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  • Do Good: NFTY, Hollywood and Social Media

    Posted on January 23rd, 2013 Special Contributor No comments
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    Last week was Josh Malina’s birthday. The Hollywood star of the West Wing and Scandal decided to ask his fans and social media to celebrate with him by giving a donation to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

    But it has gotten much bigger than that. Whereas Malina’s first hope was to raise $5,000, they’re now at $12,313. This illustrates the power of asking for small contributions from lots of people – they are able to illustrate support for someone whose work they appreciate, understanding that this person adds value to their lives, and they’re able to improve the lives of others as a tribute. This is wonderful.

    Secondly, what the Causes page doesn’t reflect is something else that happened on Twitter. NFTY (The National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group for Reform Judaism) made Malina an offer:

    @NFTY@JoshMalina We’ll match your @causes campaign for@StopHunger up to $10,000 if you’ll join us in LA to pick up the check.#NFTYConvention

    Malina’s response:

    @JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!

    Author: Esther D. Kustanowitz

    It’s not a surprise that this happened via social media organizing – Twitter has emerged for so many celebrities as just another PR engine, feeding the American hunger for information about the minutiae of celebrity existence and creating a perception of insiderness for pop culture consumers. But Malina gets it in a way that not all actors do – he shares authentic insights of intelligence and humor in a way that shows you it’s not his PR team doing the tweeting. (Or if it is, WOW. Great job.) On Facebook, he uses that medium to expand on the cleverness and to interact with people in the comments. Malina’s using social media to actually reach people. And that’s why a campaign like this is working – because he writes from a place of authenticity and value. People relate to that, and trust him for it.

    So this is how the world of fundraising can work today. Someone authentic with a large network (and loyal followers who relate to and feel connected to him) identifies a cause they’re passionate about, and a reason to ask people donate, and sets a decent, but modest goal. This person is not a celebrity spokesperson – this cause was their idea, emerged from their understanding of a need and their trust in a particular organization to achieve that need. People respond as generously as they want to, helping that person reach the goal and go beyond. Other people or organizations see the movement and are inspired, putting their own money up to match the cause.

    Now, because a celebrity is involved, NFTY realized it was an opportunity to do good, but also an opportunity for their organization, whether it is greater visibility for their programs or enhanced inspiration for their participants. Neither one of those is a bad thing. Although one could look at this as celebrity blackmail – we’ll give you a check, but you have to make a personal appearance to pick it up – the whole concept of a matching gift itself issues a challenge not unlike blackmail – we will do this, if you do that.

    In any case, Malina seems happy to submit to this specific kind of blackmail, which I described to someone else as “the good, mitzvah-laden kind of blackmail.” Being “ultimatum’d” into a public appearance in order to fight hunger isn’t the worst thing in the world. And maybe that’s the lesson – that when you’re passionate about a cause, you do what you need to do to get it done.

    Best of luck to Mr. Malina, wishing him much success, many happy returns of the day, and much nachas from the success of this campaign. (And in the 20 minutes it took me to write this post, donations have shot up – the total is now $13,597 and growing. Why not add a few bucks of your own to this cause? Donate here.)

     

    This week’s post was originally posted on My Urban Kvetch and was written by Esther D. Kustanowitz a Los Angeles-based writer, consultant and Jewish communal professional, who is also Program Coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a well known blogger.

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  • The Changing Face of America: Love Thy Neighbor

    Posted on November 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Since the 1980s, more than 6,000 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, and nearly half have settled in Concord. Concord, New Hampshire is a fairly sleepy New England town, despite being the capital of the Granite State. Still Concord is an unusual place, and the town I have called home for the past two plus years. Temple Beth Jacob, 107 years old, boasts a membership of 210 families and plays an active and visible role in this increasingly diverse community.

