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Can a New Form of Midrash Help Bridge our National Divides?

Dec7

by: Jeffrey Lubell on December 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 3:10).

Trump and Clinton. As the 2016 Presidential Election reminds us, we are a deeply divided country. Consider the razor thin margin of the election. A shift of fewer than 55,000 votes across three states (PA, MI, and WI) would have flipped the outcome, and a shift to Clinton of only one out of every 100 Trump voters would have given her an Electoral College victory similar in size to that experienced by Trump. As Nate Silver reminds us, these shifts would have led to a different narrative, but the deep divisions within this country would of course have remained fundamentally the same.

We saw these divisions over the summer when we mourned the heartbreaking deaths in July of African-American men, killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, and police officers, killed by African-American men in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We’ve seen them in the competing narratives around Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues.

Many are viewing the election as a call to arms – to fight for what we believe to be right. This is consistent with the long and honorable history of Jewish activism in support of civil and economic rights and our fundamental commitment to making the world a better place. This is surely part of the solution.

But while activism may help address the symptoms of our divisions, it will not help us transcend them. So it is not a complete solution.

There is no magic elixir that can quickly heal our fault lines of race, ethnicity, class, and political party, and our urban/rural and north/south divides. But I do believe there are lessons we can we draw from our Jewish tradition and heritage that may help us make progress in improving our understanding of one another, which is a critical first step in bridging our many divides. My suggestion is to repurpose tools from the Jewish tradition of midrash to increase our understanding of the diverse perspectives held by Americans across the U.S.


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Eight Steps Obama Should Take Immediately

Dec7

by: Cat J. Zavis on December 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Pensive Obama. President Obama swept into office eight years ago on a promise of hope and change founded on the importance of empathy, i.e., understanding the experience of the Other. Many people were inspired and deeply moved by his vision of hope, stated desire for change, and his seeming care for the well-being of all. And now many are deeply disappointed. We believe he has lost his way and has failed to stand for the values he articulated eight years ago. This is my call to President Obama to return to his highest values, values that are hard to hold when the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but values that we need even more now than we did eight years ago.

If what I share below resonates with you, please do two things: (1) copy it and send it to President Obama; (2) sign the Move-On petition I started here.

Dear President Obama,

You have less than two months in office and the incoming President-elect has, both through his statements and appointments thus far, indicated that many of the rights and issues you and those that elected support will very likely be dismantled in the next four years. In fact, the prospects for the next four years look rather bleak, if not downright terrifying.

You have an opportunity to show strong leadership and take decisive and immediate action on a number of significant issues.

I call upon you to take the following actions in your last month in office:


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If Life Wins There Will Be No Losers

Dec5

by: Martin Winiecki on December 5th, 2016 | No Comments »

The Dakota Access Pipeline approaching the lake.

A message of solidarity from Tamera Peace Research Center to Standing Rock:

In the name of humaneness, we express our gratitude to the courageous water and land protectors at Standing Rock. This camp of Sioux and many other First Nation people, accompanied by activists from across all camps is a true light of hope in a world that has lost any prospect for the future. They are not fighting against anyone; they are defending the sacred. They are protecting what needs to be protected for us to live. We call out to say thank you for your perseverance in spite of the brutal attacks; thank you for taking such a clear stand for life in this worldwide struggle between the powers of life and those of capital. Thank you as well to the spirits of the buffaloes and eagles for their visible support and presence. Through Tamera and the global Healing Biotopes Project, we seek to support this stance by all means.


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The Miracles of Christmukah!

Dec1

by: Dan Brook and Richard H. Schwartz on December 1st, 2016 | No Comments »

Small christmas tree and chanukah candles side by side.Christmas and Chanukah periodically coincide and do so again beginning on Christmas Eve 2016, the first night of Chanukah 5777. Some are calling it Christmukah. Some are calling it another miracle!

Hope springs eternal. Indeed, it’s always been an integral part of Jewish and Christian history, spirituality, and politics. Without hope, there wouldn’t be a Chanukah; without hope, there might not even be a Jewish community; without hope, there might not be democracy or America. That’s the power of radical hope!

Christmas has been celebrated for over 1600 years and Chanukah has been celebrated for 2181 years. The two holidays may be united in our gratitude for Light, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Latkes. We don’t know if Jesus ever ate latkes, but as a Jew, it is highly likely that he celebrated Chanukah.


