recent years, we’ve seen a deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in parts of the world where it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years or decades ago. This is not some passing fad; these aren’t just isolated phenomenon. And we know from our history they cannot be ignored. Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire. And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.

And that’s why, tonight, for the first time ever, congregations around the world are celebrating a Solidarity Shabbat. It’s a chance for leaders to publicly stand against anti-Semitism and bigotry in all of its forms. And I’m proud to be a part of this movement, and I’m proud that six ambassadors from Europe are joining us today. And their presence here — our presence together — is a reminder that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our traditions, our history, can help us chart a better course as long as we are mindful of that history and those traditions, and we are vigilant in speaking out and standing up against what is wrong. It’s not always easy, I think, to speak out against what is wrong, even for good people.

So I want to close with the story of one more of the many rabbis who came to Selma 50 years ago. A few days after David Teitelbaum arrived to join the protests, he and a colleague were thrown in jail. And they spent a Friday night in custody, singing Adon Olam to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.” And that in and of itself is a profound statement of faith and hope. But what’s wonderful is, is that out of respect many of their fellow protesters began wearing what they called “freedom caps” — yarmulkes — as they marched.

And the day after they were released from prison, Rabbi Teitelbaum watched Dr. King lead a prayer meeting before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And Dr. King said, “We are like the children of Israel, marching from slavery to freedom.”

That’s what happens when we’re true to our values. It’s not just good for us, but it brings the community together. Tikkun Olam — it brings the community together and it helps repair the world. It bridges differences that once looked unbridgeable. It creates a future for our children that once seemed unattainable. This congregation — Jewish American life is a testimony to the capacity to make our values live. But it requires courage. It requires strength. It requires that we speak the truth not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.

So may we always remember that our shared heritage makes us stronger, that our roots are intertwined. May we always choose faith over nihilism, and courage over despair, and hope over cynicism and fear. As we walk our own leg of a timeless, sacred march, may we always stand together, here at home and around the world.

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Ugandan Children Don’t Give Up on Education

— by Coby Schoffman013

Imagine living in the Middle East studying political science with an emphasis on conflict resolution. Nothing could be more present, yet at the same time, nothing could be more abstract.

I’m my last year at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel (Israel’s only private university). I decided to avail myself of the unique opportunity to study “abroad” at Koç University in Istanbul. I’m from L.A. and I graduated from Santa Monica High School, so you would think that going to college in Israel would be foreign enough for me. When I was told that no one from IDC had been sent to Turkey since the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. I signed up right away.

All these major world events were happening around me: Israel’s 2012 Operation Amud Anan (Pillar of Defense), Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park and Taksim Square demonstrations, The Arab Spring, the turmoil in Egypt. As a student trying to makes sense of all this through the prism of my textbooks and the lectures of my professors, I always kept myself emotionally detached from these developments. Even while taking cover from a Fajr missile from Gaza and watching it be intercepted by the Iron Dome, I still felt strangely disconnected from what was happening around me

In the classroom I learned to simulate situations and to analyze societal crises and cleavages. What I desperately wanted to experience was how to acts on my convictions. I wanted to know the palpable side of what conflict, poverty and social injustice really mean. I knew I could not do this in school but I also knew that school was an invaluable tool in order to give meaning and perspective on the world of events. That’s why I decided to take a semester off before I graduate, and insert myself into a completely unfamiliar environment where I would be forced to adapt and react. I wanted to choose a place where the conditions, the culture and the lifestyle would be almost completely disorienting.

I decided on Africa. I contacted a number of organizations and schools that hosted volunteers. Many of these programs seemed somewhat diluted and overly protective in that the volunteers were housed together and remained somewhat sheltered from the population. I wanted to have as few filters as possible. I wanted to go into something pretty much blindly and find my way and create my own experiences.

006After a lot of research I decided on going to a small village about seven kilometers north of Kampala, Uganda. I had committed myself through a series of email exchanges, to work as a sports coach at the Kikaaya College and Vocation School in the village of Kikaaya. I’m ashamed to admit that before my trip, all I knew about Uganda was what I was able to gather from the movie The Last King of Scotland, and the gruesome 1976 Air France hijacking and the climactic rescue at Entebbe. So imagine what was going through my head as I flew from Istanbul to Entebbe International Airport. Suffice it to say I was extremely nervous and had no real idea what to expect and what was awaiting me. The school’s director picked me up at the airport at around midnight and my first 45 minutes in the country was filled with polite yet forced conversation and near complete darkness.

