Friday, November 28, 2014

Ferguson and the Empathy Gap - Vayyetze 5775

I have to make a confession. I am guilty of something. I failed to empathize.

Actually, it was not merely a failure to empathize, but rather a failure to pay attention at all to the news out of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the events of the past summer.

In my defense, I was busy paying attention to Israel - the rockets, the bomb shelters, the tunnels, the scenes of destruction and death, the body counts, the anti-Semitic demonstrations, and so forth. I was wringing my hands all summer long, glued to my computer screen, waiting for the next piece of bad news.

So somehow I missed the story that resurfaced, somewhat unpleasantly, this week - the story of Michael Brown, the young man who stole a $46 item from a convenience store, and was subsequently shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in that suburb of St. Louis. I was only dimly aware that the community of Ferguson erupted in mid-August, and that it attracted attention all over the world. All of that was crowded out because my head and heart were in the Middle East.

Michael Brown Ferguson

I have not spent the subsequent three months following the story - the protests, which endured for weeks afterwards, the investigations, the grand jury. I was busy with the EmptiNesters retreat, the holidays, the Shabbat Project, the Rabbinic Management Institute that I attended in LA two weeks ago, and so forth.

Besides, I’m a rabbi. My position demands of me to pay attention to issues affecting the Jewish community, right? Why should this story be so important? Most of the world has no concept of the complexity of the situation in Israel, and it is my responsibility to be aware of and speak to that. I only have so much time and brainpower.

OK, so I have a long list of excuses, none of which are very good.

I should have paid more attention to this story because it speaks to the very heart of who we are as a people, and what our tradition teaches us about caring for the disenfranchised in our midst. A better reason, however, has really nothing to do with the particulars of this case, but it has everything to do with our role in American society.

I think we - not just we the Jews, but all Americans - are running an empathy deficit. I think we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we are failing to pay attention to those around us who are in need. This is not just about civil rights or race or ethnicity or religion or gender issues or the fragmentation of the American family, but it does include all of those things. There are so many things that divide us today that it is easy to just give up - to throw in the towel, as it were, and just look out for number one, or become desensitized.

What has happened to our public sphere? Why are our politics so broken? One possible reason is that we have all stopped caring about each other. What happens in suburban Missouri stays in Missouri. I’m just going on about my life here in Minneapolis, or Miami, or Michigan, or Manhasset. And yes, we in the Jewish community are just as guilty as all the rest of us.

Maimonides tells us (MT Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:13) that in matters of tzedaqah / charity, we are first obligated to our family, then to the needy of our own town, then to those in another town. While many of us may find ourselves moved and challenged by the events in Israel, our family, we should also be concerned with affairs in our own backyard.

Many of us have known anti-Semitism personally and globally. Certainly the events of this past summer have awakened within the Jewish community concerns that not too long ago seemed somewhat passé. But most of us are not personally experiencing discrimination on a daily basis. But are we aware of the discrimination that others face?

Please consider this thought experiment for a moment:
  • You’re leaving work. You’re wearing a suit. You try to get a cab. Not a single one stops for you, even those that are carrying no passengers.
  • You’re trying to find an apartment to rent. You call landlord after landlord, only to find that every single one has curiously just been rented, even the less desirable ones.
  • You’re a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. You have returned at night from an overseas trip, and your front door jams. As you struggle to open your own front door, a neighbor calls the police, who come to arrest you.

Imagining ourselves in these situations is not so easy; these kinds of things do not happen to most of us. But they do happen on a regular basis to black Americans, who all suffer from various forms of discrimination and humiliation throughout their lives. With respect to their interaction with the police, this reality has resulted in relatively frequent incidents where an officer shoots a young, unarmed black man in a situation that has gone awry.

Consider Amadou Diallou, the 23-year-old Guinean immigrant with no criminal record, shot outside his apartment in the Bronx in 1999 because he was mistaken for a serial rapist.

Consider Sean Bell, the 23-year-old resident of Queens who was leaving his own bachelor party in 2006 when he and his two friends, all unarmed, were shot by police because they thought they overheard one of the men say, “Yo, get my gun.” Bell died.

Consider John Crawford, a 22-year-old man shopping in a Wal-Mart in Ohio who was shot and killed by police, just a few days before the Ferguson incident,  because he was carrying an air rifle that he had picked up from a shelf in the store and was carrying it around while shopping.

In all three of those cases, no police officers were convicted of any crimes. Now these are merely anecdotes, and I am not in a position to evaluate these cases in any responsible, legally-correct way. But there are plenty of other examples, and the pattern is undeniable. We have to feel for the families who lost these young men. We should not excuse, but perhaps we can understand the violent reaction that black Americans had to the news surrounding the Ferguson case. We have to grieve for our society as a whole. And we have an obligation to change that reality.

