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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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October 6th: The Day Joy Turns to Rage

Some days, peace in the Middle East seems like a fantasy. We tell ourselves it’s possible, hope for it, pray for it, and yet we look around and don’t see anything that resembles coexistence in harmony.

Living in Israel for a year, I was excited to learn more about the complications of this region, and to learn more about what kinds of peace are possible. Unfortunately, I’m learning more and more about how easy it is for animosity and hatred to fester, and how hard it is to have anything that resembles lasting calm within the walls of the city.

This week, Jewish Israelis continued to enjoy the season of celebration that is this time of year. As Sukkot was wrapping up and preparations for Simchat Torah were coming to an end, horror struck. Two separate stabbings occurred in or near the Old City of Jerusalem, leaving two dead. In both cases, Israelis were killed at the hands of Palestinian extremists, adding to a mountain of tension that has come boiling up in recent weeks, seemingly culminating at a time that is supposed to be reserved for joy and celebration.

To make matters worse, a few days ago, a Jewish couple was killed in front of their four young children by Palestinians. A few hours after the incident, Hamas spokesman Husam Badran tweeted “Congratulations heroic operation carried out by elements in the West Bank, killing two settlers and wounding others…” The anger burns inside me as I read this. A man and woman were murdered in front of their own children, and leaders are praising the action? That is the lowest form of humanity. The fact that Palestinians choose to allow Hamas to represent them in any way is indicative of the willingness to find peace.

I know that Israel is not blameless. I know that there are injustices and oppression going on all over the country, and that hatred is flowing in overwhelming quantities in both directions. But we can’t keep track of the score anymore. We can’t keep trying to figure out who started it, who’s turn it is to be angry, who is the one responsible for breaking the stalemate. Peace is only possible if two different parties are willing to come together and invest just a little bit of trust in one another in the hopes of bringing one another toward a better future together. That trust simply doesn’t exist right now, as much as we may want it to, and any hopes for peace in the future is contingent not on one side but BOTH sides being willing to come to the table.

The saddest part of all this is that the Jews and Palestinians are both faith-based communities. These are people who identify so strongly with their beliefs, who have foundations in God and scripture, who create communities and cultures based on a love and respect for what is in someone’s heart. How can we live in a world where faith brings some together but drives us to hate others? How can our faith be genuine when we use it as an excuse for why we persecute, the way we justify killing one another?

I live in Jerusalem. I learn about my people and my faith in Jerusalem only a few miles away from the Old City. I can feel the tension going on around me, and can see the way the entire city walks around with heavy hearts and heavy minds. How can we allow this to continue? How can we have such little faith in one another, and continuously allow the country we all work so hard to create be consumed by it’s own hatred?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know what the future holds for these two peoples, struggling so hard to share this space. All I know is that what currently exists is not acceptable. I know that something has to change. I continue to search for the day that we find a way to change it without continuing to kill one another.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 29th: A World Of Better

Over the last two weeks, including the ten Days of Awe, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my place in the world. I want to better myself, to correct my sins and be a more well-rounded, thoughtful, and present person.

As I look around the world, it is difficult to see perfection. It is far easier to find hate, poverty, strife. Entire peoples are fleeing their homes, only to find doors slammed in their faces. The problems of both of my countries are laid bare in front of both the population and our leaders, and yet nothing is done to fix them. Brothers and sisters fight against one another, seeing their differences far more vividly than they see their bonds of love. Most troublingly, we feel helpless to actually do much of anything to make the world a better place.

I refuse to participate in that, though. I can’t turn a blind eye. I can’t stay silent while so much needs to be done to help the world move forward. I can’t let politics and a fear of rocking the boat get in the way of my ability to feel like I can actually make the changes to the world that I think it needs.

In the next year, I hope to be able to bring fresh passion and enthusiasm to my work to repair the world. I want to be able to bring my commitment to social action forward, yet not buy into the pettiness and narrow-mindedness that is so prevalent in active debate today. Most importantly, I need to be in control of my emotions. I can’t effectively make the world better if I am getting angry or frustrated. I need to see the world as it is, accept it, and do what it takes to move it in the direction that I believe does the most good. This is my primary goal as we move into a new Jewish year, and one I hope can have a profound impact not only on my own disposition, but on the way that I can effectively inspire change.

I am constantly reminded of the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is the time in the Jewish calendar where we have an opportunity to take stock of our own lives, sure, but also to take stock of what is going on in the world around us. We can see the areas that need perfecting, the places where we can do better, where we need to do better. We need to look out for one another. We need to hold one another accountable. We need to keep each other safe. And we need to make sure that we are constantly evaluating the work we are doing to make those things happen.

More than at any point in our history, we have the power to quickly and efficiently change the world. We have ways to communicate across the globe in fractions of a section, ways to mobilize enormous communities for a common cause, ways to engage in meaningful and thoughtful debate. Let’s use these tools to drive us forward as a global community, rather than backward.

I pray for patience. I pray for thoughtfulness and kindness. And I pray that we can all work together to bring a little bit of holiness into the world.

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