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.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 12th: A Big Thing Badly

The University of Missouri is just 115 miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, and it seems like the racial tensions have spread down I-70. This past week, the entire university turned its attention to the issue of racism on campus.

The Mizzou football team brought national attention to the college when they threatened to boycott all football activities if school president Tim Wolfe continued to hold his position. Subsequently, teachers organized walk-outs, students planned protests, and university operations came to a screeching halt. Wolfe originally refused to resign, but gave up his job on Monday morning after it became clear that his presence would cause endless turmoil at the school.

What, though, put the student body so squarely against their administrator? What made Tim Wolfe enemy number 1 in a way that meant that he had to be removed?

Over the last few months, there have been three high-profile examples of racism and hostile prejudice that have plagued the university. Wolfe, according to many, did not act swiftly enough, nor take the issues seriously enough, and thus became part of the problem, rather than part of the much needed solution.

I love that the football team took a stance against something. I love that they used their high-profile, often celebrity status to call attention to an issue of public importance, and call for action by saying that this issue is bigger than football. That being said, this protest made a critical error that will dramatically handicap its ability to actually fix any kind of problem.

By setting Wolfe as the center of the issue and the condition upon the return to normal college life, the focus becomes his resignation, rather than the elimination of the racism that sparked the problem in the first place. As soon as Wolfe resigned on Monday, classes resumed, the football team went back to practice, and the public attention to the school and their movement turned their focus elsewhere. Nothing actually changed in terms of race relations. Nothing changed in terms of creating a more inclusive and educational community. Sure, there will continue to be some protests by student organizations and the particularly inspired, but, for the most part, nobody will be paying attention a week from now.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether Tim Wolfe was a bad guy in this situation, or simply a decent man who got caught up not doing enough to help the growing tensions at his university. In either condition, the football team and the student body would have been much better off focusing the national attention on the actual issue of racism itself, rather than on a member of the administration.

When creating any social movement for change, it is impossible to be truly effective if the issue centers around any one individual. When that one individual goes away, whether a leader or a villain, the movement crumbles altogether, and prevents any ability for future action. In this case, we were so focused on whether or not the school president resigned that we failed to make any kind of substantive change to the racial climate of the university.

There is so much work to be done in terms of racial issues in our country. The experience of minorities in America just isn’t acceptable anymore, and we need to be doing more to be able to eliminate racism, both in the inter-personal form of racism, as well as institutional racism.

The University of Missouri did a big thing in saying that they will not accept Tim Wolfe’s handling of the situation over the last few months. In doing so, though, the focus was put on the wrong issue, and now we all have to figure out what to do when, in a day or two, the national attention will be gone, and we won’t have been able to do anything to substantively change the experience for African American students, frankly, any students, on campus.

We need to do something to fix the problem of racial tension that exists in this country. In many ways, it is good to see that the public is working to make something happen. The next step is to begin to be more thoughtful about the ways we bring attention to the important issues, and how to motivate the greatest and most effective form of change.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

October 17th: Fly The W

My alarm goes off at 7:30 AM, signaling the end of my second night in a row with fewer than four hours of sleep. The night before, the Cubs and Cardinals clashed in a first-round playoff game. I wasn’t going to miss a single pitch, even from the other side of the globe.

It has been seven seasons since the Cubs last made the playoffs, and that one didn’t have nearly the energy and engagement that this one has. For the first time in recent memory, the Cubs are exciting and actually good. All summer long, fans and sportswriters have been buzzing with the idea that, after years of suffering, Chicago fans are finally going to have something to cheer about during the month of October.

Of course, this comes when I am out of the country for a year. My city is bonding together in support of the team I love, and I am missing it.

I am an incredibly proud Chicagoan. Chicago is my home, the source of my sports fandom, my cultural identity, and so much more. Yet, over the last five years, I’ve spent almost 75% of my time away from my hometown, from sumers at camp to years at school. That is what makes my relationship with the Cubs so much more than just a baseball fan watching some games. I am a resident in exile, longing for home in any way that I can.

So I stay up to watch. At three in the morning, my room feels like the only light in Jerusalem, my silent cheers sprinting their way across the globe to spur on my boys in blue. I live-tweet my way through the games, joining the fan bases as they attempt to get in on the action in any way possible. I haven’t left the house without my Cubs hat on since the playoffs began, and my sports superstitions are reaching a point of borderline lunacy. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to stay tuned in much better than I could have years ago. I watch the games on my computer live, with only a moment or two of delay. I’m right there for every pitch, watching with all of those fans in America and abroad.

Better yet, I know I’m not the only believer living in the Cubs-Diaspora. Walking down the streets in Jerusalem, I have been high-fived and cheered on several occasions, fans far away from home sharing in the glory of a late autumn “Go Cubs Go!”

I know that, as my life goes on in the direction it’s going, I will spend much of my time away from the city I call home. No matter where I live, though, I’ll alway have my Cubs to celebrate, to struggle with, and to give me that little piece of where I belong. This season, the Cubs have been my tether, and I am going to be glued to the screen for every pitch. Let’s fly the W.

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