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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Jesus’s Message? It’s Tikkun Olam!

Oct12

by: Jim Vrettos on October 12th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor —- a new book by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, reviewed by Jim Vrettos

The Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Forward Together Moral Movement and Repairers of the Breach Movement often refers in his sermons to “standing at the gap and speaking a truth that has a moral focus — not merely a democratic version, a republican, or a liberal version, but a moral focus of what our government ought to be.“   As he puts it, “it’s time for people of faith to come out of the sanctuary and preach in the public square”. .. it’s time to uphold  higher ground moral values, preaching as King did, that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Increasingly, major voices on the progressive left have directed their attention toward taking these spiritual values seriously, advocating their use in their academic and political critiques.

Michelle Alexander, for example, author of the award winning The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2014) works to spread awareness about the crisis of mass incarceration Americans into a full-scale movement that embraces the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.  To win the battle against mass incarceration, Alexander insists that people of faith must wake up to the realities of systemic racism in our country, but also “need to be willing to tell this truth in our churches and places of worship.”

Raising consciousness won’t be enough, Alexander argues.  “We’re going to have to be willing to get to work,”…”and in my view that means being willing to build an underground railroad for people released from prison— an underground railroad for people who are trying to make a genuine break for real freedom… opening our homes, opening our hearts, opening our places of worship, opening our schools to people returning from prison who need help finding work, getting an education, finding housing, perhaps even getting access to food.”

The psychiatrist James Gilligan, in his more than thirty years of work with the most violent of our citizens in our prison systems, has called for an end to punishment in the prisons and establishment of therapeutic training hospitals in its place for violent inmates –almost all of whom have suffered unimaginable abuse, humiliation, shame and disrespect that that has left them as essentially “dead souls,” devoid of deep feelings of spiritual self-esteem and love.

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Feud Resolution or Escalation

Oct8

by: Edwin Black on October 8th, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the fifth in a series. Click here for part one, part two, part three, or part four.

At about 5 AM on September 20, 2017, before the sun rose over the Boston skyline, Gilad Skolnick tumbled out of bed. He hadn’t slept much the night before—the sheer excitement of starting a major new phase of his life weighed on his mind. He dressed and then, as usual, stopped at the gym as the first order of business. By 8:30 AM, Skolnick had tucked his white shirt into his khaki pants, emerged from the gym filled with anticipation, and made his way to 70 Saint Stephen Street—Northeastern University Hillel [NEU Hillel].

Before he arrived that day to assume his post as the newly hired executive director, Skolnick knew that NEU Hillel had started a firestorm in the Jewish and campus community. The 33-year-old former director of campus programming at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the pro-Israel media watchdog group known as CAMERA, was accustomed to controversy. But this was something beyond that.

Weeks earlier, NEU Hillel had gained national media and collegiate attention as the local chapter that had vociferously rebelled against Hillel International over what NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman termed “an inquisition” of interference, retaliation, threats, and strong-arm tactics. Goldman loudly blamed Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut and his senior staff. Fingerhut and other Hillel International personalities have either denied, or refused to answer various allegations.

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Accusations of Intimidation in Boston

Oct1

by: Edwin Black on October 1st, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the fourth in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When one speaks to Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, one hears a quiet voice speaking carefully and thoughtfully. Managing thousands of interconnected programs at more than 500 independent local Hillels, walking a tightrope between a spectrum of Jewish political and religious persuasions – all vying for primacy at the nation’s Jewish campus outposts, Fingerhut is accustomed to organizational tension and finding middle ground.

But when he had to answer open allegations that he and Hillel International were engaged in strong-arm tactics to dominate and control independent Hillels and their boards, it struck him deeply. The accusations included bullying, intimidation, threats of defamation suits, interference, whisper campaigns, and retaliation against critics that could include punishing innocent staffers.

Moreover, the charges were not whispered among a few disgruntled local Hillel personalities or partner organizations. They were being broadcast to hundreds of local Hillel directors, officials and their boards in open letters and emails calling for the removal of Fingerhut, demanding a cessation of what was termed “intimidation tactics.” The continuing J’Accuse comes from Sheldon Goldman, board chairman of the local Hillel at Northeastern Campus (NEU) in Boston.

Goldman says he has witnessed for more than a year what he called an administrative “inquisition” undermining NEU Hillel operations and staff.

