Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Continuing Quandary of Identity: What I Learned in Puerto Rico



My husband, Ken and I just returned from a wonderful restful vacation in Puerto Rico. In almost twenty-two years of marriage, this was our first actual extended vacation not connected to work obligations, not inclusive of our amazing family, or Israel. This was just the two of us, no agenda, no one else to think about when making plans, really just to be relaxing and restful – away from responsibilities, work, the many concerns that keep us busy and happy in our lives.

That being said, I never get a vacation from me -- my thoughts, my big questions, and my analysis of the world! As my mom always said, you can’t run away from you because you take you with you! So true!

So given that my work and my life professionally as well as the way I am wired to think is always so wrapped up with identity and how that complex configuration of all that we are frames our lives contextually, why should this be any different! There we were for eight days in beautiful Puerto Rico with its vibrant colors, amazing nature, warm temperatures (though for my part, you can have the humidity – I am not a fan!), restful pace and of course… the Puerto Ricans. The people and their relationship to their entity of which they are part, their cherished religious roots and identity, developed art forms, and everything else were truly fascinating to me. So what is Puerto Rico and how do its citizens (?) relate to it and to the United States? This, I found is complicated, filled with conflicts and compromises and once again instructive for all of us in terms of our own identities with their inherent complications and questions, some of which just do not get resolved.

We learned that there is a governor of Puerto Rico that basically stands alone with a large infrastructure in Puerto Rico, connected to the United States in some sort of way, but not really so much. There are three political parties – those who want for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the United States, those who wish for things to stay the same – namely unresolved about what it means to be a “territory,” and those who want Puerto Rico to claim its independence as a separate country or republic. Puerto Ricans vote in primary elections for the President of the United States but NOT in the general elections. Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes but do get hit with heavy taxes on what they import, which includes just about everything as manufacturing is not part of the Puerto Rican landscape generally. The history of Puerto Rico is fascinating, with many hands and countries in the mix. The three flags that grace El Morro, the historical lookout point at the tip of Old San Juan give credence to this mix, with the Puerto Rican flag, the one representing the United States and the one from the Spanish military of so long ago. There are many beautiful parks and protected lands under Federal (United States) supervision and control. Many people work for the United States government and as many as one third of the Puerto Ricans work somehow for their own republican government. When you ask a Puerto Rican where they are form, they simply reply, “I am from here.” You do not need a passport to travel from the United States to Puerto Rico or vice versa, though I was told that is about to change and that eventually, US citizens will need passports for all travel. So are they citizens of the United States or of Puerto Rico as a separate entity (territory or republic) or both? While this has NOT been resolved, there is a comfortable compromise in which mostly people accept the ambiguity of their existence in this respect and go about their daily lives. What an interesting lesson to be learned from this!

Ironically (to me at least) we were told that the year that this uncomfortable compromise was struck was 1948. My mind turned to other as-yet-unresolved issues of identity and territory that date back to that year: India and Pakistan and, of course, Israel and other areas around it (a la trans-Jordan understanding). To be sure people in Puerto Rico have their frustrations and questions and sense of lack of fairness. That being said, we were also told that generally this plays out in a relatively peaceful manner, in spite of the fact that people hold very strong feelings about what should be and is not yet the case. So to what is this attributed? Is it the pride of being part of Puerto Rico connected with its beauty, its pace of life, and its history as well as culture towards which there is much allegiance?

During many conversations, people just basically shrugged and smiled. There are problems to be sure with the educational system and the government is presently on the brink of financial ruin, again according to what we were told. Nonetheless, that Puerto Rican pride of all that it is came through loud and clear. I, for one, was quite impressed by it as well as the people who showed it

So in my mind of course, I wander to Israel – with its shared pivotal year of 1948 defining its present reality. Yes, there are so many unresolved issues. Yes, there are longstanding conflicts still operative. And needless to say, there are identity issues that are dizzying. That being said, there are so many wonderful efforts of which one can feel so proud while so many people continue to work together and forge paths of cooperation while living with the ambiguity indicative of their own context. And of course, the landscape, the history and all that is part of Israel is a great source of pride.

