Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September 6th: Don't Be Afraid of Pokemon

Adults are terrified of Pokemon. Well, to be more specific, educators of young people are intimidated by Pokemon. As children begin their return to the classroom, teachers are forced to compete with telephones in a way that they can identify more clearly than ever: an augmented reality game that has captured the attention of youth better than most educators can.

Earlier this month, I spent time with two different communities of youth educators and advisors, and both times, Pokemon Go was a source of anxiety and intimidation. What chance does education have when the competition is a cell phone scavenger hunt with digital characters hidden all over the neighborhood? Even worse, what do you do when those Pokemon actually invade the walls of the classroom?

What became clear to me is that all too many teachers and educators are viewing these distractions and outside influences of children as competition, as some kind of external source that must be vanquished with even more engaging activities and educational models. If that is the case, I have a sad reality to share: school, most especially religious school, will never be able to compete with Pokemon Go.

You see, Religious School has a longstanding battle waging against the fun of the outside world. Whether it’s leaving Sunday school early to get to a soccer game or skipping Wednesday night Hebrew school in favor of marching band practice, the abundance of outside influences have been forcing young Jews to make a choice about their time. As of yet, almost no religious school model has been able to engage on a level that can compete with sports or other extracurricular activities. It requires a deep commitment and desire for learning to remain engaged in a religious school system, and, while many teens have that willingness to engage, many do not.

That is, of course, not to say that there aren’t excellent programs going on in religious institutions. Every year, Sunday schools get more and more innovative, trying to bring the information they hope to teach to life for their students.

What Pokemon Go has to teach us is that we can’t beat a game that encompasses real-life adventure with digital engagement. What we need to learn is that Pokemon Go is a language that we are positive our children will understand. We must use that as a tool to try to relay information in a way that is relatable, understandable, and meaningful in the eyes of a young person.

The same can be said for any of the multitude of distractors from religious education. We have to stop seeing soccer practice as a distraction from the work we are trying to do and we have to start seeing it as an opportunity to engage youth in a new way. Jewish communities should be building sports curricula into their religious school programs, to ensure that those students who find sports as their connection to something greater don’t have to leave the walls of the congregation to find what they are looking for. If music is their key to access, we should be providing creative outlets for expression. If our children are telling us that they are interested in something, it is our job to be creative enough to find a space for it within our community, rather than forcing them to make a choice.

If religious institutions can combine all of the facets of daily life into their communities, it will allow members and students the chance to feel as though the congregation is their headquarters for everything that they need in life. When we view Pokemon Go as an opportunity to relate to our students, rather than as a distraction from the information we are trying to impart, than we run the risk of ostracizing our young people and forcing them to choose between being learning and fun. In a perfect world, it is our job to ensure that we are able to do both.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 30th: Sidelined for the Silenced

We are officially at the point in the football season where we will hear far too much about second string quarterbacks and the gossip that go with them. What we don’t necessarily expect is that it will be their behavior on the sidelines that gets our attention, rather than their play on the field.

As if Colin Kaepernick didn’t have enough going on in his life, fighting for a roster spot on the San Francisco 49ers, he went and brought the limelight upon himself on Saturday night when, during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, he refused to stand during the National Anthem. When asked about it after the game, he told reporters that he had no intention of standing in respect for a nation that refuses to show respect to its minority citizens.

What has followed has been a storm of criticism and analysis. Everyone from former teammates and coaches to presidential candidates have weighed in on whether or not Kaepernick was right to use his status as an NFL player to call attention to an issue he deemed pertinent.

