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What I Want to Hear from a Presidential Candidate


by: on October 30th, 2015 | 9 Comments »

I just finished reading the New York Times this morning (that was a big mistake!) and learned even more gruesome tales of the suffering on this planet. I read of people fleeing their homes and countries because of war and the trials and tribulations along the way. A 7 year-old child is running along in the muddy forests near the Macedonian-Serbian border, his boots caked in mud making it hard for him to lift his feet when he suddenly realizes his family is no longer behind him. He sits down beside a tree to wait. A man asks him what he’s doing and when he explains he tells him there are police all over the forest and he needs to keep going. So this 7 year-old boy runs on in a strange land in the hopes of reaching a safe haven without his family. Young girls fleeing sexual and physical violence in their home countries are subjected (on the road) to multiple rapes and sexual violence so sadistic that their youth caseworkers choose not to detail them in their reports.

In South Sudan a bloody civil war has led to countless deaths from torture too grim to repeat here. In Nigeria girls continue to be stolen from their schools and families by Boko Harem and sold into sex slavery. And in Saudia Arabia (an ally of the U.S.) a 17 year-old boy is awaiting a beheading and then crucifixion for joining in anti-government demonstrations.

This is all some of the news from one morning.

And what are the Republicans debating? How to cut more money from government services. How to decrease taxes on the rich and corporations. How to squeeze the poor and working classes so the elites have more riches for themselves while the masses suffer.

I am angry and horrified. We are living in a time in history when we have the resources for all human beings to live lives of sufficiency – sufficient food, sufficient shelter, sufficient healthcare, sufficient education. And yet we choose to produce and distribute our resources in ways that ensure wars, violence and suffering.

I want a presidential candidate with a backbone who has the audacity and insight to put forth a vision of a different world. Not a world divided by borders – physical, spiritual, religious, racial, gender, or other. But a world joined by our similarities and our unity where our differences are celebrated and honored. We live on one planet. We share the same water, the same air and the same genetics. I want a candidate who will speak to our shared humanity – not just of Americans, but of all of us. If the President is the leader of the free world, then she or he should stand for policies and values that actually promote a free world – a world where everyone is healthy, safe, cared for, fed, clothed, provided shelter, education, healthcare and an opportunity to have a meaningful life.


Helen Diller Family Foundation Seeks Young Applicants


by: Editor on October 22nd, 2015 | No Comments »

The Helen Diller Family Foundation is now accepting nominations for the 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a program that recognizes up to 15 Jewish teens annually with $36,000 each to be used in support of a social justice project or to further their education.  This Call for Nominations presents an opportunity for educators, civic leaders, and teen mentors in communities across the United States, to acknowledge Jewish teens whose thoughtful approach to making a difference is creating meaningful change in their communities and the world around them.

Up to five teens from California and ten from other communities nationwide will be acknowledged for demonstrating exceptional leadership and successfully working to make the world a better place. Anyone interested in nominating a teen, or any teen interested in self-nominating, should visit www.dillerteenawards.org to begin the nomination process. The deadline for nominations is December 13, 2015.

The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards began as the vision of Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller in 2007, as a way to recognize the next generation of socially committed leaders whose dedication to volunteerism exemplifies the spirit of tikkun olam, a central Jewish precept meaning to repair the world. In its nine-year history, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards has given more than $2.5 million to 70 teens from more than 20 U.S. communities.


What will happen to Cuba after normalization with the United States?


by: on October 14th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Cuban President Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced almost a year ago that we would begin the process of normalization of relations between the two countries, after more than 50 years of strained relationships including a U.S. embargo.

It is no surprise that experts can’t agree on what will happen. Diplomatic relations with Cuba will be unlike diplomatic relations with any other country. Cuba is unique and fascinating in many areas: geography, environment, history, politics, and culture. While there are daunting challenges ahead, I will focus this piece on strengths I gained awareness of during my first trip to Cuba in April 2015.

It’s ironic that so many Americans want to “visit Cuba now before a whole bunch of Americans go there and spoil it.” What really amuses me is that while I poke fun at the idea, that’s exactly what I did. I had been on several political delegations to other Latin American countries, especially the ones with revolutionary new constitutions that empower people and even nature: Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Many of my colleagues couldn’t believe I’d never been to Cuba, the country that has been independent of super-power domination for decades.

I used the term “Americans” above, but I want to switch to a term for people from the U.S.A. that differentiates us from the rest of the people living in this hemisphere. “Estadounidense” is the Spanish word, based on Estados Unidos. (I’ve often wondered if we should adopt an English-language word, “USers” for US people, since we have about 5% of the world’s population and use about 20% of the world’s resources.)