In a report presented to the UN Human Rights Committee by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization, statistics show that it is true that young African-American men are more likely to commit certain types of crime. However, it is also true that they are much more likely to be convicted of crimes than whites or Hispanics who commit the same crimes. The report adds the following:

“... [H]igher crime rates cannot fully account for the racial disparity in arrest rates. A growing body of scholarship suggests that a significant portion of such disparity may be attributed to implicit racial bias, the unconscious associations humans make about racial groups...
“Extensive research has shown that in such situations the vast majority of Americans of all races implicitly associate black Americans with adjectives such as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal.” Since the nature of law enforcement frequently requires police officers to make snap judgments about the danger posed by suspects and the criminal nature of their activity, subconscious racial associations influence the way officers perform their jobs.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are all saddled with bias. We all make spot judgments about others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their appearance. Any human being who denies this is lying. But one of our tasks as Jews as reinforced over and over throughout the Torah, is to remember what it’s like to be an outsider, as when we were slaves in Egypt, and to treat others accordingly. It is our responsibility to empathize with the plight of the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, because we understand that as a nation. We may not be able to eliminate our own internal prejudices, but we can certainly challenge ourselves to feel for others and act appropriately.

And this is only heightened by our contemporary reality. Despite the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, we are still living pretty well in America. Except for the rare sideways remark, we are accepted as white (something that was not always true); all doors seem open to us. But that does not give us license to ignore those in our midst for whom many of those doors are still closed. It is all too easy to forget that justice is not necessarily evenly meted out in our society.

To that end, I would like for our reaction to the case of Michael Brown to be something like the moment that occurs at the end of Jacob’s dream at the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, which we read this morning. Our hero wakes suddenly after dreaming about angels going up and down the ladder to heaven, and is struck with the realization that, אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16)

Jacob’s new awareness leads him to commit to a new relationship with God. In the same way, the Ferguson events might elevate our connection with God by raising our own awareness of what some of our fellow citizens endure every day. That awareness should spur us to action.

My point here is not to excuse either Michael Brown, an alleged petty thief who may have resisted arrest, or Officer Darren Wilson, who may have overreacted to the situation. This is not about race. Rather, my goal on this Shabbat Thanksgiving, a time that we as a nation remember to be grateful for what we have, is to remind us that our gratitude can only be amplified when we remember to feel for the other. It is a primary goal of the Torah to help us to see beyond ourselves, to consider how our actions affect others, and to be aware of our interconnectedness to all our fellow citizens as a part of this society, in short, to be empathic. Even though we all arrived here on different boats, some of us enthusiastically and some of us in literal chains, we are all in the same boat when it comes to building a just society.

Our tradition believes that all people, not just the Jews, are obligated to the Sheva Mitzvot Benei Noah, the seven mitzvot given to Noah following the Flood. One of those mitzvot is the commandment to foster justice. Maimonides suggests that if you do not live in a place with an honest justice system, then you should move away. I do not think that anybody could credibly make that charge about these United States. However, it is surely worth noting that our society is still a work in progress, and that cultivating empathy for all people, and not just our people, will go a long way toward building that nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 11/29/2014.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Click and Clack and the Shabbat Project

I was very surprised and saddened a few weeks back to hear that Tom Magliozzi passed away at the age of 77. Tom and his brother Ray were the hosts of the long-running show “Car Talk” on NPR. For the benefit of those who were not familiar with the show, it was ostensibly about car repair - people called in to ask questions about their cars - Tom and Ray were expert mechanics, both alumni of MIT who had opted to work in car repair rather than the corporate world. But inevitably the advice that was dispensed, in their humorous, irreverent, Boston-inflected style was more often about the relationship issues of the callers than about the cars themselves. Car Talk was really only a pretext to get to the really important stuff.

Tom Magliozzi's laugh boomed in NPR listeners' ears every week as he and his brother, Ray, bantered on Car Talk.

Tom had a warm, inviting, and frankly quite infectious laugh, and for every hour-long episode of Car Talk, the listener would probably have heard Tom laughing for a good 20-plus minutes in aggregate. That laugh just sucked you in. It simply grabbed you by the ears and pulled you into the conversation. Everybody listening to Car Talk, whether or not they had any interest in cars or car repair, felt like they were a part of the conversation.

The ability to welcome callers and listeners into a conversation about people and their relationships using the “bait” of car problems is really a very clever idea. And really, it’s a nice model for how a synagogue should function. Let me illustrate this in the context of a recent community-wide success, the Great Neck Shabbat Project.