After months of disagreement between NEU Hillel and Hillel International, things came to a head in December 2016. A dedicated NEU Hillel staffer was notified she would be receiving a prestigious Hillel International award for excellence at the Hillel International General Assembly in Orlando. But then the award was mysteriously withdrawn. After numerous protests, the award was ultimately bestowed upon her last March in Washington D.C. at the AIPAC Policy Conference. But that incident last December 2016 became the back-breaking straw that resulted in the chapter’s well-regarded director, Arinne Braverman, to resign on the spot in Orlando.

When Goldman tried to replace Braverman with a carefully-curated Israeli Hillel staffer, Hillel International only deepened the chasm between them, reminding Goldman that he could not hire a replacement without Eric Fingerhut’s personal involvement and approval, per a pre-existing procedure.

In a series of widely-distributed emails and letters, Goldman denounced Hillel International and Fingerhut for “fear-based tactics.” One such email decried, “Eric Fingerhut’s attempts to discredit me within the Boston community … and his threats of a defamation suit against me. These actions,” the missive continued, “shed further light on his character and are reasons why I believe he must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

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​Learning from the Story of Jonah

Sep29

by: Rabbi Michael Pollack on September 29th, 2017 | No Comments »

In the Biblical worldview, our world has a moral compass and our history is intimately linked to our actions. Our collective crimes and injustices result in our pain and suffering, and our ancestors called this divine judgment and divine wrath. In the words of the enlightenment philosopher Hegel, “World history is world judgement.” The Bible is a series of historical atrocities interpreted by our ancestors as divine judgement for our collective moral and ethical failures. Our ancestors’ crimes usually included materialist idolatry and injustice, corruption, violence, and war, and an atmosphere of mistrust and spite. And our weakened society too often turned against itself in civil war, or was unable to fend off invaders like the Assyrians or the Babylonians.

And then tucked away near the end of the Bible, written a few generations after we returned from the horrors of the Babylonian exile, is the Book of Jonah, the book we read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is one of the few inspiring stories in the Bible where God becomes angry at a group of people not led by Moses, and then nobody dies. In Nineveh, where the collective violence and suffering were so great, there was no divine wrath. It stands out in the Bible as a story of when world history is not world judgement, but world mercy. So, it is worth mentioning that the Book of Jonah is a work of fiction, but I assume you already know that because of the scene when Jonah is living in a whale’s stomach.

Jonah is a person who knows that he needs to go to Nineveh, the corrupt and violent capital city of the big empire, and urge them to repent and change their behavior or else history will judge and be wrathful. Jonah then does everything he can to avoid this responsibility. He runs away in the opposite direction, he hides, he just wants to disappear and forget it all. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Jonah is running to Tarshish, while Nineveh is tottering on the brink… What is the use of running to Tarshish when the call is to go to Nineveh?”

But who here can’t sympathize with Jonah? Who wants to go and speak truth to power? It is much easier to hide and run away. A whale’s stomach seems much nicer and safer than going to the capital and urging repentance so that in this moment in history, mercy might just overrule judgement.

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“Complicated” isn’t good enough. It’s time for the Conservative movement to address the occupation.

Sep29

by: Naomi Heisler on September 29th, 2017 | No Comments »

When I spent the winter of 2009 with my Solomon Schechter Westchester classmates on a two month-long trip to Israel and Poland, we were told to keep a journal that would chronicle our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and would serve as a reminder of our trip and of what we were “fighting for.” This journal would remind us of our tears at Auschwitz, our delight at floating in the Dead Sea, and of squeezing our own letters into a sea of other hopes and prayers at the Western Wall. After our trip, we participated in a seminar led by the David Project, a right-wing Israel advocacy organization that armed us with talking points for defending Israel on our college campuses. The message was loud and clear: the state of Israel would shield us from the unspeakable horrors of another Holocaust, and yet it was under attack. Our role as newly-formed adults was to defend Israel against “delegitimization,” against the scourge of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, against professors who would only teach “one side,” and against our non-Jewish classmates.

I recently came across my old journal, and in between florid descriptions of hikes and play-by-play analyses of each interaction that my crush and I had were the seeds of uncertainty. How did the state of Israel play into my identity as an American Jew? What did it mean to advocate for Israel both inside and outside the bounds of The David Project? And how could I reconcile the way that Schechter took us to the site of the King David Hotel bombing and took us to meet with members of the settlement of Efrat, with Israel we were told was purely peace-seeking country? Was Schechter the school that mentored me as I co-founded the school’s first Young Democrats Club, and asked us to contribute dozens of service hours to our communities each year, or was it the school that couched decades of brutal occupation in the word “complicated,” limiting our role only to unquestioning defenders of Israel?