Among the people most afraid that “Americans will spoil Cuba” are … Canadians. They’ve been enjoying Cuba for years and many Canadians are not keen on the prospect of loads of estadounidenses descending on the island.

This leads me to the first item on my list of strengths likely to help Cuba remain Cuba, and not be overrun by the United States of America.

1. TOURISM IS NOT NEW. Cuba has hosted tourists for a long time, including Canadians, Europeans, and Latin Americans. Cuba has resorts, stunning nature, excellent beaches, and even golf courses, not to mention great music, and vintage cars from the 1950s. Cuba has learned from successes and mistakes in its tourism development during the past 25 years.

Billboard reads, "Socialist Revolution of the Humble, by the Humble, and for the Humble. "Humilde" also indicates "poor."

Translation: Socialist Revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble. ("Humilde" also means "poor.")

2. NEW FOREIGN INVESTMENT LAWS. In 2014 Cuba passed a new foreign investment law that gives tax breaks and more investment security to foreign-owned companies engaged in joint ventures with the Cuban state and between foreign and Cuban companies. The law does not permit foreign investment in health care and education, and that sounds like a valuable protection for Cubans.

3. THEY’VE SURVIVED. Cuba and Cubans have a long history of successfully surviving economic and military hostility aimed toward them by the greatest economic and military power the world has ever known – the U.S.A. – 90 miles from their shores.

4. LATIN AMERICA IS STRONGER NOW. The region is certainly stronger than it was in 1959 when the Castro government began, and even stronger than it was 20 years ago before Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela. The region is now so strong that both Bush and Obama went down to obtain the FTAA, a free trade agreement for all countries in the Americas, and both Bush and Obama came back empty-handed. (Meanwhile, U.S. activists are trying to “Flush the TPP” – a truly bad free trade agreement – and are struggling against formidable bipartisan support.) Cuba is well integrated into the rest of the Americas, and is not isolated in the world.

5. JOSÉ MARTÍ. He is the Cuban national hero whose statue is found in the town centers. Many people consider that the Cuban Revolution began with Martí in 1868, reached a new level in 1959, and continues to this day. Martí also authored poetry, political theory, revolutionary philosophy, and even writings for children, called The Golden Age. It seems all Cuban children and their parents, regardless of political ideology, are familiar with these readable teachings about history and science as well as formation of character and civic consciousness. What writings do most children in the United States have in common? The Bible? The Gettysburg Address?

6. STRONG FAMILY AND COMMUNITY ORIENTATION. This strength is tangible in Cuba, and it has helped Cubans survive during the “special period” after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, and during all the obstacles they’ve encountered in more than 50 years of the U.S. embargo.

7. CUBAN PRIDE. Cubans are very proud of being Cuban, and they are not eager to be changed into something else.

* * *

These are my thoughts and reactions regarding “What will happen next?” As indicated at the start, I believe it’s hard for anyone to be an expert on Cuba. Questions about Cuba lead to more questions, mysteries, complications, and contradictions. No wonder so many people – including the Miami-Cubans – want to go back again and again.

Justice for Mohammad Akhlaq


by: Sunita Viswanath on October 2nd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

On this auspicious day – Gandhi Jayanti (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) and International Day of Non-Violence – my colleagues and I at Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus are heartbroken to read the news that a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched and murdered by a Hindu mob in Northern India because it was rumored that he killed and cow and consumed the meat. News reports claim that a mob of Hindus wielding bricks, batons, and swords came to the man’s house to hunt him down, beat him to death and severely injure his son and mother.


Alison OK Frost Captures the Strange Absurdities of War and Discrimination


by: Oona Taper on October 1st, 2015 | Comments Off

Alison OK Frost creates delicate and disturbing watercolors. Her figures seem to be part of a post apocalyptic world even though they are all drawn from news articles. Stripped of context and background information they float eerily on the white page.

Her images use the delicate style of watercolors to express the brutal elements of modern society. She wants to illustrate this dynamic in her work: “A few years ago I took part in the occupy Oakland protest and one thing that was really striking was how beautiful tear gas is, especially at night. I want to use these clouds in a way that uses the visual language of beautiful landscape watercolors.”


She came to this series through an obsession with the images themselves. She explains that her earlier work was quite different. She made oil paintings influenced by scenes from religious paintings. She says she took “scenes from particle paintings that featured the virgin mary and then juxtaposed them with my own life. ” Once she finished this series she didn’t know what to do with her art. She says she floundered for a few years. In this time she collected images without a specific project in mind. She collected images that she describes as ” a little uneasy, almost humorous. Taken out of context you could look at them and say, ‘oh this is a science fiction movie about a post apocalyptic future;’ but the weren’t, they were just news stories from today.” When she began painting these images in watercolor she says “something clicked.” She instantaneously knew that was the direction in which she wanted to take her art.

