Wednesday, August 26, 2015

August 26th: Grossly Overly Politicized

Watching the 2016 Presidential race heat up from outside of the country has been a fascinating cultural experience. As a general rule, the information is mostly volunteer access, meaning that I have to go find the information, rather than the more standard American access, which is less of a choice and more of an overwhelming avalanche. That being said, it puts the burden on the consumer of the information to look for a balance of opinions and to see a variety of perspectives.

Take, for example, the recent GOP debate that took place in Cleveland earlier this month. I was unable to watch the debate first-hand live; it was taking place at 3 AM local time. Waking up the next morning, every news source and social medium had an influx of information, not only breaking down the content of each candidate’s platform, but also dissecting every detail of HOW that information was presented.

I started on social media (my favorite and most biased outlet), which primarily consisted of reactions from non-professionals. These were everyday Americans, the voters, commenting and critiquing the candidates that they would one day see on a ballot. The opinions generally skewed to the left, as most of my digital community share my liberal ideals.

Next, I moved to my news outlets of choice. Primarily, I like the coverage of USA Today, because it is one of the few newspapers in the country that has done the best work to transition into digital and online formats, making it easy to access traditional journalism styles in a modern format. I explored what the journalistic community had to share about the event. Again, USA Today tends to sit on the left side of the aisle, and even more so CNN. Much of what I found on these pages were breakdowns of the ways that candidates presented themselves, the politicking between individuals on the podium, and collections of soundbites that had Republicans digging at each other and looking to crack holes in their opponents.

So far, I had found almost no actual issue-based coverage so I gritted my teeth and headed to Fox News. I generally don’t enjoy Fox’s coverage, as they are way too far to the right for me, and their bias is far too easily identified, but in this case, when looking at a GOP debate that was, in fact, hosted by Fox, I was intrigued to see how they would cover it. Better than any other news source, there were details about what exactly each candidate stood for, and how well they got that point across.

After almost 2 hours of research, I felt like I had a decent understanding of what happened and where each candidate stood on various issues. Considering how easy it is to find SOME information, I was very surprised to learn how hard I had to work to find ALL of the information.

It is easy to blame my absence from the country for the difficulty. In reality, though, it is just as hard in America to see through all of the biases and angles to get to the real issue: the issues. We can find easy information about the feud between Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell (ok, his feud with women in general), but what will he actually do to create greater stability in the Middle East? We know that Rand Paul is being a child in criticizing Chris Christie for hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, but where does Paul stand when it comes to disaster relief?

Our gathering of information has turned into a full time job. We are bombarded with so much information about the political world that we now need to distinguish between what is real and what is crap. As hard is it might be, we need to do it, for fear that we will be unwitting bystanders in a system that encourages our politicians to belittle us, condescend us, and avoid us, for fear that we may actually demand that they lead.

The major theme of the Zoot Perspective’s evaluation of the next 15 months of the Presidential race is that we need to elevate the level of debate. We need to be asking the right questions and demanding that our politicians give us real, honest answers. I only get one vote, but I am going to make you earn it, Mr(s). Soon-To-Be-President.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

August 2nd: Baseless Hatred

Separated by only a few hours, two acts of terrorism, committed by Jewish Israelis, left the entire country begging to know why peace is a notion so far away from us.

The first occurred at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, where six people were stabbed by a man who had just been released from jail for committing the same crime ten years prior. The man is an Orthodox Jew who was determined to personally end what he believes to be the wrong of homosexuality, trying to end lives because of who someone loves.

Later on Thursday night, a Palestinian family’s house was burned, again by Jewish terrorists, resulting in a dead infant and a family both physically and emotionally devastated. The events led the Palestinians to declare Friday as a “Day of Rage.”

As an American coming to live in Jerusalem, I was all too familiar with the fear of terrorism and the baseless hatred that ran rampant in this beautiful place. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to come from people who identify as I do, as Jewish.

I refuse to call them that, though. They are not true Jews, according to any understanding I know. Jews are not ruled by hate, nor do they look to take life. Jews do not destroy life in an attempt to maintain their own existence, and do not denigrate others to the point of inhumanity because of the lives they live.

For the first time, I truly identify with the millions of Muslim Americans who are forced every day to answer for the atrocities carried out by the tiny minority who use their faith as a rallying cry for destruction. I know the feeling of wanting nothing to do with those who claim to use my God as the excuse for their actions. I know the feeling of embarrassment, of shame at knowing that Jewish people were the ones inflicting suffering on a child, on men and women celebrating the joys of freedom. I know the feeling of wanting to stand up and say “No, they are not like me. They are not what my faith is.” I only hope that we can use that feeling to come together in comfort, rather than to increase the gulf between us.