I grew up within the Conservative movement. I attended Ramah as a child, attended a Conservative shul every week, and spent my weekends as an active member of Hanefesh, my local USY region. My mother grew up within the movement as well, and my grandfather was a Conservative rabbi who served on the Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards. It was my parents who signed my tuition checks, who drove me up to USY conventions in the far reaches of Connecticut, and who walked with me to shul everySaturdaymorning. I did not shop schools or shuls, or decide how observant I would or would not be. As a teenager, I did not choose to be a member of the Conservative movement, though as an adult, I get to choose if I will stay. The teachings and institutions of the Conservative movement helped guide me during adolescence, but also taught me the steep price of dissent. Now, as an adult looking for meaningful Jewish life, but frustrated by the movement’s red lines around Israel-Palestine, I do not know whether or not I belong in this movement.

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Our Own Crimes Are Worse than Those of Our Ancestors: Yes, Slavery Was Bad, But Did You Know You Just Killed 32 Million Muslims?

Sep27

by: Kevin Barrett on September 27th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

René Girard devoted most of his life to exploring one of the darkest secrets of human nature: scapegoating. It seems we have a pervasive tendency to offload our own evil (and the guilt and shame that accompanies it) onto the Other.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories we tell about history. Every community tends to downplay its own crimes and exaggerate those of its enemies. To take one example: My Armenian friends have described what happened to their community during World War I as a holocaust of millions of innocent civilians who were killed for absolutely no reason other than vicious Turkish bigotry. But during my month-long speaking tour of Turkey in 2010, I learned that many Turkish intellectuals held a different view. They argued that Turkey was invaded by Russia, that Armenian communities helped the Russian invaders mass-murder Turkish civilians (triggering admittedly horrific reprisals), that the Armenian version of the genocide is exaggerated, and that all the civilian victims of World War I war crimes, including Turks and Armenians, were victims of the insanity of war, not the evil of one particular community.

These same Turkish intellectuals also argued that far more Muslims were murdered in the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans during the years before World War I than Armenian Christians were killed during the war. (We have all heard of the Armenian genocide, but few Americans know about the ethnic cleansings of Muslims from the Balkans.)

Along with telling self-serving war stories, we sometimes offload historical guilt by blaming our benighted ancestors for evils that we, their modern enlightened descendants, no longer commit. The current hullaballoo over slavery is a prime example. By scorning “evil slaveholding Confederates” or “evil slaveholding Founding Fathers” we deem ourselves their moral superiors. But what if we are committing worse crimes without even knowing it?

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Hillel at the Crossroads: NEU Hillel Protests “Fear-Based Tactics”

Sep24

by: Edwin Black on September 24th, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the third in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Sheldon Goldman was hesitant and uncertain about what to do next.

As board chairman of the Northeastern University (NEU) Hillel, Goldman had witnessed what he termed an administrative “inquisition” by Hillel International against his chapter, programs and staff. The chargeswere denied by Hillel International. But Goldmanhad reached his limit.

Goldman had come to the NEU chapter years ago, as a parent of a daughter at the school. He haddonated$36,000 per yearinpersonal funds and had led fundraising drives to buttress the NEU chapter’s programs, its physicalbuildingand its future sustainability.

In a January 14, 2017, letter to Hillel International board chair Tina Price, Goldman recited the following accomplishments:”We received an offer from the Northeastern University to become a University affiliate–with the University offering to fund the annual organizational budget. We have built bridges with University departments, faculty and student groups and organized successful campaigns to defeat BDS resolutions … three timesin two years. We neutralized the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] organization that was creating an environment of harassment and intimidation for Jewish students.”

Still, NEU Hillel’s relations withHillel Internationalhad been raw for a long time, says Goldman. Matters came to a climax after NEU Hillel’s Israel Fellow,who was slated to receive aprestigious award at theHillel International General Assembly held in Orlando, Florida, in December 2016, saw the honor mysteriously withdrawn, according to Goldman. While still at the Orlando assembly, NEU Hillel executive director Arinne Braverman decided to resign over what she called “politics.”

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Hillel at the Crossroads: How Things Broke Down in Boston

Sep17

by: Edwin Black on September 17th, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the second in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Northeastern University Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman is incensed at the treatment that his Hillel chapter has received at the hands of Hillel International, and he lays the blame squarely on the organization’s CEO — Eric Fingerhut.

In an August 18, 2017, email, Goldman insisted that Fingerhut “must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough, as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

In a recent interview on the subject, Goldman invoked Isaac Newton, who famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, continued Goldman, “Hillel International is not looking for giants. Instead, [CEO] Eric Fingerhut is looking for pygmies.”