    Rally Against Racism in Concord, New Hampshire

    One of Concord’s “golden boys” is new American Guor Marial. Guar escaped a Sudanese child labor camp, graduated from Concord High School, and this past summer ran in the Olympics under the Olympic flag. Guor is not yet a U.S. citizen, and holds no passport or official home. Concord High School’s assistant principal has regaled me with Guor stories. Guor is remembered for being as kind and caring as he is fast on his feet.
    Refugees have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution (physical violence, harassment and wrongful arrest, or threats to their lives) for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive.
    In the 1990s, the majority of refugees came from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Sudan. As they moved into the town, the mayor sought to celebrate the increasing diversity of the community, despite the fact that certain segments of the community were bemoaning the changes. The Mayor’s Task Force on Racism and Intolerance established an annual mayor’s prayer breakfast to welcome our new residents and express gratitude to the many agencies and volunteers who work with the refugee populations.

    Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Author: Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Between 2000 and 2007, the refugees came mostly from Bosnia and the Sudan, along with Croatia, Burundi, Liberia, and Somalia. In addition, refugees who identify as Meskhetian Turks settled here. Since 2008, the overwhelming majority of refugees have come from Bhutan and Iraq.
    Northern New England is often characterized as lily white and Protestant. One of the many beauties of Concord, and especially south Concord where I live and where our synagogue is located, is the diversity of the residents. All races and religions live side by side, overwhelmingly in harmony. Sadly, however, there have been incidents involving racist and/or religiously intolerant graffiti. Most of it has been directed at Concord’s Somalian Muslims, whom our community has embraced as our New American Africans.

    In October of 2011, two new American African families awoke to find their homes vandalized with words of intolerance. Immediately, the interfaith community led the response. On a Thursday afternoon and a Saturday morning, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council (in which our synagogue is actively involved) sponsored “Love Your Neighbor” rallies. The Saturday rally was at the local playground in the neighborhood where many of the refugees live.

    The first rally was held on a Thursday so as not to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. It occurred on the lawn outside the Statehouse. Speakers of diverse backgrounds (including one of our members, originally from Bogota, Columbia) spoke about the beauty that is Concord – in both who we are and how we care for each other. Cantor Shira Nafshi, my partner both professionally and personally, sang an original composition, Power of One, the chorus of which goes: “Get up, get down, get onto your feet; use your voice your hands be the words on the street; don’t just say it be it do it; l’takein et ha-olam, fixing the world starts today, with the power of one.” The song moved the mayor so deeply that he invited Shira to sing it at the 2011 prayer breakfast the following month.

    A local printer provided “Love Your Neighbor” signs, many of which still grace windows and doors throughout the town, over a year later. This isn’t a surprise, for loving your neighbor is the sentiment that defines this town.

    Most of my adult life I lived in San Francisco, New York City, or northern New Jersey, all places far more diverse than Concord, New Hampshire. And yet, there are times that Concord feels like more of a mixed salad than any of those other places.

    The author, Rabbi Robin Nafshi is the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.

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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.”  I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term.  I expected to find a long list of sources.  I found three hits.  I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.”  So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations.  No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature.  And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement.  So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

    If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!?  No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.

    Rav Hisda:  A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”

    Shmuel said:  A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”

    Rav Sheshet said:  A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)

    This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema.  I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema.  But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation.  Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

    When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?”  He told me it was.  I must admit, I was flabbergasted.  We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts.  I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.”  To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”

    The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly.  Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).  Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).

    In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:

    Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief].  On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief].  Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge.  After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief].  What is meant by “raising a wail”?  When all sing in unison.  What is meant by a dirge?  When one leads and all respond after her.  As it is said:  And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19).  But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says:  “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.  (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)

    So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all.  I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it.  “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”

     

    This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD.,  is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.

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  • Choose Love Over Hate

    Posted on October 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Having grown up in the segregated American South with its “no Jews, no Negroes” (and sometimes adding “no dogs,”) public signage,  it was a relatively easy call for me to make about where I should be standing when anti-Muslim paid advertising began appearing in the Washington DC Metro System.    These ads (which have appeared in NY and apparently are coming next to Portland, Oregon) read: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The image includes a Star of David on either side of the phrases which imply that Muslims and the enemies of Israel are savages. 