When taking a step back from whether or not you agree with Colin Kaepernick, it is important to acknowledge the courage and humanitarian nature of what he is doing. This is a man who is using his influence to try to make changes to the world around him, calling for social justice and for equality. This is something that athletes don’t do nearly often enough. But sports have always served as the cutting edge for some of the world’s greatest social justice campaigns. Jackie Robinson not only broke baseball’s color barrier, but also sparked a national conversation about African Americans participating in American life. Muhammad Ali used his status as a boxer to protest the Vietnam War, a decision that went far beyond the ring. Now, athletes across the sports world are attempting to serve as leaders to fix the racial tensions in our world, and are attempting to use their fame as sports stars to make the world a better place. To look around and see yourself as a member of a much larger society, and to understand that you have the ability to do something to call attention to and hopefully make an impact on the greater community is a worthwhile and powerful step toward making a positive impact.

Kaepernick’s one mistake is that he was quite literally sitting on the sidelines of the discussion. It was his inaction that is causing a scene, his refusal to participate in something that is causing the nation to focus on the issues. He would have been better served going out and DOING something, going out and getting active in making the world a better place. As an NFL football player, he had the opportunity to use his actions to spark MORE action from a multitude of individuals. What happened instead was that his inaction caused people to talk about Colin Kaepernick, rather than the issue of the role of race relations in the United States.

The flag is a symbol, and a vital one to so many who have served this country in a multitude of ways. We can argue for weeks about whether or not you agree with his decision to sit during the National Anthem. But that is exactly his point. He wants us to be arguing, to be discussing, to be rallying together as an American population to decide where we need to go together. He is hoping that his choices will rile up Americans to the point of actually looking at the world around them and demanding that it get a little better. In many ways, it has nothing to do with whether or not Colin Kaepernick stands on the sidelines or sits, and it has everything to do with what you think about next time you hear that National Anthem. His point was to say that the song is supposed to embody freedom and justice, and he won’t stand until the country matches those values. In his eyes, he doesn’t believe it does.

The goal is not for all NFL players to sit during the national anthem. Quite the opposite, in fact. The goal is for all Americans to thoroughly discuss what is essentially important to our nation and be willing to do what we think is right to move us forward in a way that acknowledges our flaws and demands that we work hard to make this country great. We can only hope that America is listening to WHY Kaepernick did what he did, not simply THAT he did it in the first place.

Monday, March 14, 2016

March 14th: A Spotlight in the Dark

When you have never heard of the movie that wins the Academy Award for best picture, you know you’ve been taken out of society a little bit. After running to YouTube to watch the trailer for “Spotlight,” I was ready to get to the movie theater right away.

Earlier this week, I saw the film, based on true events, about the 2001 investigation of allegations against Boston-area Catholic priests, accused of sexually abusing children all across the city. Aside from being a masterfully written and performed piece of cinema, the movie was profoundly disturbing, as it centered around a tragic question: How could something so terrible have happened so often before anyone decided to do anything about it?

The most startling and painful image of the entire experience was at the very end of the movie. As the final scene faded to darkness, white letters appeared on the screen, saying that abuse allegations had been uncovered in the following cities. A page appeared, showing well over 40 names of cities all across the country. An audible groan was let out by the audience, mortified by the staggering number. If only we knew that the page was going to be replaced by another long list, and another. In all, 5 screens full of cities all across America and the world cried out, demonstrating the grave problem that had so deeply infected the Catholic Church and society as a whole.

Walking out of the theater, I was particularly disturbed by the role that religion played in the molestation cases. A few times throughout the movie, a character said that they didn’t fight back or tell anybody about what his or her priest had done because they made an association between the priest and God. If this is how a man of God was going to behave, who I am to argue, they reasoned? How I am going to show my face in church after what I have seen, what’s been done to me?

As someone going into a career in institutional religion, I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who hopes to serve a community. It speaks to the terrible lengths to which an individual can take the power of holiness, and the unfathomable abuses that one can get away with if we allow it.

I am disgusted that someone who pretends to speak words of faith, words of holiness, could possibly bring themselves to commit such acts. I am horrified that so many people were willing to turn their attention away, to fail to speak out against the crimes committed in the name of the Church. I am furious that, as a religious community, we allowed 5 pages worth of cities to fall victim to a trend that has now ruined religion and spirituality for thousands, if not millions of people all across the world.