What is the point here? I love the statement “Know before whom you stand” which often appears in prominent places in many synagogues and shuls. We all stand before God with our various identity issues and challenges brought about as a result of those issues. The question is how do we do it -- with grace and pride; or with anger and contention? I saw a great deal of the former in Puerto Rico, I see so much of it in Israel (though sadly too many people totally miss it) and it is what I look for wherever I am. We all stand before God as God’s created beings; the trick is to remember to respect each other as such, no matter what challenges threaten that goal!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Operation Peace Flight, Roots, Dancing in Gaza, Palestinian/Israeli Circus of the Galilee, …. And so much more

Warning: This blog entry comes with “work” for you if you are really ready to learn so much about great initiatives in Israel that are constructive and involved hundreds of thousands of people and do not get enough press.

There are so many wonderful programs and shared projects in Israel that bring together Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, people of all faiths – Christian, Jewish and Moslem – and all of these efforts are based on the notion that we share so much more than whatever divides us.

Recently a really good friend sent me the following piece, which I highly recommend. (Thank you MB!)

http://www.timesofisrael.com/maverick-educator-seeks-to-change-israeli-arab-world-from-within/

While this first piece is about education within the Arab sector to address a cultural dynamic within this particular society, it bodes well for addressing internal issues while showing that we can all find a moderate way to live well and bring out the best in all of us – men and women.

Once we figure that out, maybe, just maybe, we can all come together and widen our circles of friends, people who care and work together to build a better world.

Note this effort to address a known problem, that of Jewish extremists, known as Tag Machir (meaning “price tag” and the group of people who have taken on their own agenda of destroying Arab property, families, and individuals, who by the way, have also been created by God).

Tag Meir (meaning “light tag” in Hebrew) is a grass-roots organization founded in 2011 which works against racism in Israel. Tag Meir lead a solidarity trip to the West Bank Palestinian village of Douma Their chairman Gadi Gvaryahu said it was vital that Jews come to show respect to the family who was recently attacked. "It was important for us to come look in their eyes and say, 'This is the worst thing a person from our nation could do,'" Gvaryahu said. "To say that we're sorry, that we're shocked. It's not a mistake to come and meet people and ask forgiveness." Read more HERE.

Years ago, decades really, I was in the home of a Palestinian Moslem Muchtar (chief of his village) who said, “We are at war with ourselves. We have to figure that out before we can truly work on how to live peacefully with others.” I always thought that was one of the most astute and singularly wise statements I have ever heard and it most certainly applies to the Jewish population of Israel as well. Clearly we are struggling as our own Hilltop Youth and other extremist groups foil the honest and faith-based intentions and initiatives of so many who are trying to work together to build a better Israel (and Palestine) and ultimately a better world.

That being said, look at these many efforts that are so wonderful (and mind you, this is a tiny sampling)! I have shared some of them before, and there are new ones. Maybe as we begin this new year of 2016 it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the good in our world and in Israel specifically.

Dancing in Gaza brings together Israelis and Palestinians in learning ball room dancing. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/24/dancing-in-jaffa_n_5682927.html

Operation Peace Flight was organized by Barry Schiff as a joint flight between Israel and Jordan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3THMy7Ad_ck

Israeli Football League is a completely amateur league in which Israelis, Arabs, and people of all faiths participate. http://www.ifl.co.il/

Shorashim, a program co-founded by a Palestinian and a Jewish leader in the Gush bring together people from both communities to share food, discussion, stories and just to get to know each other better. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/bridges/three.html

Friends of the Earth of the Middle East, also known as EdoPeace Middle East brings together people of the region across national and community lines to work for a better environment, truly practicing the notion that we need to work together to make a better world and sustain it as well. http://www.foeme.org/www/?module=home

MEJDI fosters understanding and cooperation between people in the regions through dual-narrative tours. https://interculturalinnovation.org/center-for-world-religions-diplomacy-and-conflict-resolution-mejdi/

Yad b’Yad Schools is now a system of six schools throughout Israel that brings together Arab and Israeli families, Jews, Christians and Moslems and includes families across the spectrum who want their children and the next generation to be part of a peaceful world by learning how to live in and build one. https://www.handinhandk12.org/

Makom BeGalil is a Israeli-Palestinian youth circus that builds relationships through the trust needed to successfully engage in and perform circus arts. http://eng.makom-bagalil.org.il/galileecircus/