     

    Having also just completed reading the week’s Torah portion from Genesis reminding us that all human beings are created in God’s image, and fearing that the hate-mongers behind these ads might associate Jews and Israel with their bigotry, I felt I had no choice but to stand physically next to the ads and promote a different message.  I am proud to say thatRabbis for Human Rights-North America (of which I was the founding Chairperson) has responded vigorously with a profoundly different message, one which has been placed in public places near these disgusting posters.  The RHR-NA poster reads “In the choice between love and hate CHOOSE LOVE – Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”  I stood next to the Metro ad holding a copy of the RHR-NA poster, which has not yet made it to the Metro stops in DC.  This also provided me with a challenging opportunity for Rabbinic service in a unique way as I interacted with passersby, fulfilling the mitzvah ofKiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name publicly) in the meaning of that obligation as described in the Talmud.

    Rabbi Gerald serotta

    Author: Rabbi Gerald Serotta

    We all presumably know that “savage” is a loaded, stereotypical, and denigrating term that was once used to describe African American, Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups as mentally inferior and culturally primitive with animal-like attributes.  It reeks of bigotry which has been directed at religious minorities in this country including Jews and Catholics.  The implication that Israel is confronted by “savages” has a provenance and a perspective that is inimical to any amelioration of the tragic conflicts that prevent a peaceful resolution for the beleaguered State of Israel.  The misuse of the word “Jihad,” by its linkage with savagery as a summary description of a rich culture virtually all of whose billions of adherents oppose violent extremism, is no more appropriate than the misuse of the word Zionism to signify racism.

    The ad not only demeans Islam and links Jewish symbols and Israel to bigotry, but also abuses our American freedom of speech in order to stir hatred of peace loving fellow Americans.  I am proud to associate myself with remarks delivered at a press conference in DC on October 15 by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Jewish Community Relations Council’s Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives and President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington: “The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim, ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech.  We are all part of one community.  The Muslim community is part of our wider community and our neighbors.  We live in the same neighborhoods, send our kids to the same schools, and volunteer in the same homeless shelters.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation, Chevy Chase, MD and Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders.

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  • Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

    Posted on October 3rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week’s post comes from Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who writes on an issue we cannot afford to ignore. -editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    An 11-year-old girl in five-point shackles is escorted into a courtroom. Her crime? She was caught in the back of a van with a 43-year-old man who had paid for 30 minutes of her time to do whatever he wanted to with her.
    Where was the man when the girl was in court? He’d already been released, fined $50 for misdemeanor solicitation and set free.

    The little girl – because at 11, what else can we call her – belonged to a pimp who had three other girls in his possession. After she had run away from home, the pimp took her in, and now she was “paying him back” for a roof over her head, her clothing and some food.[1]

    This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery still exists today, and this is what it looks like.

    The Facts

    According to the U.S. State Department and the International Labor Organization, there are between 21 and 27 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history.  Of them, 25 percent are women, men and children – thousands in the United States – who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. And while not all those who work in prostitution are victims of human trafficking, many are, especially children.

    “Runaway and throwaway”[2] children are easy prey for traffickers. One out of every three teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home, and the younger a girl[3] is, the more likely she will be sexually victimized.

    A pimp will attempt to break a girl’s will though physical and verbal abuse to prepare her for a life of prostitution and separate her completely from her previous life,[4] making the child completely dependent on him or her and enslaved to the sex trade.

    This is happening not just to someone else’s kids; the victims could be my kids and yours. There has been a marked rise in the sexual exploitation of kids from middle- and upper-income backgrounds.

    “Any child who is feeling lonely and isolated is at risk,” Judge Peggy Walker of the Douglas County Juvenile Court said. “Kids run away to the city and sell their bodies for drugs or alcohol or a place to stay, [and] their parents are generally stunned, believing that sexual exploitation is something that happens to someone else’s child.”[5]

    The Johns can look just like you and me: Of the men purchasing sex, 75 percent are white and of upper- or upper-middle-class.[6]

    Author, Rabbi Rachael Bregman

    Our Motivation for Change

    A century-and-a-half ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared, “…upon this act [of emancipating all slaves], sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty G-d.[7]”

    Lincoln’s claimed authority not just from the Constitution, the U.S. military, the citizens of this nation and G-d on high; he characterized the act as one of justice itself.