Collecting images remained integral to the process. She sees herself as a “visual data organizer,” and her sketchbook as a “visual database.” Her sketchbook has few sketches; instead she makes collections of images to prepare for paintings. The sketchbook consists of pages of related images in which she is interested- she has pages dedicated to sinkholes, for instance. Other pages combine images from distinct sources; she has a page with refuges and marching bands. She says, “I have been working on combining different kinds of parades. I am figuring out how to combine those visually and what that means in terms of masses of people and how they congregate.”

In her newest work she is interested in dissecting what it means to juxtapose images that are visually similar but quite different thematically. “I have been collecting images of tidal waves and kids playing in hydrants and with images from the civil rights movement – a big way that black protesters in the 60s were dehumanized was by spraying them with fire hoses. But all of those images, when you break those down to basic visual information, are nearly identical. At a glance you wouldn’t know, are these people playing? Are these people running from nature? Are they running from other people who don’t see them as human?”


A Note for the New Year


by: on September 22nd, 2015 | Comments Off

This new year, we enter Yom Kippur amidst a period of great divisiveness about a large number of social issues. The lines polarizing the greater community seem more severely drawn, and clear expressions of what in the past would have been immediately labeled as hate speech have become a commonplace even within the presidential election process. Perhaps, this year, contemplating these matters is a necessary theme for the high holy day period.

In antiquity, and preserved within our textual rites, the central moment of the Yom Kippur experience was the set of sacrifices that the High Priest brought at the Temple in Jerusalem, as an act of healing for the people, its leadership, and its priesthood. Noteworthy about the rite on Yom Kippur as opposed to the sacrificial rite of the rest of the year was that the High Priest performed this rite in simple white clothing rather than the usual gold embroidered uniform (the bigdei lavan vs the bigdei zahav). Many reasons have been given for this, but one resonated with me for this year.

The Kedushat Levi explains that on Yom Kippur, the ritual is performed in white symbolizing white light, white light being made up of the full spectrum of colors, as is seen when white light is refracted through a prism. He explains that on Yom Kippur, all the different forms of spiritual efflux come together into a unified whole, rising above their usual differentiation in the material worlds.

Yom Kippur is marked by the practice of withdrawal, for a full day, from eating, drinking, sexual intimacy, high end (leather) shoes, and tending to appearances (washing). As we have written, this is not meant as punishment, but as a practice of reaching beyond. Our deeper selves are given a chance to reach beyond our limited mundane desires and primitive unmediated appetites.

This year, perhaps more than in years past, as we contemplate the spiritual process of Yom Kippur as ritually signified by white rainment, white clothing, the special white Torah ark covers used for these days, we should meditate upon the true nature of white light, a light made up of all the possible colors of the spectrum. All the colors of the spectrum, as a praxis, means we need to overcome all obstructions that hinder our vision from attaining the highest light, recognize the unity of all mankind, consciously transcend all the seeming limitations of politics, nationalisms, race, faith, and gender that keep us apart. Let us in our Yom Kippur experience learn to transcend hate.


The Dyett Hunger Strike for Education Justice in Chicago


by: Rethinking Schools on September 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The hunger strike in Chicago by parents and their allies at Dyett High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood has passed Day 31.

Despite the recent announcement from Chicago Public Schools officials that Dyett will reopen as a school with a focus on the arts, parent and community hunger strikers there have vowed to continue the strike until the school district agrees to their demands. “I will continue to be on this hunger strike until we get the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology school,” said Irene Robinson. “This is not right.”

The hunger strike at Dyett is not an isolated incident of disgruntled parents and community members; it is part of a grassroots movement to challenge corporate school reform, which evaluates and punishes students, teachers, and schools based on standardized test scores. The efforts of Dyett parents and grandparents in Bronzeville are joined with other acts of defiance throughout the country: parents withholding their students from standardized tests, teachers burning their evaluations and refusing to administer tests that they deem harmful, students walking out of school to protest the test and punish regime, communities fighting against the privatization of their public schools.

The hunger strikers in Chicago join with other courageous hunger strikers throughout the world who have sought to dramatize injustice through self-sacrifice.

The Dyett hunger strikers led a silent march to President Obama's Chicago home followed by a vigil. Credit: Bob Simpson

What makes this struggle especially inspiring is that not only is the community opposing unjust treatment, it is working to effect an alternative that is the product of grassroots deliberations about the kind of school and the kind of education their community’s children deserve. We also note that at a time when the world urgently needs to abandon the use of fossil fuels, the revitalization of Dyett school that parents and the community is fighting for includes a commitment to green technology.