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Fidel Castro 1926-2016

Nov30

by: Martha Sonnenberg on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Castro in a green uniform, a flag in the background.There can be no doubt that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, whether one idolized or despised him.  For me, and many on the left, feelings toward Castro often left one dizzy with conflicting emotions of admiration, disappointment and frustration. Here is what he did: In 1959 he successfully challenged and struck a mortal blow to the social and economic remnants of slavery and colonialism in the tiny island of Cuba; he thrust off the iron grip of the United States’ control of the Cuban economy codified by the Platt Amendment, in place since 1904. Cuba, 89 times smaller than its northern neighbor, prevailed against the Goliath United States in establishing its sovereignty. In this regard, Castro continued the movement toward self-determination of a West Indian people that had begun with the Santo Domingo revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Castro was able to lead the Cuban revolution by galvanizing and articulating the desires for freedom on the part of the Cuban people, from rural peasant to urban worker, professional and intellectual. This was particularly evident in the peasant support of the guerilla fighters of the Sierra Maestra, as well as in the support of the urban trade union movement. That ability to engage the masses of Cubans did not diminish. In 1981, I visited Cuba with my mother—the day we arrived in Havana, we attended a speech by Castro in the Plaza de Revolution, a short walk from our hotel. There were hundreds of thousands of people in that square, and when Fidel spoke there was total silence and rapt attention. I had never witnessed anything quite like it, nor have I since.


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Bravo Hamilton

Nov30

by: on November 30th, 2016 | No Comments »

I stand in solidarity with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton who made a statement to soon-to-be Electoral College-elect vice-president Mike Pence when he attended a performance of the play.

Bravo Hamilton.

The statement was respectful, and, all things considered, restrained. It was civil. According to the New York Times, the statement said:

“We-sir-are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Full disclosure: I have not seen the play, but I am a fan. I ride around listening to the sound-track in my car.

The beauty of the production is that it uses Hip Hop, an art form invented by America’s non-white citizens, to present an interpretation of the early history of America with a multi-racial cast. It does what all good art ought to do, make us see the ordinary with extraordinary sight and thus help us know our own humanity better.

There is good reason for a diverse America to feel alarmed and anxious after a divisive campaign of fear and lies that Donald Trump and Mike Pence inflicted upon the nation to win the Electoral College and thus to win the presidency and the vice-presidency. Let us be clear: Trump and Pence are minority winners. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million votes. More than seven million people voted for a third-party candidate. Nearly half of Americans who could have voted did not. Most citizens of the United States do not want Donald Trump to be president, yet, he will take the oath of office in January, becoming both head of state and head of government, representing the United States in his person to history and to the world.

Since his campaign that emboldened white supremacists, violence against people of color, immigrants, and Muslims have risen. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 incidents of harassment in the first ten days after the election. (https://www.splcenter.org/) The Trump/Pence response to such hate has been tepid at best. Trump has made Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, a news organization that caters to white supremacists, his chief White House strategist. His other choices for cabinet positions, including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and his choice for the person to head the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that he will not protect voting rights or the planet.

Since we value a peaceful transition of power, what is the majority of citizens of the United States to do? We ought to resist in every peaceful way imaginable. We ought to stand up and boldly state what the shared values and beliefs of our society are.

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Witnessing Standing Rock: A Short Guide

Nov30

by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Three women holding up a sign saying "water is life." I traveled to Standing Rock in order to help sustain the camp and be a witness. Here are some humble suggestions of what you might do if you travel to Standing Rock, and if you are in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally.

Work in the kitchen! Mounds of garlic are peeled daily to feed the thousands of people eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. There are five main kitchens throughout camp, so there are many opportunities to go into a nearby kitchen and ask when a good time to volunteer is. Working in a kitchen is a great way to contribute directly to the basic ongoing daily needs of the camp and to meet people!

Go to an early morning ceremony. Standing Rock is a prayer camp and attending an indigenous led ceremony is the best way to learn about the spirit of Standing Rock. Morning ceremonies start at 6 AM and may be led by women. The ceremony I attended by the sacred fires on Friday morning was led by a medicine woman named Blue Lightning, who I had the honor of getting to know while I was there. She asked me to be guardian of the east gate because she learned I was one of the first woman rabbis from young Jewish people from the Bay Area who contributed to building several tents for her family encampment. The morning ceremony was dedicated to “untangling” energies that need to come back into harmony. People were invited to dance in four concentric circles around a four directional altar created with crystals and shells. When the sun rose, about a hundred people walked down to the river for a pipe ceremony led by Lakota women who have greeted the dawn in this way by the shores of this river for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is their land.

