Thursday, February 18, 2016

When Did We Lose our Sense of Reason?

I live in the city that goes by the moniker of “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” I live in a country that is touted as being “One Nation under God.” I am fiercely committed to Israel, which daily tries to figure out how to simultaneously be a Jewish State and a democracy, validating and embracing all of its citizens in as inclusive a manner as possible. My family and I are part of the world of LGBTQ community members generally and in the Jewish world specifically as well. Clearly, acceptance and inclusion are at the heart of this community, as it needs to be and should be.

Yet, in Israel I have to watch the antics of the Hilltop Youth and other extremists and radicalists who do not believe in dialoguing and negotiating and in listening to the other, not following more Jewish dictates than I can count; but would rather destroy and destruct in the name of whatever they claim is their right. In the United States I watch a battle that pits citizens against citizens and threatens to compromise the ability of the Supreme Court to act on behalf of the citizenry in whom it is invested. And then there is the Creating Change fiasco, where Israeli organizations that work for LGBTQ inclusion were maligned, protested against, thrown out of programming and the resulting bad feelings all around continue to be palpable. I myself have been part of LGBTQ groupings as an ally for decades and there have definitely been instances where as an Orthodox Jew who is a long term ally (before anyone even used the term) and now a parent of my wonderful children, I was the subject of assumptions, prejudice and even, hatred. These moments and incidents are so sad and disheartening. At present, I am working for inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community but another element of this work is to work towards acceptance of LGBTQ Jews who are Orthodox in the general Jewish and general LGBTQ community.

I am greatly concerned. There are so many battles that have been hard fought, so many alliances that need to be protected and amplified, and in the middle of this, there is too much contention and a lack of willingness to compromise and work cooperatively. When and how did this happen and why is this dynamic so pervasive in different aspects of our reality? When did radicalism and extremism become the preferred way to be regardless of what one believes, whether one is a conservative or liberal, Orthodox Jew or Secular Humanist? This is simply NOT what we are taught in our constitution, in our Holy Writ, or by the example of our past generations. Too many of us are just shaking our heads trying to figure out what has gone so terribly wrong in the past twenty to thirty years. Too many times, there are incidents such as the Creating Change situation (Here is one of several articles on this ) or the angry outbursts we have seen increasingly throughout our world that are disruptive of the efforts of those of us who work so hard to build bridges and to join hands for shared causes.

We all know the dynamic of the left moving further to the left and the right moving further to the right, but what about those of us in the reasonable middle who do believe in talking, negotiating, and working with each other to make our world a better place? How do we insure that what we have held so dear for so long is not destroyed? Thinking of the many cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians where there is meaningful dialogue and caring conversations; the interfaith efforts that bring all people of faith to a place where we reconfirm that there is so much more that unites us than anything that divides us; the relationships that have developed between children and grandchildren of victims and perpetrators of horrible and destructive chapters of history such as the Holocaust, I often have great reason for hope. Then I try to listen to Presidential debates. Really? When did we forget how to speak with each other?

Justice Antonin Scalia died less than a week ago. So many stories have come out about friendships and respect across political, ideological and many other lines and the high regard in which he was held and showed toward others. I remember the wonderful friendships past Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen speak of nostalgically regarding each other, including recent memories shared by Senator George Mitchell. Words like honest, respectful, caring and intelligent are often used by this generation of leaders when they speak of their peers. What words will we hear as retrospectives from what we are witnessing today?

In our lives today where too many people have forgotten the value of dialogue, that none of us knows everything and has so much to learn from each other and that respect and regard is one of the most powerful things that make us uniquely human, I suspect we will continue to be subjected to name calling and immaturity on the part of Presidential hopefuls, groups that work so hard to make our world a better place being thrown out of spaces in which they belong and sadly, a loss of the sense of human dignity and reason we are all enjoined to share with each other as part of our world community. That makes me sad!

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!