    As Jews, the call to end human slavery goes beyond merely justice. Among our religion’s central rallying cries is, “remember, you were a slave in Egypt,” reminding us of our freedom and the great responsibility to protect others who are enslaved which comes with it.

    We sing about redemption from slavery in the daily prayers[8]. G-d commands us to free the captives, that slavery is wrong, and that, as Jews, central to our identity is ridding humanity of the practice.

    We celebrated 150 years since the date of the Emancipation Proclamation on Shabbat T’shuvah, the special Shabbat which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those days, we prayed, we repented and we did acts of justice to save our own souls. When we commit to tzedakah (here, “justice”), we are breaking the cruelty that exists within us and the world and transforming it into compassion, and in doing so, we are changing our very nature.[9]

    Justice is protecting the slaves in our world. Today, we both yearn and are commanded to turn the world, ourselves and wickedness around toward good. We are the ones who have committed these crimes, and we are also the ones who can protect their victims. The power is in our hands.

    How You Can Make a Difference

    It is incumbent upon us to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), the cornerstone of the U.S. effort to combat modern-day slavery. This act, currently stalled in the Senate, will allow us to make sure the protections for the slaves of today are renewed and expanded upon.

    Simply go to passtvpranow.org, sign your name and do your part to protect those who suffer the fate from which we have been freed. And simpler still, come to the Child Trafficking Summit: Education to Action on Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at The Temple to learn more and get involved fighting this fight.

     

    This piece originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times

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  • Proud to be Out and Jewish: Celebrating Pride Month

    Posted on June 12th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Gay Pride in Jerusalem 2003

    This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder

    .

     

    Author, Rabbi Ruth Adar

    It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

    Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
    1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

    1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

    Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

    I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

    I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

    To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.

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  • A Consideration of Food Stamps for Shavuot

    Posted on April 30th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A grapefruit.

    Usually it is candy that is the source of friction between children and parents at the grocery checkout. This time it was a grapefruit. Not even a good looking one at that. It was a somewhat wrinkled grapefruit that had come from the seconds bin. It had been part of the basket of goods the mother had gathered, but now paying for the groceries, she had put the sad grapefruit aside.

     

    The child pleaded, the cashier looked pained, so did the mother. But there was no room for giving in. The family had reached capacity on their food stamps.

     

    This scene, which I witnessed nearly twenty years ago, has been playing on a loop in my head lately. As I prepare for Shavuot, I have been thinking about leket, peyah, and shichicha, our obligations to leave the gleanings, the corners and the forgot fruits of our fields. That grapefruit in its sad wrinkly state would definitely have fallen into the category of a forgotten fruit, and yet there it was holding out promise for this child.

     

    On that day, I did not know what to do. I could have easily have spared something from my own heavy basket for the child, or paid for the grapefruit. After all the Mishna on Pe’ah (1:2) says that a sixtieth of the field is the minimum amount and as a portion of my purchases it would not have much more than that. But I hesitated and did not act; worried my interference would have caused shame or embarrassment. The following Shabbat I dined at the home of friends and when the girl and her mother showed up, I was even less sure what the right course of action ought to have been.

     

    According to Rashi, the concept of Pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners of your field uncut, is really about placing part of your harvest in every corner of every field. Building on the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:10) Rashi stresses that we cannot choose who gets the support that is given in the form of Pe’ah, it must be available to everyone so they can reach it with ease it should be placed where it is most easily accessed on the corners.

     

    Food stamps, it strikes me, are our modern American form of the ancient agrarian Jewish traditions for caring for the poor. In line with Rashi’s stress on access, in recent years, policies by the Bush and Obama governments have made it easier for people to qualify for food stamps. But there is also greater need. 1 out of 7 Americans, 43 million people, rely on the program each month.