Parent Circle Family Forum is a group of Palestinian and Israeli parents who come together to talk and share their stories of children and family members lost to violence. Their motto is “It won’t stop Until We Talk.” How true. http://www.theparentscircle.com/

This is only a tiny sampling of the many, many efforts and organizations that are presently active. For a yet small, but more expansive listing, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab-Israeli_peace_projects

These hundreds of programs and cooperative community efforts such as those in Haifa, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva and elsewhere as well as the work that began so long ago in places that Ulpan Akiba and Givat Haviva are testimony to the constantly growing numbers of people and organizations that are supporting and enabling peaceful co-existence while we are affronted by the front pages of our newspapers and the top stories of our news reports that would have us believe otherwise. Whether involved in business, medical care, learning narratives, performing, singing, dancing, athletic teams, camps, schools and so much else, PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE is happening successfully and Israel is becoming a better place because of it. May all of these wonderful efforts continue to grow and be successful!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

So what’s one more New Year among friends?



Appropriately enough, I guess, I am learning Masechet Rosh HaShanah in my daily Gemara learning. In the Jewish calendar there are four recognized new years, occurring in the months of Nisan, Elul, Tishrei and Shevat. In the discussions that appear in the Talmud it is suggested that there may be as much as six new years – for a variety of reasons including the official calendar of kings, for the fruits of the trees, for accounting of all that we have and for judgment for all that we are. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – clearly the most well known of the new years in the Jewish calendar is what is focused on in this aptly named section of Talmud, called after Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year of human accounting.

The Rabbis discuss how often we are called to account for what we do by God, our Creator. Various options are again presented (you know the joke, two Rabbis, three opinions… well, we see its origins in the Gemara!) with no less than the notion presented that actually we are called to account for our actions every minute of every day. It is known that Jewish communities come to God asking for forgiveness for our missteps on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment; but we would do well to remember that actually in the daily prayer that we say three times each day – the Amidah, we constantly ask God to forgive us for such slights we have committed in the various daily dealings of our lives. I actually feel so comforted that God is always listening to and attentive to our deeds and I guess that is a huge part of what it means to be a person of faith.

A Rabbi in our community shared that automatically it occurred to this community leader to wish people who were observing Christmas a Happy Erev Christmas! I love it… Jewish mindset and accepting and cherishing of others wrapped up in one heartfelt greeting. Another Rabbi indicated in the shul calendar that we have two Federal Holidays this week. How true! We as Americans are embraced by (or caught, depending on one’s predisposition) the joyful time of another faith community and culture that is so much a part of the country that accepts us all.

So what is my ritual at this time? I start practicing writing 2016 – I actually am so good at it this year, I mistakenly used 2016 on documents I have signed when it is still 2015. Oops! But more importantly, what will be my greeting to everyone I meet this week? Of course, it will be Happy New Year! Why not? I know that not all in our faith community of observant Jews agree with this. But I think it is indeed something to celebrate – that we live in this world as free people of faith, enjoying more and more inclusiveness on so many levels and the other fruits of democracy and the free-thinking world. Of course, we must also fully acknowledge and be accountable for the fact that this is clearly not the case for all citizens of the world. So here comes our prayers – to make us more caring, more embracing, and closer to the ideal people of faith we are all enjoined to be, whatever Higher Being we hold to be ours.

So what would the Rabbis in the pages of my Gemara learning think about that? One of the distinctions that is often made is between kings and the kingship of the Jewish nation and those of the nations of the world. So, let’s consider that for a moment. As our calendar turns from 2015 to 2016 this coming Thursday night, let us pray for ALL nations and people of faith of our world that this year will bring more understanding, less pain and conflict and more acceptance of the need for all of us to live together. Is that worthy of yet another New Year? I believe it is… so from my own mindset of Jewish values and thinking, I wish you all a heartfelt HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What is YOUR normal?

