Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It’s Generational…. It Has To Be

We all have our stories to share, wounds from our past history and dynamics that absolutely had an impact on, if not totally defined our lives and ultimately the lives on whom we ourselves make an impact. Sometimes, we may think, “Is it just me?” when we consider the various disconnects and challenges in the various chapters of the lives we live. My answer is so often, “Actually, its generational!” It feels like while our stories are individual, there are so many checkpoints, if you will, that we have all gone through as have the generations that preceded us.

This strong feeling is reinforced constantly when I am in deep conversation with my colleagues, friends, family members, people I love and respect, and so on. And, yes, it happened again, just this past week! I was talking with a treasured colleague with whom I am involved in important Interfaith Dialogue work and as she was sharing her story and the narrative of her relationship with family members and the historical context in which those relationships have unfolded, I felt like I was listening to my own story in so many ways. Regardless of different regions of origin in our complex world, different religious backgrounds and different individuals, it was such a familiar story, that I felt often I could have recited it in unison right along with her. The fractured family ties, unhappy parents and grandparents who communicated the weight of their sadness to us, their children, and so much else that are part of our inherited family history have defined the people we have become. We have either carried on the various pains and their impact with the added weight of our own reactions in the connections we have forged in our lives; or we have tried to break the patterns, doing honor to the stories and the challenges that belong to our parents, our aunts and uncles and grandparents and others who are so pivotal to the people we have become, yet creating a new model of familial and generational continuity, if the larger context in which we live allows that to be an option. I would like to think that I have done the latter; at least I know I have certainly tried to do so.

Families that were uprooted or subject to vast changes in their lives due to oppressive governmental policies, hatred and prejudice and so much else left indelible scars on parents, grandparents and extended family members, whether they were from Eastern Europe, Asian or African lands or any other place where such dynamics ripped families apart, directly caused premature deaths of loved ones in such young years and otherwise left gaping holes in lives lived. Secrets of forbidden actions in impossible situations, separated parents in times when divorce was seen as such a shame, and being raised by those condemned to loveless marriages due to forced matches plagued Jews, Muslims and so many others within our various family trees across lines of religion, national origin and cultural context. This dynamic is not from hundreds of forgotten years ago, this is about OUR parents and our grandparents and we still carry the scars. They were not able to heal theirs due to the lack of psychological sophistication; the notion that any show of mental, emotional or psychological weakness was to be shunned; and their mere fight for survival in terms of basic economic existence and just trying to navigate day to day realities whether in Nazi Germany, the pogrom riddled life of Eastern Europe, the difficult life of Pakistan and India, the rife in so many Asian countries, or African conflicts. While Steven Spielberg has recaptured so much of these histories for those from families who suffered during the Holocaust, we do not have such comprehensive records for those of us from whose families went through the pogroms, or came from so many different lands of oppression on various continents. What we are left with are the scars and the secrets and the challenge of figuring it all out, often by piecing random little parts of a very complicated decades-old-puzzle together.

Today, we are worried, so worried that many fights that those of us in our 50s and 60s and older remember all too well and finally were able to reach the point where we could celebrate the acceptance and shared sense of being part of the human family may be threatening to reappear. In fact, unfortunately in too many cases they are. Muslims are once again being marginalized or demonized; anti-Semitism is on the rise and Jewish communities are feeling the pinch; Christian extremists and other religious right-wing adherents are feeling emboldened; countries are devolving into positions of acrimonious feelings towards those who are “in” or “out” and we are seeing the realization of our fears that yes, this hatred and lack of human empathy could happen again, and indeed it is doing just that. We are reminded of the statement that those who forget history and its conflicts are bound to repeat them.

Within this reality, many are asking so what can and should we do? It is in thinking of how to proceed that I would like to suggest a few truisms for all to remember and consider. Most important, we must talk with each other and reclaim the lessons of past chapters of our shared history. In doing so, it is important that we:

1. Don’t assume that you know someone else’s story. We do not know the pain that other people have gone through. Ask questions and be ready to listen and try to truly listen intentionally. Ask the person you are speaking with what lessons do you think come from their life and what is the legacy that they want to leave us. Remember that our lives do not just happen in a vacuum but that historical context and the reality of larger picture of our lives often dictates so much that happens in our personal journeys. Also consider that many may not want to share their stories, as much as we want them to. Just let our loved ones know we are ready to listen when they are ready to talk, and hope that such a day will come.