If we have anything to learn from this movie, it is that we have an obligation to hold our religious leaders accountable. These people are not without their faults, even without their atrocities. When we make excuses for our leaders, in any field, we are telling them and their peers that their behavior is acceptable, and that they should have the power to so devastatingly influence the public’s view of religion and God.

And don’t be mistaken: pedophelia and sexual abuse are not the only level of immorality that are being ignored by too many. Sexual immorality with congregants, financial dishonesty, and a general failure to live up to the standard of spiritual guidance are all problems that we, as faith-based leaders need to combat and need to be held accountable for.

Spotlight was a phenomenal movie with the ability to not only expose a dark part of America’s religious history, but also to inspire us to work to ensure that we stop this kind of conduct in its tracks. It is an opportunity for Americans to accept the failures of the past and to hopefully begin to heal, and to move toward a place where religion can once again be a place of comfort and safety, rather than fear and intimidation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February 16th: A Giant and a Footnote

It seems rather fitting, really. After a lifetime of public service, it seems only appropriate that politics follow immediately after a man’s death.

Over the weekend, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away at the age of 79. The overwhelming first thought of the general public wasn’t to think about his nearly 30 years on the highest court. It wasn’t to think about his family and those who mourn his death. The first thought was: Who’s next?

The United States Supreme Court, until last week, primarily leaned to the right, with Justice Scalia serving as extremely conservative voice. With his passing, the court remains deadlocked at four conservatives to four liberals, meaning that the next appointee to the Court will wield a massive decision-making power.

Yet, in our haste to gain the political high ground, we fail to acknowledge the man behind the position. We rushed so hard to figure out the world in which we lived to even pay attention to the fact that someone is missing from it. Worse still, some Democrats were even caught celebrating the death and the timing, rejoicing in their good fortune that a human being is no more.

Not to be outdone in the “We Have No Clue How To Behave Morally” department, the Republicans made no attempt of their own to memorialize or eulogize their former judicial champion. No, instead, they began to scream at the top of their lungs about how unfair it is that President Obama gets to make another appointment (which will be his third), during an election season. Many have demanded that Obama wait and allow the next president to make the appointment, while still others threaten that they will filibuster any Presidential appointment made by Obama.

Here’s where things get really sticky: No real, true, honest-to-goodness Republican can get away with that. See, to be an honest political conservative, you must believe in strict adherence to the Constitution of the United States. And, upon actually reading the Constitution, you will find that Presidents do, in fact, serve for four years, not three years and until another party decides to start talking about a replacement. Well, if that President is in office, he or she has the power to nominate a new Justice that is qualified for the job. Which, by the way, does not mean “qualified assuming they believe what I believe,” but truly professionally qualified.

Having said all that, a true ideological conservative would be morally obligated to follow the legal dictation of the Constitution, which says Obama can, should, and must make a nomination. Anyone who says otherwise is compromising their place as a Republican and as a public servant.

Obama gets all four years of his second term in office. For Republicans in Congress to tell him that they will take away close to 330 of those days is unconstitutional and wrong. Once again, the politicians are proving themselves unworthy to represent Americans, something voters should remember on election day.

This week, we should be thinking about a man who dedicated his life to the law. We should be reading his decisions, whether we agree with them or not. We should be celebrating the life of a human being who will forever be an important part of the foundation of so much of this country’s history. We should be mourning the death of a human being.

Politics are important They help shape our lives, they help guide our decision-making and the way we interact with one another. Politics can have a huge impact. And yet, in the face of death, politics mean nothing. A man has died, and we owe it to his memory to have a moment of silence before the shouting. We shouldn’t be celebrating his demise, nor should we be plotting political games. We’re better than that. Or, at least, I hope we are.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

January 17th: Life Changing Requires "Change"

Over the past several weeks, Israel has welcomed hundreds, even thousands of young visitors. Birthright participants from all across North America have flooded the holy sites and attractions of the Holy Land, hoping to give young adults just a small snapshot of the beauty that this country has to offer.

