Friday, February 24, 2012

On Being Excluded for Working for Inclusion

I often say and have written here before about the notion that I truly and humbly believe that as an observant Shomer Mitzvot Jew, I have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to work for the safety and inclusion of all members of our Jewish family and our human family. I personally think we all do but as I always, explain I can only make “I statements,” so this is the principle I will use. This is why I vex over such things as whom I should help with my admittedly limited Tzedakah dollars (see previous post) and how we need to work tirelessly to build bridges that join all sectors of our community. This is also why I am often “not fully acceptable” in my own religious community, which is an entirely different topic.

This is why I sit on our area’s Interfaith Dialogue Steering Committee, am a member of our JFCS Task Force of Inclusion of GLBTQ Members of our community, make a point to participate in group experiences whether or not I may agree with that group’s agenda, teach my children and students to accept and value all human beings as much as possible, write and publish curricular pieces on these topics, work with conflict resolution and inter-group dialogue, visit places and work with groups across both my comfort and courage zone and try to encourage others to do the same.

So several weeks ago, I was at at one of my inclusion focused group meetings and we were discussing the various groups that we are concerned about and represent as a collective. When my turn came to share, I spoke on behalf of the GLBTQ members of the Orthodox and more ritualistically observant part of the Jewish spectrum and tried to explain how often the issues for this part of our Jewish community are different and specific to the need to reconcile the dictates of Halacha and the texts that inform how we live with what we know about how people function and what our medical experts have taught us about sexual and gender identity.

I must admit that I was caught a bit by surprise when another individual at the table immediately responded by speaking rather forcibly and ultimately in a quite loud voice (to the point of being embarrassing) about how I am a hypocrite for being part of my community and how this community and I are racist and extremist and bigoted…. And on went the reaction. While this clearly had an impact on me (I often feel like I am going into a type of internal shock in these situations), I practiced my own advice which is to stay calm and reasonable in such situations. I responded in a soft voice, trying to reason. Immediately it was clear I could not offer any response so I simply said “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.” At this point, the individual shouted “No you are wrong! There is no agreement for anything here!” I shrugged, for what else could I do. The kind person sitting next to me (whom I really did not know) wrote me a quick note, asking if I was okay! Other looks of concern could be seen around the table, which were greatly appreciated.

One other member of the group picked up on the statement claiming agreement and the bashing of all things Orthodox (with no attempts to clarify or specify) was off and running. The facilitator of the discussion basically suggested moving on and so we did.

A few of my students were at this meeting (I brought them) and I could see they were shaken. I explained to them that I heard a wonderful statement recently that goes like this: We must have even more compassion for those who do not have compassion. How applicable this is to so many different sides of the table, so to speak.

As I was processing this experience and the stinging feeling that it produces, I remember about twelve years ago when I was attending one of the first showings of “Trembling Before G-d,” the seminal and groundbreaking film about Homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community and world. It was at Beit Ahavah, the area’s GLBTQ synagogue. In the course of the discussion, a woman stood up in the back of the room and began to really attack all people and all things Orthodox. She took the position that she did not understand how anyone could be part of such a horrible group, and that GLBTQ Jews should just be that and disassociate themselves from anything Orthodox. She went on for a few moments at which point the President of the Congregation looked at me helplessly and somewhat embarrassed (I had come with my daughter and a good friend as I had known Steve Greenberg who was associated with the film) and I indicated that I would respond. I basically stood up and explained that there are always those who will not accept others, however to make blanket statements that “All X (in this case, Orthodox people) are Y (horrible and unaccepting)” does not really serve any purpose. I explained that she was using the same type of blanket statements to malign us that others would use against her identified social group of acceptance, and for which they need to be called to task. “We are here with you in solidarity, acceptance and understanding. Are you really stating that you want us to leave the room?” I sat down and mostly all of those present applauded.