My first impression was one of shock. The level of poverty, the absence of plumbing, and the inconsistency of the electricity astonished me. I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming stench of burning garbage or the dilapidated infrastructure of the classrooms and the dormitories. Kikaaya seemed like a place that had been forgotten. Forgotten by whom, I don’t know. Maybe by God, or by the developed world. Either way, the place was like nothing I had ever seen before.

During my first days I was taken around the village and was briefed on my tasks and duties at the school. I was to be the sports coach and the computer science teacher. The computer ‘lab’ was consisted of about six or seven functioning computers from the early 2000’s serving about 700 students. The sports facility was a large, empty pitch of grass. Even with my limited experience I was able to see how much could be done to alleviate the school’s distress by the simple and responsible allocation of funds and labor.

001_straightenedI spent almost two months living with the staff and children of the Kikaaya College School. I was the only white person that I saw during my time there. And to say the least, I felt like I had been adopted into a big extended family. From the staff to the students to the other member of the village community, I felt welcome. I became close to a number of the students, and heard their stories. What was especially sad was how after a while, hearing about dead parents, childhood diseases, personal misery, and pain became oddly pedestrian. The ubiquity of hardship turned tragedy into a grotesque form of normal.

But you would never know it from the bright, beautiful aura that surrounded the children of the school. Through all this adversity, the children demonstrated not only an incredible work ethic and discipline, but also radiated sheer, unambiguous happiness. Despite the unreliable power system and lack of a steady water supply, the broken down classrooms and the crumbling infrastructure, the lackluster library and outdated computer lab, these children still found a way to be motivated. Studying from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM, the hard work and diligence these students exhibited made me, the privileged American middle-class college student, feel like a worthless, lazy, ungrateful slob. These kids were more than inspiring. They changed my life, and now I want to repay them in kind.

I returned to the United States determined to find a way to help the students and community I had just left behind in Uganda. I immediately mobilized these ideas, and this eventually led to the creation of The Nation Foundation. The Nation Foundation is a non profit organization which focuses on rebuilding schools and investing in quality 21st century, up-to-date education in the developing world. The first project of the non-profit is the Kikaaya Project.

014Our goal with the Kikaaya Project is too raise enough money to rebuild the school top to bottom. This means new facilities, new student compounds, renovated libraries, restored classrooms and an adequate supply of class materials. It means investing in new technologies that will ensure a reliable water source, and a consistent power source. And it means helping the students with their tuition fees so that no one is in danger of suspension or expulsion due to lack of funds.

Congregation Beth Israel Joins GreenFaith Environmental Program


Temple Shalom of Aberdeen, N.J., another participant of the program, working with young members of the congregation to plant seeds in the community garden.

Congregation Beth Israel, a Reconstructionist Jewish community based in Media, Pennsylvania, has announced its participation in the GreenFaith interfaith program for environmental leadership. Beth Israel is the first Reconstructionist congregation to join the GreenFaith certification program, joining more than 65 other houses of worship.

The GreenFaith program follows a two-year certification process that includes programs for spiritual practices, physical stewardship, and environmental justice. Beth Israel has already completed several audits of its energy usage, waste handling, and grounds maintenance.  

The synagogue recently completed an overhaul of its heating systems which included conversion of the heating plant from oil to gas, replacement of old inefficient equipment and upgrade of the building’s controls and zoning capabilities. The results:

  • a better heat delivery;
  • a projected 30% reduction in fuel usage and related emissions; and
  • an expected reduction of more than three-quarters in heating costs.

All of this will save more than $10,000 per year.

More after the jump.
Other efforts have included installation of more efficient lighting systems, more extensive recycling, and educational programs for religious school students and the general congregation.

Future activities within the certification process will include:

  • spiritual and educational programs within the Beth Israel community and with other communities;
  • further improvements in sustainability and environmental impact of Beth Israel facilities and its members’ homes; and
  • programs to address the environmental burdens on disadvantaged communities.  