In my news feed, I have seen many friends return from their journeys and take to social media to proclaim the amazing time that has been had. It is always a lovely thing to see someone catch the contagious love for Israel that so many Jews know, and to be moved to a more profound connection to not only the land, but also the Jewish people.

Just one of the beautiful sights to see in Tel Aviv.
I have to say, though, that there is one phrase that continuously makes me cringe. I see it over and over, especially in reference to Birthright, and I think it is an incredibly beautiful idea, but only if we actually believe it. I am constantly seeing people use the term “life-changing.” “My 10 days in Israel were life-changing.” “This group of people changed my life.” “I am changed by this experience.”

I absolutely believe that a life can be changed in 10 days. In fact, I hope that Birthright does change lives. But far too many people are saying those words, only to return home and fall right back into who they were before they left.

I went on Birthright in 2014. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to see the country that so many call home and that is such an important part of my Jewish identity. It was my second visit to Israel, but, for most in my group, it was a first experience. By the time we finished, many were saying that they had had a life-changing experience, and that the way they connect with their Judaism was going to be different when they got home.

Well, the next week, at Hillel, I saw many of those fresh faces show up for services, welcomed with open arms to enjoy the warmth of Shabbat as a community. Within a few weeks, though, they were almost entirely gone. What had started as a profoundly moving religious and cultural experience turned into a stamp on the passport and a memory, readily available if one wanted to take it down and look at it.

We say that Birthright changed our lives, but what that means is that our lives actually have to change. We have to change the way we think about Israel, the way we advocate for Israel. We have to adapt our religious experiences, our practices, our rituals and our customs. We have to be willing to let the impact of Israel endure beyond the ten days, beyond the two weeks, beyond the memory of the visit to the physical sites of our homeland.

That isn’t meant to say anyone’s experience in Israel is invalid, or that returning home to the lifestyles we are familiar with is wrong. But if we want to allow Birthright and similar trips to Israel to actually be as life-changing as we say they are, we have to be willing to let them into the way we live, and to allow them to actually leave a ripple that endures beyond the trip.

So play with the traditions and cultures you learned while you were in Israel. Try observing Shabbat in a more intentional way. Go to a cultural event at your local Jewish community center. Eat differently, pray differently, advocate differently. Israel is a life-changing place, but only so long as we allow our lives to actually be changed by the things we experience.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

January 10th: Proving American Greatness

This political season has been fascinating, more so because I have been spending mine out of the country. This year more than any in my voting lifetime (admittedly short voting lifetime), the country is facing a fundamental decision as to what sort of country we want to be, and how the future of America should look.

Living abroad for much of this year, it has been fascinating to see how the landscape has been shaped. While my Facebook newsfeed tells a story of a dominant Bernie Sanders sweeping across the nation, the polls still see Hillary as a frontrunner. We have 13 Republican candidates running, and yet we only seem to be able to talk about two at a time, and one of them has to be Donald Trump. Trump is causing a cataclysmic backlash from most of the country, or so it seems, leaving many to scratch their heads at how this loud-mouthed bigot ever got his name on a ballot in the first place.

Sitting in my apartment in Jerusalem, I found myself asking the question: how did we get here? How did we, as a country, become so divided, so polarized? How did we turn our elections process into a grudge match, in many cases begging politicians to offend and create news, rather than actually forcing them to tell us how they will make the country better?

As I returned home for a two week winter break, I discovered something discomforting: I don’t know the answer to these questions, but those in America don’t either. From only 13 days in the country, I could feel a profound sense of bewilderment across the nation, nobody quite sure how we got ourselves into the situation in which we find ourselves, and even less sure of what we can do to get ourselves out.