As part of my preparations for a conference I am planning for the Orthodox Jewish population of the Greater Philadelphia area on February 28, 2016 which is entitled, Halacha and Community: Challenges and Approaches, I am reading a lot of materials these days about potentially marginalized groups whom we are obligated by Torah as much as our own ethical standards to include in our community. This has taken me to a reading prepared by a colleague of mine from many years of being part of a wonderful national community of Jewish educators, Rabbi Elliot Dorff. In his piece, “Meshanah HaBeriot” he envisions a new approach to thinking about disabilities and limitations. He imagines a world where the disabled or limited person is not the marginalized individual, but rather we all see ourselves as “temporarily abled” and bound to become disabled at some point. He talks about how we should accept and include everyone with his/her/their differences. I highly recommend this thoughtful piece which can be found here (http://www.uscj.org/JewishLivingandLearning/SocialAction/Accessibility/)

Rabbi Dorff entitles his paper with the words one says when one blesses God for making different people when we see someone who is visibly different. Yes, we bless God for our differences, our abilities, our disabilities, all of it! What a concept! What a different world this would be if we could be so aware of all of us, that no one would be disadvantaged because of disabilities or differences, but all would be included and embraced for their value and potential contributions to the collective. Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, in fact, a lot, and this, too, is acknowledged by my colleague!

Nonetheless, I was reminded of dear friends of ours from years ago, Ari and Stacy Goldberg, whose daughter Rina z’l, suffered from chronic health problems due to mitochondrial disease. Her theme was B+ (that is Be Positive!) and this young girl was a teacher to all who included her and accommodated her needs. Not only are we obligated to include all members in our community, we stand to learn so much about abilities, the challenges of disabilities, the resilience of spirit well placed, and the many blessings we have no matter what the challenges may be. Ari spoke so beautifully at Rina’s funeral about expecting to take one ride (a normal one, perhaps) with their daughter when Rina came into their lives; but ultimately finding a new and different normal when her various challenges presented. It is hard to continually be mindful of this, but we all know so many stories of HEROES who have shown us the way, precisely through their addressing of whatever disabilities, or different abilities, they may have.

Is it NORMAL to expect that there will not be deficits, impairments, weaknesses and such in our bodies and as we progress through life? Of course not! It is here that Rabbi Dorff challenges us to think of ourselves, when appropriate as “temporarily abled.” This turns the table on disabilities in a powerful psychological way. He also addresses the obvious financial and logistical dynamics of what it would take to truly build such a society. Earlier this year, Knoxville, Tennessee made the news by becoming an official “dementia-friendly community,” so that people with various memory impairment conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s, etc.) could function in a safe and supportive environment. Having recently dealt with my own parents’ decline during the past several years, I was particularly touched by this notion and wonder if it is indeed feasible for us to engage in more such efforts.

What is normal? Last night I was enjoying a reunion with some friends from different stages in my life. During our lovely dinner, it was pointed out to me that another person from my past was sitting several tables away. I would never have recognized her as she has had serious health problems due to a hemorrhagic stroke. My friend at the table was describing her recent wedding to her new husband and what an amazing experience it was to be there. Clearly, this is yet another example of considering a different normal. I hope that the future will give me a chance be in touch with this person and continue to feel the power of the blessing of having her and her family in my life in much younger years, when we were all able… and to continue to learn from her different “ableness.”

We are completing the cycle of the Torah readings of Bereshit, the book of Genesis at this season in the Jewish calendar. When I teach about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their family members, I DO focus on what their deficits and disabilities are. Sometimes, I am asked why THESE PEOPLE are our role models and my answer is that is precisely because of their being touched and feeling the full impact of the human condition that they are apt role models. We may lose our sight as Yitzchak, lose our physical strength as Yaakov, not be as strong mentally, spiritually or in other ways as people around us in our lives and so on. That being said, if we think of ourselves as “temporarily able” maybe, just maybe, we will be cognizant of the blessings we have and be more attentive to the many more we learn from each other as we all work through our assigned challenges.

May 2016 bring healing to all who need it and remind all of us to think of as many different types of normal as possible.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lessons of Hannukah: A Little Bit of Oil Goes a Long Way



On Sunday, immediately after returning home from Israel, I attended and taught at a conference entitled Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Global Warming. The connection to the fact that on this very day we were all awaiting the onset of Hannukah, when we celebrate the miracle of a little bit of oil was not lost on me.