Beth Israel’s teen community has already begun Walking the Walk, a nine-month interfaith dialogue and service project that involves teens from local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations and will include urban gardening with Urban Tree Connections.

“As Jews we know that we are both a part of the whole and responsible for the whole. We are global citizens with a Jewish mandate right here, right now, to protect the earth,” Beth Israel Rabbi Linda Potemken said. “The GreenFaith process offers Beth Israel a creative, practical and spiritual approach to fulfilling our responsibilities in a concrete, structured fashion.”

“I’m delighted that the Beth Israel community has chosen to undertake the rigorous GreenFaith certification process,” Beth Israel President Jennifer Lenway said.  

Beth Israel has always been an engaged, diverse community whose values include building a better world as well creating a community for our members, practicing the traditions of our heritage, and providing education for our children and adult members. The spiritual, stewardship, and justice components of GreenFaith will support all these missions.

Is Tikkun Olam Relevant in this Election Season?

— by Gayle Donsky

The guiding principle of Tikkun Olam obligates Jews to work toward justice and to help repair the condition of the world.  Likewise, the goals of America’s founding fathers are based on principles of equality and justice.  Yet does anyone believe Republicans are working to achieve these goals?  Can we as voters examine what is happening in politics today and use the principles of Tikkun Olam to guide us in our action?

As a news and political junkie, I have been observing this political season with dismay.  In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann-two of the nation’s most respected political scholars-state:   extremism in the current political system has reached an intensity that has not existed since the time of the Civil War.  They lay most of the blame on the current Republican Party that has been hijacked by extremists, effectively removing the moderate Republicans from the political process.  They believe the two-party system is essential, but think it is imperative that moderates regain the voice of the party. Though both parties have become ideologically polarized, they state:

… the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier-ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Partisanship has grown so extreme that the Republican Party has stopped working to solve the country’s and the people’s problems and has instead chosen as its primary goal to defeat the President.  The primary agenda of the party has been to prevent the passage of any meaningful legislation and to obstruct executive and judicial appointments. In sum, it has worked toward preventing the executive branch from fulfilling its constitutional duties. “Republicans greeted the new president with a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives,” write Ornstein and Mann.

One example of the detrimental impact of this extremist action was the obstruction of legislation that would have raised the national debt ceiling.  This resulted in the country’s credit rating being lowered for the first time in its history.   Another is the unprecedented use of filibusters to block legislation and presidential executive and judicial nominations.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated this goal after Obama was elected:  “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

I ask, do these efforts promote Tikkun Olam and work toward social justice?

Other issues that contribute to my dismay with the leaders of the Republican Party follow the jump.

  • There is no denial that the Republican Party is significantly more responsible for increasing the power of money in the political process. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book, Winner-Take-All Politics, chronicle how, over the last three decades, money has become increasingly influential in politics. Groups representing Wall Street, big business, and the wealthy have organized to become ever more powerful instruments in the political system. Groups representing the middle class-such as unions and civic organizations-have become less powerful. The Republican time-honored line “no new taxes” has morphed into not raising taxes on the extremely rich. They oppose the estate tax and support keeping the capital gains tax low. In fact, Grover Norquist, founder of America for Tax Reform, created a pledge which opposes any increase in taxes under any circumstance. This pledge has been signed by nearly every Republican legislator.

    While they claim tax fairness for all, the Republican solution to reduce the debt opposes domestic programs that benefit both the middle class and the poor.  For example, the GOP leadership has been uncompromisingly opposed to comprehensive healthcare reform, increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, strengthening public education, and lowering the rate of interest on college tuition loans. How are these policies supposed to help those less fortunate?