     

    But it is likely that the extravagance of a sad grapefruit would still be out of reach for most food stamp recipients. The average payout of the benefit is $133/month. This stands in comparison to the USDA assessment that the average family of four spends between $771 and $916/month on food. There is now talk in Washington of cutting significantly reducing the eligibility and benefits of the food stamp program. Not only would that mean the end of grapefruits, but for many the rest of the shopping basket all together.

     

    If there is meaning in the confluence of the two strands of Shavuot, that of the harvest holiday and the celebration of revelation, it may be found in the link between the equality of revelation and the need to share our bounty with everyone.

     

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  • The Beggar in the Kippah – A True Passover Tale

    Posted on March 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments
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    Rabbi Joel Soffin‘s experience on the streets of New York, recalls the classic Hassidic tales. It is a modern classic.

    It was the day of the first seder 2011. I was off on an errand to purchase an afikoman-finder gift. There would be no children with us that night, so we would reverse the numbers in our ages (51=15; 60=6) to identify the three “youngest” who would do the searching. That would require an adult gift for the finder. And so I was on the way to buy the synagogue cookbook as the gift. The synagogue office was some fifteen Manhattan blocks away, and I was speed-walking my way there, hoping to arrive before it closed for the holiday.

    On the street, I passed a homeless man with his hand reaching out to me as he asked for money. I knew that the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, note on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 249:3-5) had taught that it is forbidden to turn away a poor man empty-handed without giving him something, even if it were but a fig. I promised myself that I would give him some money on the way back. I made the same promise as I raced past a second poor man – “on the way back.”

    Author - Rabbi Joel Soffin

    Then I came to a third man, sitting there on the curb. He was the first beggar I’d ever seen in the city wearing a kippah.  I slowed my pace as he asked me softly, “Do you have $26?” I smiled to myself and pushed onward. $26?!

    I reached the synagogue office just in time. Then with afikoman gift in hand, I was ready to help the three men. I kept thinking about the $26. No one had asked me for so much money before. Such chutzpah! $26?! $26?! And then it came to me.  The gematria for Y-H-V-H is 26. In the guise of a poor man, it might have been Elijah reaching out to me.

    I retraced my steps, giving money to the first two beggars. But I couldn’t find the man with the kippah. I walked around the area for nearly an hour up and down every side street, before giving up and returning home to finish the preparations for the seder.

    Later, I would tell of my experience and donate $26 to tzedakah. I’ll be doing that this Passover, too, but only after I retrace my steps once again to try to find the beggar in the kippah and to invite him to join us.

     

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  • Freedom Rides: From Atlanta to Jerusalem

    Posted on March 15th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Freedom Ride -taken with hidden camera from the IRAC

    This week we have the honor of Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s experience riding the buses for civil rights in Israel. Rabbi Lerner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal. He is on sabbatical in Jerusalem and volunteering time with the IRAC on their Freedom Ride project.

    “Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!”  That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead.  Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley.  The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.

    Author Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Author- Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride.  Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn.  Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front.  “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus.  Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back.  Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.
    One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her.  She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back.  Why?  Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily?  Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?
    Another woman rode but three stops.  She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case.  A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space.  It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.
    When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.
    Segregation exists in Jerusalem.  Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies.  Now it is sustained by social pressure.  Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again.  Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated.  Separate can never be equal.
    Be a freedom rider yourself.  When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer.  Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel.

     

    Postscript: For those interested in support the IRAC effort, Rabbi Lerner adds the following note -Commitment is really just for the time period — takes about 2 hours to 2.5 hours, which involves prep talk, getting to bus stop in one of the outer ring Haredi neighborhoods, riding the bus into the city, taking a cab back to IRAC, meeting for 30 minutes to debrief and get further legal background.  Cost is 6.30 shekels, about $1.50, for the bus ride, and usually IRAC takes care of everything, including cab back. It is very safe.  If there’s a problem on the bus, the IRAC person will handle it, and problems do not involve actual physical threats, but sometimes shaking of seats, being told to go to back of bus, several individuals standing over a woman and glaring at her.  Of course they don’t sit near her themselves.  These things do happen, but not that often, and IRAC personnel know what to do.  We’re hoping that people will talk/write about their experience in their congregational blogs or bulletins, etc., and tell what IRAC is doing to keep buses integrated and make sure that “unser yidn,” liberal Jews, secular Israelis, etc. can sit wherever they please in public transport and at public meetings.