Ostensibly, the major goal of the Shabbat Project was to involve as many members of the community into a Shabbat experience. We did that. By providing a full complement of activities, targeted to a wide range of people and interests, by personally inviting everybody to participate through various means, including direct, individual outreach, we welcomed many more people into our midst than would ordinarily participate on an average Shabbat. There were close to 1,000 people (women and men!) at the challah workshop at Leonard’s on Thursday evening. There were 600 people at Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel on Friday night. There were more than 150 at the Camp Shabbat service for 5th and 6th graders and their families on Shabbat morning. There were 200 people for se’udah shelisheet, the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. And hundreds attended the concert Saturday night, preceded by a havdalah service led by rabbis and laypeople from across the ideological and ethnic spectrum of Jewish Great Neck. And there was even more.


But the real accomplishment was not the very impressive numbers. The actual intent of the Shabbat Project, as it is with everything we do at Temple Israel, was to create and nurture relationships among members of the community, and between us and God. And we did that, too - by providing multiple forums for people representing different subsets of our community to rub elbows; by creating an environment in which many were sharing Shabbat together openly, and on a grand scale; by hosting discussions on parenting and being a Jewish college student and our own personal journeys within Judaism.

So while we did not have Tom Magliozzi’s inviting laughter, we did have members of our community reaching out directly to others to raise the Shabbat bar, and although we did not talk about cars, we did talk about Shabbat as a platform to deepen our relationships. The results were tremendous in terms of community building and social capital. Kol hakavod to all who made it happen! (And may Tom’s memory be for a blessing.)

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, November 20, 2014.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem - Vayyera 5775

I am a big fan of Israeli pop music, particularly the way it tells the story of Israel. Not necessarily the explicit story, the history-book story, but the implicit story of who Israelis are, where they came from, what they value, and what life is like in Israel. Back in the ‘80s, when I spent a few summers at Camp Ramah in New England, and participated in USY, Israeli pop tunes saturated my life, particularly the Eurovision festival entries (Halleluyah, Abanibi, Hai, etc.) and the “Hasidic” song festivals (Adon Olam, etc.). As an American Jewish teenager who loved Israel, these songs created something of a background soundtrack to my life. And there was no song more resonant than Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the song by Naomi Shemer that told the story of loss and reunification of the holiest place in Israel, the city that occupies such a special place in the hearts of so many of us. To this day, it seems that this song is the best-known and best-loved of the entire Israeli pop canon, at least in this hemisphere.

On Wednesday morning I heard about the Palestinian man with links to Hamas who plowed his car into a group of innocent Israelis waiting for a train at the Shim’on HaTzaddiq station on the new light rail line, killing one and injuring a dozen more people. This follows a similar attack two weeks ago in which a three-month-old baby girl and an Ecuadorean tourist were killed, and another incident in which an American-born rabbi, Yehuda Glick, was shot and critically wounded for advocating to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.

And I realized that I had no choice but to pause to grieve for Jerusalem, the city whose name may be derived from ‘Ir Shalom, the City of Peace.

Jerusalem of Gold - Jean David

Where is the Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the Jerusalem of Gold that we all know and love? Does that song merely capture a fleeting dream, a candle of hope and unity that only flickered briefly before being snuffed out by the intractable reality on the ground? Is the zahav, the gold, merely that of a rising flame of tension, disunity, and instigation?

I lived in Jerusalem in the year 2000 for about seven months, for my first semester in Cantorial School at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, just before the Second Intifada broke out. It was a relativly peaceful and even optimistic time in Israel. Just a few years after the Oslo Accords, peace was coming. Areas of the West Bank and Gaza had been turned over to the Palestinians. There was new development and cooperation on matters of security and trade. No part of Jerusalem seemed unsafe, and I walked the streets of East Jerusalem and the Arab quarters of the Old City without fear.

But oh, how things have changed. It was, you may recall, the failure of the Camp David summit in July of 2000 that ultimately led to the Intifada. I had just returned to New York to continue my studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary when the City of Peace became the city of bus and cafe bombings.

Things cooled down again after a few years. Israel built the separation fence (which in places is a wall), which worked quite well in keeping would-be attackers out of the Jewish population centers. Jerusalem’s brand new light rail line, which took years to build, opened in 2011, and the optics of a, thoroughly modern commuter train running alongside the Old City walls built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century are truly inspiring. I have been on the train a few times, and am always captivated by its tri-lingual scrolling sign, announcing the next station in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The cool thing is that, since English goes from left to right and the other languages from right to left, the info scrolls in both directions.