To not expect this kind of violence is sadly ignorant, though, especially coming from America. This is no different than the life we are leading right now at home. It seems every day we are faced with another act of violence and devastation, committed by individuals who use their own faith and skewed version of morality to destroy the lives of other Americans. Who am I to judge the Israeli conflict when my own country is tearing itself apart?

It is on days like this that it is nearly impossible to see any light in the world. Our own hatred as a global community is suffocating, choking us off from our ability to find the beauty that is all over the place, but we choose to ignore because someone else’s attempts at happiness fill us with discomfort and rage.

But we have no choice. We, as a society, have no choice but to keep moving forward, to keep spreading understanding and love in the world. We have no choice but to use these acts of destruction as the building blocks for change, and the inspiration for new understanding. We have to band together, to publicly denounce even our own people who choose to highjack our faith and our principles for their own hateful means. And we have to use this as an excuse to come together, to not inspire days of rage, but to inspire days of shared love and comfort.

May the shadow of hatred be forced out by the light of love, and may we all come together to better understand one another and pursue true justice and peace.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July 7th: Past Their Time, Not Prime

This year was the first time that I was out of the country for the 4th of July. Independence Day is my favorite holiday, so it was a little sad to be missing the festivities.

As the few dozen Americans with whom I am studying gathered together, we looked for ways to remind ourselves of the significance of the day for our homeland. Two moments caught my attention and challenged me in almost identical ways.

First, my cohort marked the day by singing “America the Beautiful.” This happens to be one of my least favorite patriotic songs, but it was very nice to hear a song of home in this new and different place.

As we approached one particular line of the song, a classmate made a quick addition, instead singing “and crown thy good, with Brother AND Sister hood…”

The second instance was when a classmate read a portion of the Declaration of Independence. She too made an edit to this American staple, saying “that all men, women, and those who identify with any other pronoun, are created equal.”

Two almost identical adaptations of America’s expressions of patriotism that left me with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. On one hand, I appreciate the sentiment very much. The inclusion of gender equality in our nation’s dialog is not only positive but necessary.

The complication comes when we add this language to pre-existing historical artifacts. These media are windows to the past, giving us incredible understanding of how we, as a country, have arrived at this moment in time.

This isn’t always a pleasant image. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most famous, eloquent minds, had many slaves. How could something so modernly unacceptable have come in such close contact with a visionary of his caliber?

One close example of this in another historical context is Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s book is an incredible text that most certainly has a place in our literary history. Yet, many uses of the N-word in the text make it uncomfortable for modern readers. Rather than changing the text, though, academic institutions use the presence of this challenge as an opportunity for education, to give young readers a perspective on where our history was and how and why it has changed.

Much the same can be said about the gender language in early American works. In fact, there is an incredible lesson to be learned from 1776. At that time, the writers of the document were visionaries, radicals in the notion that all men are created equal, deserving of the same rights, regardless of religious identification. To make that statement at that time was a moment that changed the entire history of governmental discourse, and created freedoms that hadn’t existed to that point. It wasn’t the end of the road, but it was a monumental first step to getting us on the road to equality for all.

When I have children, I want them to ask me why the Declaration of Independence only says “all men” instead of “all people”. I want them to ask why the line isn’t “Peoplehood.” I want them to ask, because I want to tell them with pride that the history of this country has evolved as times have changed, and that we have grown and adapted to allow for the freedoms of today. I want my children to see proof of the past, and to be able to know that they too have the power to change the way we understand songs written yesterday, let alone hundreds of years ago.

We need to make sure that the documents we create for today are updated to reflect the values we want to show as representative for future generations. But we owe it to our past to maintain what they have to teach us, and to maintain the status of these artifacts as a representation of where we’ve come from, so that we can be prepared for where we're going.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

July 1st: A Journey, Years In the Making

I’ve been waiting for this day to come for a very long time. Today, I move to Jerusalem to begin Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College. It is the first step toward a dream that I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember.

Just hours away from boarding my 11 hour flight, I’m a little overwhelmed by all of the emotions that come with such a monumental moment in my life. I’ve been telling people for weeks that I am incredibly excited to go to Israel, but I am not excited at all about leaving America, and all that comes with it. If I’m completely honest with myself, I’m absolutely terrified. I’m moving away from my family, my girlfriend, and the lifestyle I know to go chase my dream. That isn’t easy, no matter how excited I am for my adventure.