2. Pay attention to the generation from which people come. If someone is of the age that they lived through the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, KNOW THAT THEY WERE AFFECTED BY THESE EVENTS. For those who went through the unrest of the 60s and the 70s, we know what it is to protest, what it is to want something better, what it is to fight for social justice. Whether people were involved in the fight for civil rights, for equality for women, for understanding of various religious groupings, for inclusion of those with learning and personal differences, for acceptance and validation of LGBTQ persons – there is a lot of experience and storytelling to share with all who are willing to listen. Again, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Know that too often, “we have been here before” even if it did not and probably did not look exactly what we are experiencing now, precisely because of different historical backdrops.

3. Jewish teachings tell us to “give the benefit of the doubt” and to “not judge someone until you have reached their place.” It is important to validate each other’s reality and to acknowledge that we cannot know what it is like to be in an entire spectrum of circumstances in which we have not had experience, just as someone else cannot know our pain. Show understanding and compassion and chances are you may find out more about our troubled past that defined our family members and those around us.

We learn in the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, what happened before will happen again and what seems new is just something from before. In our family, we speak often of what is going on in today’s world and the actions that are taken. I see that there are protests and rallies where those of us who marched for so much about thirty to forty five years ago are joining with a new generation who is outraged. It is so important that we join together so that the healing so many of us worked for as the result of our parents’ and grandparents’ painful lives not be lost and that we all continue to repeat and learn from the chapters of our personal and collective history. I sincerely hope that generational challenges and the small victories that we have achieved are not lost in the shuffle of forgetting our past.

Monday, March 13, 2017

An Introductory Word or Two (from Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward)

What follows is the introduction to my recently published book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward to give you an idea of the tone and subject matter of the book. This book can be purchased at either in paperback form or as a Kindle e-book. For more information, please contact me directly at or search for my name on

Today in our world and in our country, as we confront so many different challenges and threats to our collective and individual well-being, we constantly look for support for our soul and our well-being. While religion and what one believes should and can offer such support, the degree to which it does so is often a hot controversial topic. Not of course, that this is a new phenomenon. Religion has always been so much at the core of our beings as humans, whether we individually admit this to be the case or not. In fact, in cultural and ethnographic studies, religion is one of the core markers of any people being studied. (1)

One cannot study European History, Ancient History or any other people’s story and narrative without speaking of religion. For Ancient Man, as well as for many tribal and land based cultures and people today, religion is still at the core of their individual as well as collective beings. Simply, for many, if not most people throughout history, religion has been an exclamation mark – the Of Course! of their lives. This is especially true for those who are closer to the land, as the land they work and depend upon, and the Higher Being to whom they pray for sustenance from the land are clearly connected in a visceral way that is core to daily life. Religion provides responses to questions that elude us in the more tangible aspects of our lives, and as such, provides a support that is specific and unique to its context alone.

As an expression of this sentiment, look at these words of George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh) as recorded by Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999):

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children …

And whenever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him (God) who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth – but to be born in Nature’s wide domain is greater still!

For those of us in the modern industrialized and technologically advanced world, however, God and God’s presence in our lives has apparently become more and more of a question mark. Namely, we ask, “Is there a Higher Being, and do I care?” Do I need a Higher Being? Do I believe? What do I believe? Why should I believe? Because we question instead of exclaim our beliefs, does this mean that religion is no longer at the core of our being?

In the throes of addressing the results of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we are dealing with an American population in which 16.1% claim that they do not affiliate with any religion. Further, this number is reported to be double that of those who say they were unaffiliated as children, reflecting a movement away from what would clearly be labeled normative expressions of religion in more individual lives as we continue on our present trajectory (3).

Through my career, I have had many opportunities to address these issues as an instructor, lecturer, and head of schools and educational systems; and as an avid observer, as well as a self-identified person of faith. One of the seasons which I have found often raises the issue of identity with religion to the point of hyper-awareness in the United States is that of the winter weeks leading up to Christmas. There is no surprise here, given the commercialism and obvious “front and center” of the season, in addition to the obvious profound meaning of the time.

That being said, my experience has been that something else is going on. As one measure of the impact of this observance on the non-Christian members of American society, one need only observe the proliferation of options for Jewish families and community members as alternatives for this day of obvious importance to so many. Further, I have often found on an annual basis, the issue of what winter decorations and religious symbols appear in our public spaces becomes an item on the agenda of school boards and agencies as an interesting point of angst. When I held various leadership posts in different regions throughout my career, communities and individuals would often contact me about their discomfort regarding the visual evidence of the Christmas season. In my work with these communities, I tried to convey the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching that religion as an institution with its many forms has a value” to us as individuals, groups and a national entity.