But it is this light rail system, originally built to serve both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem (the population of which is 37% Arab), that has unfortunately been a focal point of some of the recent violence. It was the target of attacks in July by Palestinian youths, who sacked the stations in their areas. So the municipality stopped running the trains there. The two deadly car attacks of the last couple of weeks took place at rail stations, easy targets for terrorists. This symbol of old and new, of coexistence and cooperation and shared economy and destinations, of progress and promise, has devolved into a symbol of hatred and resentment, of failure and intransigence, of murder and riots.

To quell the angry mobs of Palestinian protesters last week, Israel ordered a full shutdown of the Temple Mount for a day, the first time since the summer of 2000, igniting even more tension within the city as well as angering Israel’s mostly-cordial Arab neighbors in Jordan, who are still somewhat in control of what goes on on top of the Temple Mount plaza. Jerusalem is at a rolling boil of hatred, anger, fear, and grief.

Among the many, many things I learned about in rabbinical school are the basic principles of “family therapy.” Family therapists see each family as a system of interconnected personalities, and that when a family system is not functioning in equilibrium, then one or more of the people in the system misbehave and cause emotional damage. Often, the way to fix such a family system is to make a significant change in the structure. The hard part is knowing what must be changed.

The parashah that we read today describes the residents of Jerusalem as being from the same family - Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac are the patriarchs of the Jews and the Arabs, respectively, and the Torah presents both of them as having a certain role to play in the world, siring two great nations. Let’s face it - Muslim, Christian and Jew, Israeli and Arab, we are one big family system that is misfiring all over the place.

As if to draw a fine point on this picture, Israel’s new President, Reuven Rivlin, a right-wing politician who supports settlements and rejects the two-state solution, said in a speech two weeks ago (as quoted in an article in the current Jewish Week): “The tension between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel has risen to record heights, and the relationship between all parties has reached a new low. We have all witnessed the shocking sequence of incidents and violence taking place by both sides… It is time to honestly admit that Israeli society is sick - and it is our duty to treat this disease.”

With every terrorist attack, we, the Jews, the Israeli public are driven further away from seeking a negotiated resolution to the current situation. And that is an understandable response. As has often been noted, whenever Israel has retreated, terrorist groups have been emboldened.

But this observation is always made from the position of defeatism. The message is, “Nothing should change, because change has never been good for us.” I cannot accept that message.

President Rivlin lays a wreath at memorial for the victims of Kafr Qasim

Returning to President Rivlin, I offer his words given at an amazing speech in Kafr Qasm, an Israeli Arab town, where he spoke at the annual commemoration of the 1956 massacre of 48 Arab residents of the town by Israeli troops. He acknowledged the discrimination that Israeli Arabs have faced at the hands of the Jewish majority, and exhorted Arabs and Jews to take a step forward together based on “mutual respect and commitment”:
“As a Jew, I expect from my coreligionists, to take responsibility for our lives here, so as President of Israel, as your President, I also expect you to take that same responsibility. The Arab population in Israel, and the Arab leaders in Israel, must take a clear stand against violence and terrorism.”
The current escalation threatens the very foundations of the City of Peace, and it will not go away until there are fundamental changes in the family system. Those changes will have to be that, for the sake of Jerusalem, the Palestinians renounce terrorism, that PA President Mahmoud Abbas stops making inflammatory statements that seem to sympathize with terrorists, that Israel ceases demolishing homes, even the illegal ones, in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and at least temporarily stops issuing building tenders for new construction for Jewish homes in disputed areas, and that both sides return to the table. As a family, we have to talk to each other.

We have no other choice. The only other option is the status quo, and we see how well that is working. The family system is broken.

We read this morning one of the most well-known and controversial stories in the Torah, the Aqedat Yitzhaq, the Binding of Isaac. Tradition tells us that it takes place on Mt. Moriah, which we today know as the Temple Mount. It is the Torah’s way of telling us that Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world, the location where a paradigm shift in our relationship with God took place. And, of course, Christians and Muslims believe this city to be holy as well.

Prayer, ladies and gentlemen, is not just a request for things that we want, it is also a blueprint for a world that could be. We should pray for those killed and injured in this conflict. But we also have to pray for the holy city of Jerusalem, and hold out hope that this situation will change.
שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם; יִשְׁלָיוּ, אֹהֲבָיִךְ.  יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ, שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
(Psalm 122:6-7)
Giving up hope is not an option. We must continue to sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, but also to invoke Psalm 122, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and to continue to place that before us as a goal. We must hope that change will come; if we give up that hope, then there will never be peace in the City of Peace.

Shabbat shalom.