Be in service. While I was at Standing Rock, I remained in service to Blue Lightning’s intergenerational family, which consisted of elders, parents, and children. I was able to serve in this way due to my relationships with Bay Area Jewish young people in their 20′s and 30′s who contributed funds for and built several winterized tents, each one complete with insulation, a wood stove, lots of heaters, a porch, chairs, cots, blankets, rugs, tables, and a complete kitchen with shelves, cooking utensils, a stove, storage bins, and wash station for Blue Lightning’s family encampment. The kitchen was dedicated by Blue Lightning to be a meeting place for elders. It’s warm and welcoming. I spent time setting up the kitchen and attending to immediate needs of the elders.

Participate in an action that feels right to you. There is nonviolent direct action training at camp. There is also an ongoing conversation about whether or not a particular action is sanctioned by elders. I chose to attend a Thanksgiving Day silent vigil by the river organized by indigenous youth with the sanction of the elders. The action had several components: some people remained in silence on the camp side of the river while others crossed over the river on a plank to get to Turtle Island, which is sacred ground to the Lakota. There were indigenous men protecting the nonviolent nature of the action by not allowing anyone to climb up the hill to the ridge where dozens of militarized police stood in wait threatening them with violence over a bull horn while telling people they didn’t want a confrontation at the same time. People were still traumatized by Sunday’s attack, which injured 166 people. While I was there, the police installed bright floodlights by the river. They also placed barbed wire along the ridge of Turtle Island and the river’s edge. If you are planning to be part of a direct action, please check in with the legal tent on Facebook Hill to be trained and find out about arrest procedures before you participate.

Listen to stories. Being in camp with an indigenous family allowed me to hear lots of stories such as Blue Lightning’s family stories; Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute histories; tribal origin tales, creation tales, and teachings about prayer; the story of this particular Pipe Line; eminent domain, broken treaties, and Native sovereignty rights; and stories about Standing Rock itself. Jane Fonda’s appearance at camp over Thanksgiving started some conversations. The threat of police violence sparks rumors, so don’t believe every story. Dallas Goldtooth is a good source for staying in touch with what is actually happening. Indigenous news sources are the best way to stay informed.


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We Will Not Be Silent: Join IfNotNow’s National Day of Jewish Resistance on Wednesday, November 30th

Nov29

by: Aron Wander on November 29th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Even after President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon – the former head of Breitbart and an enabler of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other prejudices – as his chief strategist, some of our largest Jewish organizations remained silent about the hate that is being welcomed into the White House.

In their absence, Jewish activists around the country are leading our communities from the streets and standing up for ourselves and other minorities in line with Judaism’s ancient injunction: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

The Talmud tells of three rabbis – Yehudah, Yose, and Shimon – who met in the second century to discuss the fate of the Jewish community after it had been devastated by the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah suggested a conciliatory approach. Rabbi Yose was silent. Only Rabbi Shimon, who had watched as the Romans brutally executed his teacher Akiva, called out the Romans for their cruelty, materialism, and selfishness. Rabbi Shimon was reported to the Romans, who sentenced him to death. He escaped and went into hiding to preserve our tradition (Shabbat 33b).

Today, we are faced once again with a choice about how to respond to oppression and injustice. The Talmud leaves little doubt that Rabbi Shimon’s decision to speak out was the moral one, but many of our institutions have still opted for Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose’s passivity. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP), among others, have refused to explicitly condemn Trump or Bannon.

As head of Breitbart, Bannon turned the news site into the platform of the “alt-right,” facilitating threats against Muslims, conspiracies about Jews, discrimination against people of color, and hatred against women. When criticized for not taking a stance on Bannon, AJC spoke proudly of its commitment to “centrism.”

Centrism means respecting a wide variety of opinions; it does not mean refusing to condemn bigotry.

Institutions like AJC have made the mistake of thinking that moderation — or a warped idea of centrism — is a value in and of itself. Our ancestors did not deny that there is a time to be moderate: the Talmud records numerous times that caution and temperance brought about the best outcome. The rabbis also asserted, though, that certain situations demand moral clarity. In the Mishnah, they wrote, “Do not associate with a wicked man” (Avot 1:7). They did not follow up with a list of extenuating circumstances in which it makes sense to cooperate with evil. They did not advocate for centrism in the face of injustice. Their message was simple: the only response to cruelty — the only response that preserves the integrity of Judaism — is Rabbi Shimon’s.