So, here I sit. I still encourage my students, my children, my friends, anyone I can to be part of as many different groupings as they can. We MUST be inclusive. We are taught in the details and big ideas of Halacha to be inclusive. Thirty six times in our Torah we are taught to accept all those amongst us and to NOT OPPRESS OR HARM anyone as a stranger in the way that we were treated in our years in Egypt. I will not stop going out on the limb and joining groups in which I may be one of the few, if not the only one representing this bridging together of Jewish observance and social/human acceptance and appreciation. I still believe it is my moral imperative to do so. It is in this conviction I take comfort when I am excluded because of my admittedly inclusive agenda.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding the Balance between Helping Others and Asking that All Take Responsibility for Ourselves

Consider the following information that appears in an article entitled “The New Poverty” that recently appeared in The Jerusalem Report (January 16, 2012 issue):

… 53 percent of Arab families live under the poverty line…. In the Arab sector … the men work but the women often do not.

These comments are offered in an article explaining poverty in Israel today and how there are specific challenges to all of Israel. These comments refer to one population within the Israeli structure and elsewhere in the article it is commented that this

…skews the figures because if we could only count the rest of the population, our poverty level would put us [in a more normative economic situation when looking at the rest of the world]

So, let’s pause for a moment. Think honestly about how you feel regarding this information. Do you feel comfortable having a discussion about how we can help these families and what we can do to change the circumstances of this population? Does that discussion relate to your politics, to the notion that we should extend a hand to those less fortunate, or a combination of these elements and other values you hold dear?

Please note that I will not propose any answers here, I am merely asking questions. Those questions are about who has both the responsibility and ability to support themselves and what those of us who are working and in a position to help others should be asked and required to do for those who choose not to accept such responsibility, should this be and when this is the case.

After you have thought about this a bit…. And ONLY THEN, continue….

In this same article the following information appears, also as part of what “skews the figures” of poverty in Israel:

Among the Haredi population, 55 percent of families live under the poverty line…In the Haredi sector, women tend to work while the men do not…

So, let’s pause once again. How do you honestly feel about this information? Do you want to help and change the circumstances of this population? What are the factors that contribute to your answer? Is your approach here the same as or different from that in the situation above? What accounts for these similarities or differences?

Consider that there is almost identical information about these two populations, which are described in the article as follows:

[The] single poverty figure of 20 percent [for Israel in general] does not reflect the true complexity of the issue of combating poverty in Israel… The population can be divided into [three separate economic entities of] the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sector, the Arab sector, and the ‘rest,’ mostly secular Jews.

Further, about the “’rest,’ mostly secular Jews,” it is written:

In general, in families in which two members of the family work, the poverty rate is only 3 percent…

So, in the end, how sympathetic are we to “Israel’s poverty problem?” How are we supposed to respond to each of the two groups indicated as well as to the problem in general?

In my own family, my husband and I have both always worked. We have raised our children to work and take responsibility for them selves in our world. Our 28 year old daughter and her husband both work, and are also raising the most adorable and beautiful 16 month old twin girls. We have provided for our children based upon our being a two professional family. Years ago, when we were living in another community that was heavily populated by a very strong Orthodox (and economically challenged) presence, we were TOLD, yes TOLD that we were responsible for educating the other community children whose parents could not provide for them (including many who followed the model indicated here amongst the Haredi population in Israel). I must say I had a hard time with that notion.

No one loves to learn and grow more than I do. That being said, it has been a joy to take responsibility for our children, their education and the quality of life for all members of our wonderful family. Why should I feel responsible for those who DO NOT TRY to do the same? I am certainly not suggesting that this is always the case and clearly there are cases where we should (and we do) care and share with our resources with which G-d has blessed us. That being said, at what point do people get to take a “pass” on meeting their economic responsibility for their own families? Further, what circumstances should inspire me to “care and share” graciously with others? When is it appropriate to help others and when is it more appropriate to facilitate a process by which others take responsibility for themselves? I often refer to the Talmudic dictum of “When you give someone a fish they have dinner for the evening; when you teach someone to fish, they have dinner for life.” Maimonides teaches that the highest form of Tzedakah is helping someone find work.

To be sure, there are cultures where not all members of the community work. That being said, we are all aware of alterations and decisions we have ourselves made to accommodate changing economics and various needs in our daily lives. If others are able to do so and choose not to do so, is this the direction in which I should direct my Tzedakah dollars? I am just not all that sure.