At its foundation, religion as a system of thought and faith as well as its potential in conveyance of meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions provides us with a unique and singular synergy as it touches the very core of our beings with the comfort it provides through a belief in something bigger than us and beyond the daily regimen of our busy lives, so filled with technology, industrious undertakings, and efficient use of time. Many would agree that it still remains the Of Course! in our hectic lives, whether or not we recognize it as such.

In more recent years in the United States of America, we have witnessed attempts to remove the words “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance, legal proceedings have been pursued to remove sculptured representations of The Ten Commandments in several American cities, and stirrings are occasionally heard regarding the same feelings of discomfort having the words “In God we trust” on our currency and the various references to God in our songs of national pride. Clearly, the operational meaning of separation of church and state is being tested, retested, and perhaps even redefined in a manner far different from what we were taught was intended by the founders of these United States of America. This is somewhat ironic as we remember that the notion of our national forefathers was to permit all Americans to worship as they like and prefer, but to be free to worship nonetheless, not to the exclusion of those who wish to exercise their prerogative to not do so.

This was a radical departure from most places and spaces in our collective history of the world (as well as what is still present in many regions around our globe today), in which one’s national identity, cultural life and religion were a package deal, very often defined by the ruler of the land in which one lived. The American separation of church and state was precisely intended to teach all to value the notion of religious belief in a manner most appropriate and meaningful to them – that is, to encourage religious practices and beliefs, ALL religious practices and beliefs, without the “state” determining which “church” such practices and beliefs would have to conform to for any individual.

Conversely, way over on the opposite side of the continuum of belief and meaningful living from those who would turn their back on religion and its various instructions and frames to enable and support our lives, Fundamentalism has truly become a formidable challenge for so many of us in our contemporary world. As increasing numbers of members of our society become more liberal and less rooted in their treasured past on the left side of our cultural continuum, on its right side we have compelling instances of whole groups, communities, even nations who have literally closed their eyes and minds to any shade of these more liberal, some would say less principled, approaches to life. For some, it’s even simpler than that; with adherents claiming that if you do not believe exactly as I do and do as I do, you are rendered as persona non-gratis! As a result, these forces have become stubbornly rigid in what they believe to be the most stringent definition of their respective religious communities. In short, our world is increasingly being painted in black and white distinct color blocks; while many have worked so hard for generations to achieve a moderate approach of understanding that so much of life ultimately and truly happens in the variegated gray zone.

So, how do we reconcile this dynamic? How do we balance our allegiance and valuing of the past and its rootedness as well as the lessons learned from its sources with a more measured and positive outlook for our future? How do we take chances and strive for more meaning and substance in our lives in a synchronistic manner that encompasses and protects the valuing of all shades of belief systems? This is the question, which is explored here; and the search at hand, and a challenging and sometimes exhausting search it is!

I do want to note that the voice of this book is definitely based in Jewish thinking and texts. That being said, all are welcome to engage in the thinking and dialogue that I hope will evolve as a result of reading these essays. It is more about the fact that we may believe than the specifics of what that system of belief is. In that spirit, please use the Jewish texts here as emblematic of a system of belief from which the intrinsic thoughts and questions are extrapolated and feel free to do the same within other systems of belief and thought, also represented here at points.

There will be many questions in this book and it is intended that we read this thoughtfully and slowly, pausing to consider and answer these questions. Imagine reading this manuscript in a meditative mode, letting into your soul the questions, journeys and experiences of those that have gone before us as we consider the questions of our own journeys and experiences. You might even want to keep a journal nearby in which you can write your own thoughts and truly become a participant in the intended discussion that is this collection of essays and thoughts in any way that is meaningful. This book is much more about the questions asked than the various approaches provided; in fact each chapter will end with Questions for Continued Thought and Discussion. Welcome on what I hope will be a shared and meaningful journey, where we accept challenges that are thrown our way and use them to strengthen our own approaches in attempting to live a meaningful and important life.

Questions unite, answers divide. Martin Buber (and attributed to so many others as well)


(1) Cultural anthropologists have long studied the elements that define a society and religion is clearly a central factor. For a brief survey of this work, the reader is referred to Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Editor. USA: Hartford Institute, for Religion Research,

(2) Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999) relates in writing stories and lore of the Native Americans. There was a great controversy regarding committing to writing these generationally transmitted stories through telling, such an important element of the continuation of the Native American culture and community. Pages 3 – 4 are quoted here.