That is why last week, IfNotNow led 1,500 Jews in the streets across four cities to demand that Trump fire Bannon and to call on our institutions to stand with us. Our voices have joined with Jewish rabbis and organizations across the country – JFREJ, the Anti-Defamation League, and T’ruah, among others – that have condemned Trump and Bannon and pledged solidarity with marginalized Americans. It is now incumbent upon our community – 76 percent of which voted against Trump – to get our other institutions to follow suit.

This Wednesday, we are organizing a national day of Jewish Resistance. As part of grassroots demonstrations in more than a dozen cities, thousands of Jews will continue to demand that Trump remove Bannon from the White House. At the same time, we will keep sending a message to the leaders and institutions that claim to represent us: stand up for us and our allies or step aside.

Only a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, synagogues across the country read the words of Isaiah: “Let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6). Let us show LGBTQ folk, people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and our fellow Jews that we meant it.

The choice is simple. Will our institutions continue to be silent in the face of a white supremacy that threatens everyone, or will they stand up for freedom and dignity for all?

Aron Wander is a member of IfNotNow. He lives in New York City where he works as a political consultant, volunteers with PASSNYC, and blogs about Judaism with his roommate at Unconservative

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Fight for $15: There’s Enough Blessing For Everyone

Nov29

by: Rabbi Mike Rothbaum on November 29th, 2016 | No Comments »

[Managing Editor's note: Rothbaum delivered these remarks Tuesday morning at a Fight for $15 protest at an East Oakland McDonald's at the intersection of 98th and International. He says protestors marched down International and some spoke in front of the McDonald's before the protestors sat down in the intersection. Police were already there, ready to arrest, and charged Rothbaum and others with a misdemeanor. The protest and action was one of many across the country on Nov. 29 demanding that corporations raise pay for fast-food, airport, child care, and home care workers, among others.]

Let’s talk about blessings. In this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca dresses her son Jacob in a costume of his brother Esau. His job is to trick their father, the blind Isaac, into giving him Esau’s blessing.

It works. Isaac is tricked. Jacob steals the blessing.

And ever since that moment, men have learned Jacob’s lesson, dividing us from one another in order to steal blessings.

But what if we could tell Jacob, tell the swindlers and hoarders and conmen: there’s enough blessing for everyone.

What if we said — at long last, stop dividing us!

Stop dividing cities from the country, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.

Stop dividing Jew from Methodist from Muslim from Mexican from Minnesota from Mississippi, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.

Stop dividing the white from the brown from the black, when there’s enough blessing for everyone.

Stop dividing the working-class white from workers of color, when a living wage would be blessing for everyone.

Why would we succumb to these simplistic distinctions, the distractions, this limitation of the sacred? This disintegration of the divine?

We’re not blind, like Isaac. We can see that justice for one is justice for all.

A living wage for the poultry farm, the factory floor, the flight attendant, the fry cook, the father’s home-health aide, the airport worker.

Can we find the blessing of fair pay in the city and the country, the red state and the blue state, the frustrated and incarcerated, the fatigued and the disenfranchised?

We stand today to insist, to demand, to shout it and sing it and pray it and teach it. To you, and to the ages. The promise is real. Don’t pretend to be blind. We can see it, right before us. As plain as day. Enough blessing, now and at last. For everyone.

Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and lives with his husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, The Forward, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.

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You’re Not a Bad Person: How Facing Privilege Can Be Liberating

Nov25

by: on November 25th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

“Having wealth is unjustified, but the Rockefellers justify it by doing good. I had to cut through all this and understand that there is no rational justification for my family having the amount of money that it has, and that the only honest thing to say in defense of it is that we like having the money and the present social system allows us to keep it.” — Steven Rockefeller, 1983

There’s no way around it: facing our own privilege is uncomfortable. Just now, before completing this piece, I was talking to a friend who told me, in so many words: “I am ashamed of being a man, and I am ashamed of being white.” He is far from alone in this discomfort. Because we live within modern, capitalist cultures which are highly individualized, we often don’t see the structural dimension. Many of us then struggle to separate out privilege from attitude. In this context, having our privilege pointed out to us often sounds like we are being told we’re a bad person. This makes conversations about privilege highly charged and often ineffective.

After almost two years of facilitating Facing Privilege calls, I have come to believe that something better is possible. We can frame things in a way that shows the reality of structures of privilege and minimizes any unnecessary challenge.

It starts with recognizing and naming that since privilege is structural and not individual, it has nothing to do with goodness or badness. It’s plainly a factual reality about life. The key is to focus on two distinctions: systems as distinct from individuals, and having privilege as independent of choosing how to engage with it. Since both of these distinctions tend to be obscured, I have found that people often find relief in teasing apart these two aspects of privilege.

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