  • Though one of the main causes of the 2008 financial crisis was the lack of financial regulation, the Republican Party promotes further deregulation of banks, big business and the financial market. Can further deregulation, which, in part, caused the financial crisis, advance social justice?
  • Republicans seem to be working against equality in voter representation. Twenty Republican dominated states have passed voter identification laws that will create obstacles to voting that target the poor, minorities, and elders. While Republicans claim that these laws were passed to correct voter fraud, such fraud hardly exists. Clearly, these laws are being passed to influence elections in favor of Republican candidates. Does this position promote equality of voter representation?
  • Republican candidates are supportive of promoting government interference into women’s personal healthcare choices such as contraception. In addition they have tried to restrict low-income women from access to healthcare by opposing Planned Parenthood. Is this policy consistent with social justice?
  • Republican candidates are opposed to marriage equality. Does this position enhance social justice?
  • The Republican candidates oppose scientific evidence-based issues such as of global warming and the necessity to protect the environment. They want to reduce funding for health research, food safety, etc. Does this position support the repair of our world?

What is the relevance of Tikkun Olam in this political environment?  Should this principle come into play beyond consideration for charity and volunteering?   I believe Tikkun Olam is pertinent to our involvement in the political arena, whether with our political activity or with our vote.  In my opinion, the price of our choosing non-involvement abrogates our obligation to work for justice and the repair of the condition of the world.

A Jewish Action Plan Regarding the Komen Bigotry

Addendum

Rather than post a new story, please note that this morning Komen restored Planned Parenthood for now. Hadassah sent out a press release that they are grateful for this about face. Grateful? How about relieved and vigilant. I’m keeping my money on Planned Parenthood.

I hope the analysis below that I posted yesterday remains in your saved email to use the key points for future such situations.

The Komen situation is a fundamental abrogation of Jewish values and any breakdown along Republican and Democratic lines on this one is a dangerous and false dichotomy. I’ve today been able to speak “off the record” with several Komen employees at a variety of regional levels.

Apparently some of their staff are tendering resignations, many more are wrestling with themselves over whether to do so, given the high national rate of unemployment.

More after the jump.
The coherence of Komen’s large-scale well-orchestrated total follow-through process on breast cancer care is going to fragment, sadly, as agencies and patients debate whether to continue accepting their funding. I’m advised a woman who skips a step to avoid Komen-funded services in a care sequence, who returns later, needing funded care via Komen partnerships, can be disallowed sequence participation and funded services in some states due to existing state policies.

The Judeo-Christian Myth: Jewish Values Are NOT Synonymous with Right Wing Christianity

Let us be clear, Jews can’t have freedom of religion in a country where abortion isn’t allowed and our tradition isn’t respected. As likely you know, Judaism stipulates that the mental and physical health of the mother comes first. In our tradition, abortions are not a category of always refuse or always abort, but rather a situation by situation matter for deep reflection, study and decision by the woman. Orthodox Jews would likely seek the counsel of their rabbi, as well. The majority of Jews are not Orthodox, and so we would counsel a woman with an unwanted pregnancy to seek support and guidance if she wishes — from her rabbi, healthcare professionals, family, and, if known, the man who is source of the sperm that has resulted in the pregnancy.

Most Jews advocate responsible reproductive behavior, including the use of birth control, while at the same time encouraging those who are able and willing to have or adopt and raise children.

A Revolting Revolution

Like most revolutionary (revolting feels to be a better word) acts that attack the fabric of a given society, the Komen decision has more implications than just our pillorying and de-funding them. Emerging breaches in continuity of care must be addressed quickly by agencies like Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood for example, does mammography referrals to private and public service delivery sites, that in some states, Komen has been funding. Women’s health organizations work together, normally, to ensure continuity of coverage. So specifically, please urge Planned Parenthood to add funding or delivery of mammography to their service provision with your new or diverted donations.

Mitzvah-Centered Living is Our Credo

This is a very sad time of fissure in American society. May we all be blessed to lead inclusive mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered lives.

Addendum

Rather than post a new story, please note that this morning Komen restored Planned Parenthood for now. Hadassah sent out a press release that they are grateful for this about face. Grateful? How about relieved and vigilant. I’m keeping my money on Planned Parenthood. Shabbat Shalom.

Jewish Democrats: The “Bane” of Eric Cantor’s Existence

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA 6) was interviewed by Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 minutes. She asked him about the Jewish tendency to vote for Democrats. Cantor,  the only Jewish Republican currently serving in Congress, called this the bane of his existence and revealed the Republican version of tikkun olam.