Yet, I am reminded constantly of why I am doing this in the first place. I am actually going to Rabbinical School. In 10 days, I begin classes to learn the valuable information necessary to begin my career and continue to hone the leadership skills I need to guide a congregation and my Reform Jewish movement. As scary as it is to be moving to the other side of the world, it is an incredible opportunity to learn in the epicenter of Jewish life, and to experience a culture and a lifestyle that is so important to my heritage and my people.

As I get on the plane, I’m getting ready for an amazing adventure, and I’m sure I will have hundreds of stories to tell. While I am away, I intend to very thoughtfully and thoroughly document my experience, using my blog, The Zoot Perspective, as a home base. The content that has been standard on the blog will remain the same, but throughout the year, I will make a concerted effort to incorporate posts at least twice a month that address specific issues or experiences that I have in my year in Israel.

I also intend to keep up the work I’m doing on my video blog, The Zoot Perspective: Web Congregation, because where better to take an in-depth look at the Torah portion than in the holy land? There will, of course, always be new and innovative ways to share my journey, from Instagram campaigns to Twitter and beyond. I’m even working on a book that gives insight into what it is really like to live in Israel. The possibilities are endless, as are the incredible stories I cannot wait to tell.

I’m about to move to the other side of the world to study in one of the most incredible places on earth, and to drive my education forward toward my dream. I am so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to take this adventure, and to share it with my family and friends. I cannot wait to use this site as a vehicle to tell the story. I’m not exactly sure what I will find over the course of the next 10 months, but I know it’ll be a journey like none other.

If you enjoy the work of the Zoot Perspective, please visit my GoFundMe page, to help support me on my journey. Thank you very much.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

June 29th: No Disenting Opinion, Just a Descending One

In the wake of the Charleston shooting that left 9 church members dead last weekend, a fierce debate has started up against the Confederate flag, most notably the one that flies over the statehouse in South Carolina. Dylann Roof, the shooter at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was infatuated with the Civil War flag, and was diabolically devoted to starting a race war with the flag as his symbol.

The debate has raged on for the last several days, gaining steam with each passing day that the flag isn’t removed. Many reference that the flag is a symbol for hate, that it represents a similar meaning to what the Swastika stands for in Germany (it is an illegal image in the country now), and that white southerners continue to use it as a symbol of oppression and malice.

As I’m watching the debate unfold, two things strike me as inherently troubling about the conversation. The first is to ask the question, why is this such a huge issue this week? Why hasn’t there been a raging debate or argument before, and why did we pick today to finally get insulted.

There is an easy answer to that, of course: we feel bad for what happened in South Carolina. More than that, we feel helpless to actually do anything about the atrocities that occurred in a place of worship, a place of peace, and are looking for some small way that we can bring comfort to those who lost loved ones.

This isn’t the way to honor these fallen friends and loved ones, though. It is a small way, a token way, a way to signal that yes, in fact, we NOTICED something terrible happened, but are unable to make the changes that would have actually saved their lives.

Look around. Very few are arguing with the idea of taking the flag down. Many southerners have said “let’s do it.” The South Carolina governor has called for it’s removal. A great may politicians, from all sides have spoken on the necessity for action. So why are we dedicating so much time, energy, and effort to fighting the subject when we are one swift and unilateral action from taking the thing down?

The answer, of course, is that it feels like action. We feel like we’re standing up for something, making bold and daring action against a horrible evil. What we really need to be doing, though, is standing up against the violence that caused this attack. We need to be creating laws and initiatives that make it harder to murder one another, rather than spending an entire week (if not more) eliminating a flag that most agree should be removed anyway.

The second piece of this debate that is so often ignored but so important to maintaining a thoughtful dialogue is to understand that Southerners aren’t inherently racist for being slow to want to get rid of the flag. We need to differentiate between the ideas that the flag encourages from what the people actually believe.

Someone raised in the south was not necessarily taught that the flag was a symbol for hate and oppression. What they were taught is that it is a part of their cultural heritage, a reminder of their loved ones who fought in the Civil War. It is a part of their southern identity, and therefore is incredibly important for regional pride. They have been taught this since an early age, and it will take explanation and patience to change that way of thinking.

Now, this position is wrong. The flag isn’t a symbol of valor and heritage. It is a reminder of a horrible time in our country’s history, and a symbol that needs to be relegated to the museums of the south, rather than the state houses. Rather than assaulting southerners with accusations of racism, though, we need to explain why the flag is received as it is by so many, and help others to understand.

The flag needs to be taken down. Frankly, it needs to have been taken down a long time ago, for reasons that many other writers have done plenty to explain. The flag is a reminder of a terrible portion of our country’s past, a reminder of a time when brother fought against brother, our country was divided, our people were oppressed, and animosity was as prevalent in American life as it has ever been before or since. We have no need for a symbol of oppression or hate.