Goldman has emerged as the nation’s single most vocal and antagonistic critic of Hillel International and Fingerhut. As such, Goldman is now focusing attention on the sometimes-contentious relationship between Hillel International and some of its 550 local affiliates, most of which are independently-incorporated foundations.

What are Hillel International’s rights and duties — and limits — when it comes to improving Jewish campus life? This question may well be decided at Northeastern University (NEU).

The troubles between NEU Hillel and Hillel International go back years, and cover a gamut of disputes — from conflicts over the kosher kitchen, to problems with NEU’s building, to interpersonal friction. The incidents also include NEU Hillel’s 2016 purge of student leaders whom the local board thought were disruptive and bullying other Jewish students — only to find that International was not supportive of that effort.

But things took a decidedly toxic turn late last year, when — according to Goldman — a beloved Israel Fellow at NEU Hillel was denied the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award.

Boundary Crossers: New Book Explores Jewish Spiritual Leaders in Non-Jewish Religions

Sep15

by: Matthew Gindin on September 15th, 2017 | No Comments »

When a Quaker becomes a Buddhist lama, or a Hindu becomes a Muslim Imam, the story is clearly one of conversion. When a Jew becomes a Wiccan priestess or a Catholic monk, the story is not so cut and dry. The nearly unique nature of Jewish identity-nearly, but not entirely, consider what happens if a Cherokee woman becomes a Buddhist nun- raises questions.

According to general views and to the Jewish tradition itself, the person remains a Jew. According to the Jewish religion, they remain bound by Jewish religious law and are simply in violation of it when they, say, leave an offering for the Great God Pan or eat a roast Ham at a Church dinner.

This unique set of cultural truths sets the backdrop for Allan Levin’s recent book Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. In this diverse book, which manages admirably to combine probing intelligence with a lack of judgmentalism, Levin interviews sixteen Jews who are leaders in other spiritual traditions. Levin himself grew up a non-religious Jew who became active in the radical left and then seriously pursued personal enlightenment, first with a neo-tantric community and then with First Nations spirituality, before returning to find meaning again in his Jewish identity and traditional Jewish values (although not Orthodox ones in his case).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It is a path trodden by many Jews after the Holocaust and the ascendancy of modernist, conformist Judaism left younger Jews without spiritual leadership or an alternative Jewish culture willing to be an escape from the cultural-political mainstream.

What sets Levin apart is his quest to follow up on the trajectories of his contemporaries who have settled in other religious traditionsHis list includes heavyweights like Krishna Das (the most popular yogic chant master alive, a ubiquitous presence in Yoga classes from Berkeley to Kensington Market); Sharon Salzberg (a founding teacher in the American Vipassana/Mindfulness movement); Starhawk (perhaps the most important crafter of feminist/politically engaged neo-paganism) and Ken Cohen (modern master of Chinese spirituality and Qigong who has had an outsize influence on western Daoism). Aside from those luminaries Levin also interviews a Catholic Priest, a Vedantic Nondualist, a Sufi, a Sikh, a Medicine Man, and others.

The fascinating roster Levin has gathered only brings to mind all the other names he could have included: Bhikkhu Bodhi (founder of Buddhist Global Relief and a leading English language scholar of Theravadin Buddhism), Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeild and John Kabat-Zinn (all pioneers in the Buddhist- inspired Mindfulness movement) and Norman Fischer (former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and leading interpreter of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West), or Jewish Buddhist teacher Jay Michaelson (a frequent contributor to the Forward), for example, and the list goes on and on. 

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Who’s Responsible for Hillel?

Sep10

by: Edwin Black on September 10th, 2017 | 10 Comments »

This article is the first in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut stands at the window of his curved corner office at the organization’s Washington, DC headquarters, he looks down on a streetscape dominated by Chinatown and its Friendship Arch. But Fingerhut’s domain extends far beyond anything the eye can see — to the four corners of North America, and beyond.

With 550 North American campus affiliates and 56 affiliates overseas, Hillel International is arguably one of America’s largest and most far-reaching Jewish organizations, dwarfing a combination of other major Jewish groups.

From its humble roots in 1920 at Texas A&M University, and then its formal creation in 1923 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Hillel has risen to become the tip of the spear in the battle for Jewry’s future. That battle is now being waged at the frontline of the conflagration — the college campus, where the fractal of antisemitism and anti-Zionism morphs daily.

The name Hillel stands for one thing: the next generation. Yet, the organization, which sports a $126.4 million-dollar budget and is staffed by approximately 1,000 employees, is greatly misunderstood.

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