Hanukah has always struck me as a funny holiday in some ways – acknowledging the notion that a little bit of resources lasted for so long, both in terms of human resources in the Maccabbees and with respect to natural resources regarding the small flask of oil that lit the way for eight days; while so defined too often in our world today by excesses and wastefulness, including excessive packaging of too many gifts that we too often don’t even need. One could make a strong case that Hannukah is more about measuring and using our human and natural resources carefully and intentionally even though this is often the furthest thing from people’s minds. No doubt this is due in no small part to the influence of our larger commercial culture. Interestingly enough, I have heard many devout Christians also lament that the true meaning of their own days of observance at this season has lost traction in our materialistic world.

So, allow me for a moment to take a different look at some of the compelling lessons of Hannukah and really just about every moment in our Jewish lives in reminding us of our ongoing relationship with our world and Earth as well as our responsibility to care for it and use our resources appropriately.

Look at these texts carefully:

“When you besiege a city… do not destroy (lo tashchit) any of its trees…” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Rav Zutra said: “Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, transgresses the law of bal tashchit.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 67b)

“Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch 529; 13th Century)

Clearly, we are taught here and in so many other texts to not be wasteful and to respect all facets of Creation at all times, including conflict, use of resources, and protection of our planet. This is more than relevant and profoundly necessary at this point in our human narrative. The practice of conservation and the notion that our resources are not limitless are well-established truths from long ago and frame the basic Jewish practice to not be wasteful, observing the body of laws known as Bal Tashchit.

Taking into account the notion that there is an increasing divide between the haves and the have nots in our world and the proliferation of initiatives of “giving back” during this holiday season so that those of us who have so much can show gratitude and share our bounty with others, what if we were all to give these lessons as gifts to those we love?

For many years, while my children were growing up, we participated in a wonderful program called Christian Children’s Fund and sent our monthly checks to support a family in Uganda. Every Hannukah I had a deal with my children. Whatever I would spend on them, we also spent on Beth Nikalanda, the child we sponsored and her family. We would send a check to CCF and then get letters back about how the same amount of money that supported our American Girl dolls (which are now parented by my daughter’s girls) bought lambs, blankets, grain and other supplies that supported this entire family. This, I believe was one of the lessons of gratitude and feeling the blessings of our lives for my children. This was most likely the most important Hannukah gift I gave them. We also came to have a great deal of respect for Beth in being so self-sufficient and skilled in working the land and helping her family to survive and thrive in their reality, where they HAD to be careful and mindful and intentional with their limited resources.

It is indeed a challenge to watch as less and less people have more and more and use their disproportionate amount of energy and resources while trying to be mindful of those in need and resources that are at risk. We are all so aware of the present work on Sustainable Development Goals in our world, various reports of climate change and global warming with 2015 taking its place as the hottest year on record. Yet, awareness is not enough; we have to carefully consider our own individual footprints and impact on these factors and how we can individually and collectively work to keep our world safe and protect the Creation, its light and all, that God entrusted to our care so long ago. This sensibility and the need for action is the most important gift we can give to those we love this Hannukah. Only then, will our small amount of oil go far enough for all to be sustained and live well. This is one important way we can perpetuate the miracle of Hannukah in our times.

If you are interested in more materials and resources, check these sites to learn more about this important aspect of our Chiyuv as protectors and workers of the planet.

http://canfeinesharim.org/for-your-school-lesson-plans-2/

http://www.coejl.org/resources/jewishtexts/

http://aytzim.org/resources/educational-materials

http://hazon.org/jewish-food-movement/jewish-food-movement-educational-materials/

Chag Urim Sameach – May the lights of the candles we look at this Hannukah remind us of the blessings in our lives and the need to hope for a better and more well used planet.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dealing with Sobering Times….. Again



Shabbat is coming and we are having our monthly Kabbalat Shabbat (special service to welcome our day of rest, for my non-Jewish friends) Partnership Minyan at our house. We are leaving for Israel on Wednesday. My entire family will be together to help me celebrate my birthday in a few weeks. I am in the midst of planning two conferences on Inclusion and Acceptance of all members of our communities for different populations – one for Orthodox Jews and one for people of all faiths. All of these involvements are so uplifting to me and I am so filled with gratitude to be able to have all of these wonderful experiences and so many more blessings in my life. And yet, my heat is so heavy.