This struggle is about much more than the 12 parents and community leaders in Bronzeville. It is about the kind of schools we want our children to attend. And it is a fight for democracy: that the future of public education should be in the hands of the public – not controlled by wealthy corporations and their foundations.

The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett offers the following open letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:


Thank God I’m an Agnostic


by: Ron Hirschbein on September 8th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

“A woman comes up and she says to me: ‘I’m Jewish. I’m not going to accept Jesus as my savior. Am I going to hell?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me . . . I am the way.’ I’m betting my life that He was telling the truth. Now see what I did? I took it off of me, and making me the authority.”

- Pastor Rick Warren

There’s hell to pay if you’re not just like the fundamentalists – be they theists or anti-theists. It’s either hell in the life to come, or apocalypse now – no doubt about it in the fundamentalists’ doubt-free world. They’re dangerous and influential. Warren delivered the invocation at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The president provided a forum and legitimacy to a zealot who damned Jews – and most everyone else – to hell. Would Obama have invited a jihadist condoning eternal torment of Jews and other nonbelievers? Warren’s gospel resonates: He sold 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life.

The gospel, according to militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, resonates with a different clientele: His God is Not Great (an obvious slap at Islam) is also a bestseller. (Full disclosure: I’m envious; these book sales surpass mine.) Hitchens’ intemperate hatred of religion – especially Islam – won friends and influenced people in intellectual and policymaking circles. Post-9/11, he broke with former Leftist allies, and joined his newfound friend Paul Wolfowitz in championing the Iraq War – hell in the here and now.

christopher hitchens speaks for crowd

Credit: Wikimedia

Attacking Warren knocks down a straw man – at least for readers of this blog. I suspect readers find intellectual anti-theists such as Hitchens (and his cohorts such as Dawkins and Harris) more engaging. But let’s briefly give the devil’s enemy his due. Warren denies personal responsibility (“It took it off me”) for condemning those unlike him to hell – the most sadistic invention of the human imagination. Shouldn’t Christians (like the rest of us) take responsibility for their words? The pastor’s moral holiday echoes a familiar refrain: “I’m not responsible for killing those civilians; God made me do it.” What would he say about an earthly father who throws his child into a blast furnace for whatever reason? Warren wouldn’t be to blame, of course; “It took it off me.” No condemnation? Why worship – rather than condemn – a heavenly Father who tortures most of His creation for all eternity? And the pastor should take care about that bet: Perhaps God has a special circle in hell for those who treat Him like a Vegas wager. Like all fundamentalists, Warren has too many answers and too few questions. If only Warren and his unforgiving, sadistic God had a more Christian attitude!


Stop Telling Me It’s Impossible


by: on September 8th, 2015 | 6 Comments »

Stop telling me it’s impossible . . .

We’ve put men on the moon,

We’ve counted the stars, planets and galaxies,

We’ve built weapons of mass destruction . . .

If we can compete to get into space,

If we can compete to produce more goods that anyone needs,

If we can compete to create the best weapons,

Then we can feed everyone on this planet healthy food that nourishes people and the planet.

Instead of competing to create the next best phone, car, or weapon, why don’t we compete to wipe out starvation and hunger?

If we can win the race to the moon, why don’t we win the race to stop the production of weapons and create peace?

If we can create a house that can self-adjust its temperature, why can’t we create enough homes so everyone has a safe place to live?

If we can build towers that span the sky, why are people living on the streets?

If we stopped caring so much about winning the “race” and cared more about caring for others and the planet, we would solve our world’s greatest problems.

So stop telling me we can’t and it’s impossible and let’s get down to the business of taking care of each other and the planet. Then we will all win.



The Power of an Image


by: on September 4th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

A picture is worth a thousand words, even more so in the digital age than ever before. My experience has been that images are amazing things, with the power to anger, comfort or heal. They have the power to change opinion, to reflect harsh realities. And the last two days have been fraught with all the baggage that comes from one tiny image with a huge message. You know the one I’m talking about, of course. Who hasn’t seen the image of little Aylan’s still body on the beach? Who hasn’t been moved by the thought of a little boy drowning for the mistakes of his countrymen? I know I have. Yesterday while driving on the highway to pick up my kids from school, I listened to NPR’s account of refugees like Aylan’s family and their dangerous trek through Hungary, and I burst into tears. I had to navigate to the side of the road to calm down before I caused an accident. Why? Because it could be me, it could be my child’s drowned body, it could be any of us.