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  • Ethical Eating: Beyond What We Put Into Our Mouths

    Posted on November 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Thinking about what we eat is not a new for Jews but the questions we ask today are different, organics and local were given for the rabbis of old. This week we have a special guest visitor to the blog who write powerfully about the intersection between our responsibility to Israel the land and people and the food we eat. Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein is the daughter and granddaughter of Reform Rabbis, who  is pursuing her own rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She credits her Reform upbringing with inseparably linking Judaism and social justice for her, and with teaching her to engage critically with tradition.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

     

    In his now famous poem, “Tourists,” Yehuda Amichai lamented,

    Visits of condolence is all we get from them
    They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
    They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
    And they laugh behind heavy curtains
    In their hotels.. . .

    Amichai’s snapshot shows the quandary that any caring visitor faces when they come to Israel: How to really engage with this place with integrity? What do I need from Israel? What does Israel need from me – particularly when I’m only here for a very little while?

    Ruhi Sophia Rubenstein

    I struggled with this question when I came on Birthright trip in 2004, and again when I came to spend a semester of college here in 2005. When I came back last year as a rabbinical student, I found that this tension only become more sophisticated the more time I spent here.

    I will probably live with that tension forever, but I have found at least one small point of resolution. I was eating lunch at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies last October when I heard a presentation given by the director of Bema’aglei Tzedek , a Jerusalem-based non-profit that focuses mostly in workers’ rights and handicap access, based on Jewish values. She described the situation of the working poor in Israel, and the ways in which her organization works to create grassroots, structural change in the Israeli socio-economic reality.

    She focused on a project that relies on the active participation of non-Israeli Jews. This is the Tav Chevrati, the social justice certification for restaurants that respect their workers’ rights and provide handicap access to their customers. The Tav Chevrati draws all of its strength from consumers excited about social change. The involvement of American and international tourists and residents is especially valuable, since restaurant and cafe owners feel it is in their best economic interest to cater to the interests of the international English speaking population. Indeed, since the Tav’s founding in 2004, around a third of the restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses in Jerusalem have adopted the Tav, thanks to consumer pressure, particularly from English speakers.

    Since the day I heard that presentation, a little over a year ago, I have made sure to eat only at Tav certified restaurants when I go out in Jerusalem, and I always leave a card telling the business owner that I’m there because of the Tav. It’s so very easy. The Tav ensures that the rights of all workers, of whatever background, ethnicity or legal status, are protected. By eating according to the Tav I can encourage a more equitable Israeli society, even as a non-citizen. Even a participant on a 10-day trip can make that choice and be effective, if they let the business owners know that’s why they are there.

    I think the Tav is so smart that I now work with it almost full-time. Towards the end of my rabbinical year in Israel, last spring, I decided to stay another year. I received a fellowship through the New Israel Fund/Shatil. I accepted placement with Bema’aglei Tzedek, working as Tav Chevrati Community Coordinator, trying to make Jerusalem a more just city, one tour group, one restaurant at a time.

    There are so many ways the Tav could grow. Imagine if Rabbis coming on congregational trips educated all of their participants about the Tav, or if tour groups coming to Israel requested from their tour providers to eat only in Tav-Certified restaurants. Imagine if movements in the US or Europe made public resolutions encouraging their member congregations to eat only at Tav-Certified establishments. Imagine how quickly more restaurants would sign on – and how many lives of dishwashers and waiters and souschefs would be changed.

    Amichai’s “Tourists” poem concludes:

    “I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
    “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
    left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

    Choosing to eat according to the Tav is a delicious way to support all of the men and women here trying to buy vegetables for their families.

    For more information about Bema’aglei Tzedek and the Tav Chevrati, like Bema’aglei Tzedek on Facebook, follow TavCommunities on Twitter, and email TavCommunities@gmail.com.

     

     

     

     

     

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