Here we are again! Paris, Marseille, Chad, Israel, Cameroon, Turkey, Nigeria, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali – these are just the most recent sites of the approximately 300 incidents in 2015 attributed to terrorism. On one hand, it makes one afraid to think of travel, going out about one’s normal day, and just living for fear of their loved ones, community members and the general devastation that comes from thinking about what is happening in our world.

Peace rallies, tributes, creation of places of memory and comfort and community gatherings, people reaching out to help each other, Moslems gathering in France and elsewhere to proclaim in so many languages “We are Moslems and against terrorism,” staying glued to the television, internet and every possible news source, and just trying to get through the day…. This is how we fight the terrorism that threatens ALL good people, innocent citizens and purposeful and heartening communities of faith.

We are told that we are to go about our lives and we try to do the best we can. Our fellow citizens of the world in Paris and Marseille are showing us how to do this now as Americans did after 9/11 and as the citizens of the cities and countries listed above are doing and as the good people in the lands most threatened and vulnerable do every day. We KNOW not to take each other and our many blessings for granted, but this reminds us in such a palpable way to do so. How do we, as my daughter, Yoella, and I were discussing (as we often do) this week, continue to live and hold onto our values and our ethics and not let them be compromised by those who are responsible for these breaches in our daily lives and the well being of the masses? How can we not?

This week’s Torah reading in the Jewish cycle of weekly portions is about Yaakov (Jacob) and his isolation when he has been sent from his home because of his mother Rivkah’s (Rebeccah) concern for the well-being of both of her sons. As she states in our Torah narrative, “Shall I lose both of my sons?” Yaakov and Esau are very different, there has not been honesty amongst them, and there is now an irreconcilable rift, which Rivkah feels can only be avoided, not healed. So that is, we are told by some of our commentaries, both classic and more modern, the reason that she separates her sons, forgoing her own motherly instincts to keep her children as close as possible.

As a mother, I know all too well that desire to keep all safe – our family, my children, their children, their friends, our community, our world! Golda Meir often spoke about how she led Israel when she was Prime Minister with the mindset of a mother. As a mother and as a woman, I totally get this as I am sure so many of us do. How do we protect ALL innocent citizens?

Golda Meir poignantly stated that she was angry with those who killed her children, the Israelis, but she was more angry and distraught who forced her children, the Israelis to kill others. This sentiment is clearly from the mindset of one who values life – the life of all of God’s human beings. Let us hold onto this notion that we want to protect all innocent life and now the challenge is how do we do this in the face of the threats that are facing ALL of us no matter where we are? How do we help the Syrian refugees? How do we continue to engage in initiatives that bring together Palestinians and Israelis in so many successful ventures, ranging from concern for the environment to sharing circus arts, to living room dialogue groups and so much more? How do we NOT judge each other by how we look and the association of that appearance with those who use a similar one to act in the name of terrorism, nothing else!

Terrorists are NOT acting within the context of a religious framework, but rather taking the faith that so many of us believe in so fervently and corrupting it, offending all believers in our communities of faith. I was horrified by the murder of Shira Banki z’l by an extremist who was NOT acting within a Jewish context and others like him, and am now equally horrified by those who are perverting what Islam teaches. May we all find a way to live together and support each other so that our only response is not to have to send “the other” away from us – My prayer is that we continue to work together so that it is so clear that there are many more masses of people who are peaceful people of faith and NOT terrorists.

May this be a peaceful Shabbat and Sabbath for all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Do We Normalize the Conversation about Inclusion in our Faith Communities?



In 1951 a man by the name of Maurice Ogden wrote a terrifying poem called The Hangman using a pseudonym. It was first published in 1954. I have used this poem in my teaching often through the years. It is about a hangman who comes to town and one by one hangs all of the citizens. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of it, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgX-wtO_ys8

It is about community on an extremely important level, namely when community does NOT function as community and then people within that community are isolated, maligned, ignored, not included, and eventually destroyed. In Ogden’s poem, the destruction comes from the “stranger who came to our town.” However, what about those in our community upon whom we depend for support, love, validation and so much else?