As we engage in the conversation, though, we need to make sure we know WHY we’re talking about it, and recognize environmental factors that helped to get us here. Taking down the flag won’t bring those who lost their lives back to us. It wouldn’t have prevented their deaths if it was to have been taken down a week before the incident either. Taking the flag down will prevent racial anxiety that has been present for decades, and will, most likely, take several years to forget. The faster we get that process started, the faster we can begin to heal.

We need to take the flag down because it is the right thing to do. But we also need to take the flag down quickly, so that we can return our attention to matters that will save lives quickly, immediately, and dramatically.

If you enjoy the work of the Zoot Perspective, please visit my GoFundMe page, to help support me on my journey. Thank you very much.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

June 22nd: The Fight Against Hopelessness

The two greatest issues in American society collided in the ugliest way possible this week. Gun violence was used as the catalyst for what the gunman hoped would be a race war.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof opened fire at the end of a Bible study meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing 9, including Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Americans are left wondering, yet again, what to do and how to think after yet another act of violence tears apart our people.

We identify them by the names of the communities torn apart forever. We call them “Newtown,” “Aurora,” now “Charleston.” We use the names of these towns to remember the locations of terrible acts of hatred and violence, each leaving us with tears in our eyes and despair in our hearts. We can’t identify them by the names of the victims; that would be too long a list and too heart-wrenching  to bear. The worst part for our country: the feeling of hopelessness, that we are at the mercy of those who choose to use weapons of death to terrorize our families, schools, churches, and homes.

Unlike Newtown or Aurora, though, this act of violence includes an unavoidable race element. Roof was a known racist, and attacked a church that is a monument for African American living in the south. We now face not only the terrible challenge of gun violence prevention, but also have to confront the deep and troubling racial tensions that are so prevalent, yet ignored in our culture.

It seems that Americans are at a loss. We’ve tried making bold statements of protest against those who use guns to violently make a point. We’ve tried to lobby our politicians to enforce stricter gun laws to prevent criminals and extremists from getting their hands on weapons of mass murder. We’ve tried writing blogs, articles, columns, and manifestos declaring our need for more attention to race issues and violence awareness and prevention. None of it has worked.

In fact, we have the feeling it is getting worse. There is a general sense of despair, of issue-related fatigue. We are tired of fighting against violence when it so clearly isn’t working. We aren’t making any progress. The world is getting more violent, not less. The world is more racially divided, not more united. And Americans are losing hope that we will ever see a change for the better. Even our comedians (like Jon Stewart) aren’t able to do their jobs, because we are so overcome with grief by the horrors that are becoming commonplace in our communities.

My deepest hope is that things are getting worse as a precursor to them getting better. Racists are feeling the world changing around them, and feel the pressure to act against the new found tolerance and patience. We are seeing more violence because these psychopaths are afraid that they are losing their grip on the world. My most sincere wish is that this terrible string of violence will be very soon overthrown by a time of peace and understanding, that the world is fixing itself and slowly, painfully purging itself of those who need to be taken out of the conversation.

I know this is a dream. I know it is most likely not the case. But we need to find something to drive us forward. We need some kind of hope that allows us to continue to work for the betterment of our society, and that continues to demand that those in power reevaluate how we allow citizens to protect themselves without arming violent criminals. We need to come together, to know that regardless of our understanding of racial tensions in our country, we can unite under the simple an unalienable right, that we must, as one country, pursue life for all, liberty for all, and an opportunity for happiness. Most importantly, we need to continue to make it abundantly clear that this kind of intolerance and hatred is no longer acceptable in our country.

I have yet to hear a single argument in favor of keeping guns in the hands of private citizens that makes even a lick of sense. There are those who argue that gun possession acts as a deterrent, that if everyone is armed, someone up to no good will be less likely to attack. This sounds like an opportunity for more violence, rather than scaring criminals into submission. Others say that gun laws don’t stop criminals from getting their hands on weapons. Several recent shootings have been attacks using guns that were purchased legally by others and then seized by the perpetrator. This doesn’t consider, though, that we are refusing to acknowledge that allowing citizens to own killing machines doesn’t have any productive value to our country, and we need to take drastic action to prevent such acts of terror from continuing.

The time for conversation is over. We can’t keep talking about these problems when those with the guns aren’t sitting in on the conversation. They are using the weapons faster than we can talk about getting rid of them. We need drastic and immediate action that will prevent further destruction of American life, thus leaving us able to have an active and thoughtful dialogue about the racial tensions that challenge our country’s unity. We can’t have that conversation, though, until we remove the threat of violence.