The greatest obstacle to a well-functioning political system is confusion. When we, as American voters, don’t know which direction to turn, we often will find ourselves following the voices that play off of our fears and doubts, rather than the ones who can lead us in the truest direction. Fear is, after all, what has gotten us into this situation in the first place. We are afraid for the safety, security, and success of the future of this country, and we want to make sure that our elected official is going to be able to do what it takes to fix it.

As the primaries inch closer, it’s time to turn our backs on the fear and turn off the voices that try to inspire us with false senses of security. We have to stop talking about how, if the election doesn’t go our way, we are moving to Canada. We have to stop looking for reasons to hate one another, and to start looking for places where we can actually govern, and look for the candidates who will be able to do just that. We have to stop allowing politicians to run on platforms that are not only bigoted and wrong, but also unconstitutional and, in some cases, illegal.

We keep sitting around waiting for the Donald Trump situation to go away, but it looks like the sad reality is that we are going to have to take him seriously. If we, not only as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans want a government that will speak for our values and continue to prove to be worthy of the greatness of our country, then we need to work hard to encourage educated voting and allow easy access to information about what the future of our nation might look like.

Even from abroad, I feel a profound sense of love for my home. At a certain point, Americans need to stand up collectively and take ownership of the elections process, and to demand candidates who will not fear monger or spread hate, but will give true and valuable ways in which they hope to bring about peace and success for all Americans.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

November 21st: Strangers In A Foreign Land

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris last week, the issue of Syrian refugees has hit a critical boiling point. Many are worried that an influx of immigrants leaves a country open to threats, and that it is possible for dangerous people to enter posing as refugees fleeing persecution.

As many as 25 state governors have announced that they have shut their state’s borders and will not allow any immigration for those seeking asylum. And, just as much as they have closed their borders, they have closed their minds.

How arrogant can this nation get? How self-centered and cruel can we be to push those away that need help? We claim to hate ISIS and claim to be victims, and yet we are ignoring those who are fleeing their homes because of the civil war being inspired by Islamic extremists in their own country. We claim to believe in the American dream, and yet we only believe that if you were born here (and being white wouldn’t hurt your case.) So many claim to be embodying good Christian values, yet we are ignoring the vitally significant line: “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Of course we cannot open ourselves up to attacks from inside our own borders. We have to be thoughtful and organized about how we bring these people in. Yet, we can’t be so lazy as to say that, because that task is hard and time consuming, we might as well not do it at all. We have a moral obligation to open our arms and take in those who need our help. It is hard work to be able to enter America legally. Why would we make it impossible if we are already taking care of our concerns?

Even more glaringly, we are in a precarious position politically. We are shouting at one another about building a giant wall to stop illegal Mexican immigration. As a country, there are so many who are furious with the immense number of people in the country illegally. Now that we have a people begging to be let in according to the rules, we’re going to pitch a fit about that too? And many of them will almost certainly try to come legally or otherwise; why allow a problem to create itself through illegal immigration when we could save ourselves the trouble and control how and who gets in?

This country was built on a foundation of exiles. Did we think that the people coming to America from Britain were coming here on vacation? More than that, though, is that, as a world superpower, we have an obligation to use our influence to make the world a safer place. To refuse refugees of Syria’s civil war would be to refuse the moral obligation that comes with being the world’s strongest voice, if we do in fact wish to be the dominant world power.

In the wake of September 11th, the world mourned with the American people. So many offered support, both physically and emotionally, and stood by us in the face of great despair. Now, we have an opportunity to lend support to those who are suffering in today’s world. And while France is one example, the people of Syria who are fleeing their own persecution are just as much an opportunity to provide support.

I have never been more ashamed of the leaders of my country than I am now that the governors of so many states are allowing fear to rule. They are allowing their morality to be put aside because it is easy to just ignore the problem. Americans have never been scared of a fight. Now isn’t the time to start.