These days, so much of my work is about just that – inclusion of all within our community. In this case, it is about including LGBTQ community members in our communities of faith. This includes the general Jewish community, the Orthodox Jewish community specifically and all communities of faith in my work with our area’s Multi-Faith Council. I approach this work thoughtfully and ever so intentionally, trying to convey that this is NOT about politics, grandstanding or making any large social statements. Rather, it is just about being…. who we are and who God made us to be. As you know by now, for me this has always been part of my hardwiring – this is the way God made me to be – an Ally for the inclusion of all members of our community. Yet, we cannot be so na├»ve as to think that this is not a huge leap for too many in our various communities of faith. So how do I approach this conversation?

I try to normalize it! Let us look back and consider that ever so long ago, the Talmud with its accepted Jewish authority as a seminal text is quite clear about how left-handed people only have qualified inclusion in our community. However, no one would question that in spite of centuries of thinking left-handed people to be sinister and of other such non-normative status; long ago, in fact in the Talmud itself, we acknowledge that we found a way to accept this variation in God’s created beings and accept those who are left-handed.

Women were definitely at a clear disadvantage and not included in so much of social gatherings, which is still a problem in too much of our world today. Even Jewish texts from so long ago speak to the need to meet the needs of this fully one half of our population. Other faith communities have definitely lived through many chapters of coming to terms with acceptance and provision of as full as possible inclusion of women in as many situations as possible. We in our civilized world acknowledge that we have found a way to validate that half of God’s created beings are women and accept them; while separating ourselves from societies who have not yet figured this out. Parenthetically, there are still needed steps to insure this equality but we would generally agree in this learning circle of which we are part that this must be on our agenda and that ways of consideration and inclusion have definitely been found and utilized..

In the Jewish community’s observant sectors, agunot (women whose husbands will not grant them a needed divorce) have had their share of challenges and in some communities become nothing s>hort of pariahs. This has hit families who could not be ignored as time has gone on, and here too, we are finding ways to deal with this challenge and to facilitate a process by which these women can move on with their lives. To not have done so would be oppositional to some of the most basic of Foundational Torah concepts, so we must find a way.

Members of our community who are hearing impaired also have limitations placed on them by the strictest and most basic reading of our Torah text and codes of law. Yet, we know all too well that due to hearing aids, cochlear implants, use of sign language and other strategies, our community members with hearing deficits can and do function fully as members of our community. In terms of Jewish law, ways have been found to validate and adapt this process so that full participation is granted in our religious as well as judicial spheres. The same challenge has been presented for the visually impaired, the physically limited, and other groupings. As a side comment, I find it ever so interesting that it is Israeli doctors and medical centers that are disproportionately so present in the field of creation of adaptive devices to allow such full participation and involvement. Yes, we have learned here too that where there is a will, there is a way.

Not so many years ago, children and members of our community who are learning disabled were excluded, not acknowledged, put away and families were ashamed because of the fear that such children meant that someone must have done something wrong. We have come to learn the incredible gifts that these children and the adults they grow into bring into our community. PTACH and other organizations with a similar mission have taught us all too well that EVERY Jewish child should be included and educated. There was a will, so a way was found.

And now, here we are on the cusp of an amazing time of growth, discussion, deliberations and consideration of how we fully include and validate the members of our Jewish community and other faith communities who are LGBTQ. Will there be religious challenges requiring creative and thoughtful and intentional approaches? No doubt there will be, but haven’t we done exactly that in so many different cases through the years? That is precisely what I mean by “normalizing the conversation.” We ask for no more and no less for our LGBTQ members than our left-handed members, women, our agunot, community members with various impairments, limitations, different learning needs and so many others. Where there is a will and a thoughtful intentional consideration of what it means to be fully human, we have seen in so many instances in the past that there is a way. May it always continue to be so.

So what is my ultimate goal in this work? Ogden ends each stanza of his chilling and horrifying poem with the execution of yet another not-to-be-accepted community member and fear regarding who would be next on his scaffold. My hope is that we will end each chapter in our own history of our faith communities by showing ourselves able to come to terms with the approach of “who do we include” by considering how we find a way that is reasonable and compassionate so that all are protected from whatever Hangman and cloak that may come by. That to me is normalizing the conversation – using those tools and strategies we have already learned for our beloved community members, whatever their differences may be.