Once we remove the imminent violence that looms large and dangerously over our heads, we can engage in a conversation worthy of this great nation. Until then, we are being held hostage by those too afraid to be exposed as the terrorists that they are.

May the memory of all those who have lost their lives to gun violence be for a blessing, and let their memories serve as a force for change in this country. May we honor them by making the world better in their name.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June 16th: Getting College Bang For Your Buck

As we cross the 50 yard line in June, high school graduations settle into the rearview mirror, and families begin to turn their attention to the next big adventure. This fall, hundreds of thousands of freshmen will descend upon colleges and universities across the country to begin an academic journey that is just the beginning of a very exciting four (give or take) years.

Yet, as the excitement of admissions letters and new t-shirts with school names emblazoned across the front wears off, the reality sinks in: college is expensive. Like, REALLY expensive. In fact, college tuition costs are rising at alarming rates from year to year, leaving many scratching their heads as to how to make the finances work.

In-state costs for public schools are sitting squarely at or around the $10,000 mark, with costs rising from year to year. You want to go out of state? You should expect a doubling of that number.

At the same time that parents and teens begin to scramble to come up with lunch money, candidates for president have begun to discuss the possibility of education subsidies, giving help to those who are willing to take their education to the next level. As 2016 approaches, it appears as though this will be an issue both in the Obama administration as well as in the debate between the Republicans and Hillary...errr...I mean the Democrats.

One such candidate, Chris Christie, just gave his two cents on the subject (although two cents won’t cover much). In a response to a democratic push to create debt-free graduates, Christie said “if college graduates are going to reap the greater economic rewards and opportunities of earning a degree, then it seems fair for them to support the cost of the education they’re receiving.”

On this front, Christie makes a very sound argument. A college graduate is going to receive opportunities and experiences that those without an education could only dream of, and thus should have to pay the cost of such an experience. This combats the notion that the government should help students pay for college. In that regard, his view is quite reasonable.

A much better argument for all sides of the argument is to take one step back and reevaluate whether or not the cost of tuition is at an appropriate level to begin with. As an alumnus of Indiana University, I was responsible for over $30,000 per year (before scholarships). What exactly does $120,000 per student over the course of a four year degree get them? Where does that money go?

While there is some level of transparency, students generally have to work pretty hard to see a full breakdown of how their tuition dollars are allocated. It isn’t as simple as paying for a student’s own professors’ salaries and the dorms and food that they utilize. In most cases, that money is spent as a collective unit, going into a larger pool to work toward the university’s general upkeep.

Let’s look at an example. Student A lives in a dorm that was built in 1940, and has, over the last 75 years, maintained its status as a monument to college living, receiving updates periodically, but rarely seeing an overhaul of the amenities. Central air conditioning is laughable, while communal showers are old and dank. At the same time, across campus, Student B is living in the brand new dorm, with gorgeous new carpeting, clean and unused furniture, and a new cafeteria in the basement that serves kale and quinoa and all sorts of other hipster foods that liberal college students claim to enjoy. Yet, as a general rule, the two are paying the same tuition costs.

Let’s look at a more academic example: students in the Journalism program vs. students in the English department. Both are paying the same amount of money, and both are receiving the same degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences, but one is receiving top of the line resources and educators, while the other trails behind in the field. These two majors can be swapped out for any two programs, depending on the school and level of focus. The bottom line is: with standardize tuition costs, you aren’t paying for the cost of YOUR education so much as you’re paying for the cost of running the school as a whole, an idea that I think most Republicans will have trouble wrapping their heads around.

As we begin the process of reevaluating the cost of a college education, we need to look in a new direction. Rather than finding ways for students to come up with 10, 15, 20 thousand dollars, we should instead be looking at exactly where that money goes, and attempt to find ways that the government can help fund the upkeep of the school, leaving students to pay for the academic resources they actually use. While Governor Christie’s approach is valid, it is a sound opinion based on a failed model.

The high cost of college is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity. Students learn to budget, to make decisions about what they can and cannot afford, and to make smart choices about how to most responsibly attain their goals. Yet, when students are faced with no good options because the cost of an education has gotten so out of control, we are handicapping the future of America, failing to allow our next generation to reach it’s true potential.

Rather than finding ways to help students fund an education that costs too much to begin with, the government would get far more bang for their buck if they attempted to help pay for the actual infrastructure and amenities themselves, and let students cover their own cost-of-education, rather than forcing students to pay those top dollars and then struggle to figure out how to pay.

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