(3) Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, January 8, 2014.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When Leaders Go Astray

I recently learned a fascinating piece of Gemara (Talmud) found in Masechet Nedarim, 81a, which I just completed learning this past week (at least for this time around as we are always cycling back through learned material). This section of Talmud is about our vows and promises, the words we use and the limit of the power of those words as well as the largess of their potential. In this particular text we are taught that Torah Scholars (the academic and practical and perhaps spiritual leaders of the Jewish community hopefully) do not generally produce Torah Scholars as children, but rather our Torah Scholars who are supposed to be important role models in our community often come up through the ranks, so to speak, from the impoverished members of that community. Why is this the case? In typical Gemara style, the Rabbis do not hesitate to provide reasons. One reason suggested for this statement is so that one group of people does not think that the Torah is exclusively theirs and not belonging to others. Another Rabbi states that the gift of Torah should never be taken for granted and is ultimately meant to be earned and honored for its own worth by each person who embraces it. Yet another perspective is that those who think they are entitled to such an inheritance may take it for granted, will become corrupt and not act appropriately for the community. Sound familiar? It appears that we have an interesting slippery slope of what can happen when our leaders and scholars and teachers do not work hard every day to maintain their position but rather come to a point where they feel entitled and above the masses, so to speak. With so many of our religious and political leaders succumbing to their perceived privilege of power in being “above or outside of the law” regarding accountability for their actions, this is definitely a dynamic with which we are all too familiar in our world today. Another nod to the wisdom of the teachers from long ago!

It should be pointed out that this discussion in our text takes place within the larger context of consideration of the limits of the power of various members of the community, including and especially those to whom members of the collective may come to for guidance and help and directives on all matters of life, specifically here regarding consequences of words and promises (or vows) they have uttered. Further, we are reminded that the entirety of the law was in fact given to all members of the collective and all of those people have equal access to it. Thus, we understand that our Torah scholars (think rock stars for this community) can and do come from those who are least resourced and privileged, and perhaps just because of that station in life, know a thing or two about how to behave, how to answer people’s queries and how to, in a word I think we all know by now, be a “mensch.”

Omar Saif Ghobash in his Letters to a Young Muslim also has what to say about leaders and leadership, limits and how leaders in one’s world (their rock stars, if you will) can be misinformed and lead others astray if they do not observe necessary limits. He shows his son, other young Muslims, and all of us in these letters the potential problem with various leadership types. He speaks out specifically about the “Muslim warrior” as seen in today’s world – taking matters into his or her own hands supposedly in the name of Allah. How do they know that they are doing anything near the will of Allah, he enjoins his son to ask himself. He challenges his son and others with these words, “Perhaps the modern Muslim warrior is one who embraces life in its complexity and fights for social and economic justice with his or her mind, rather than for a stretch of desert territory with his or her body.” He goes on to say that “very fixed ideas of what it means to be a good Muslim” as taught by leaders, imams, and so many others need to be challenged and that his son has to take great care in choosing his role models.

In the United States today and throughout the world, too many people are taking on the reins of leadership and telling us through their words and actions, too often violent and destructive, what THEY think should be. Consider the Jewish and Israeli community years ago, when a young man by the name of Yigal Amir followed the teachings of his Rabbis and teachers who used and manipulated the Jewish concept of “threatening life” to speak of Yitzchak Rabin (may his memory be for a blessing) and then felt he had permission as “a good Jew” to kill him and then did so. For a few moments in time, Jewish voices around the world looked at language used and impressions made by what we and our leaders say; and then after too little time, it was basically back to business as usual. Of course we know that this notion of following the teachings one learned and engaging in violent behaviors is repeated too often and is profoundly frustrating.

There is an important lesson here regarding the danger of leaders becoming too comfortable, too revered, too honored and being treated as if and then acting as though they are above the law to which all are subjected. Jewish Law is structured in such a way that DOES NOT allow this to seep into our psyche as an accepted teaching. This is why the King of the Jewish nation as it would evolve was instructed to always have the Torah by him, why so many people continue learning the text of our heritage every day and we are oft taught that it is our actions and initiatives in our daily secular and general lives that are the true test of our character, not the family from which we come and not the amount of knowledge we have. It is for this reason, perhaps, that those who are worthy as Torah scholars do not reach that status by inheritance, privilege or predestined circumstances, but rather, by how they pull themselves up, address the challenges of their lives, and thereby know how to act as human as possible and be the role models we are to follow. I think there is an important lesson for all of us here.