Posted on January 23rd, 2013 No comments
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:
@JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!
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.
Posted on December 27th, 2012 No comments
The week after Thanksgiving, I was blessed with the most wonderful opportunity. I received a call from the Executive Director of Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA), the faith-based community organizing group that I work with here in New York. The Nathan Cummings Foundation was organizing a trip down to Washington, D.C. with several different community and socially focused organizations to talk to senior White House officials about the looming fiscal cliff and he wanted me to participate and help represent QCUA that day. I was beyond stunned. But I jumped at the opportunity to be able to help represent my community and to serve as a delegate for the state of New York on such an important issue.
The day did not disappoint. We began at 5:30 in the morning as we boarded a bus bound for D.C. Along with other folks from QCUA (two baptist bishops, a monseigneur, a reverend, a pastor, and various others), I met all of the other participants from New York. They ranged from people in the arts like the Foundry Theater, Arts and Democracy, and Urban Bush Women to Jewish social justice organizations like Uri L’tzedek, Bend the Arc, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. I was able to connect with Lila Foldes, the co-director of Just Congregations, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs from Rabbis for Human Rights and Nigel Savage from Hazon.
When we first arrived in Washington, we took a tour of the White House. Normally, one is not allowed to photograph inside the White House, but because everything was decorated for Christmas, we were granted permission to snap as many photos as we liked. It was truly magical to see all of the rooms brightly lit and decorated accordingly. While we were touring the rooms, a local youth gospel choir began singing carols in the main open lobby. Their joyous sound filled the rooms and halls as we explored the diversity and the history of one of the most beautiful and notable houses in America.
After the tour, we were escorted to the AFL-CIO building for lunch. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a national trade union center and the largest federation of unions in the United States. While we were there, we learned the background on the issues related to the fiscal cliff and how the results could affect our community in the coming years. It was eye-opening to understand these issues on a deeper level, to be briefed on possible outcomes, and to prepare ourselves to think about ways in which these issues could be solved.
After lunch, we spent the majority of the afternoon at the EEOB – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the majority of decisions get made in D.C. (outside of the Oval office and Capitol Hill, of course). There, we met with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President. We also met with Jon Carson, the Director of Public Engagement for the White House. We shared ideas all afternoon on challenges within our communities and ways to overcome obstacles. We also shared possible ideas and solutions regarding the financial crisis that is looming over our nation. It was incredibly gratifying to see so many organizations and so many people who are focused and determined to help hard working families and individuals survive and succeed in this world. While we didn’t come to any major solutions that day, we managed to get our voices heard and to represent our communities to people in the government. And they really listened.
My group slipped out a little early to go take a private meeting with our local congressman, Gregory Meeks. After the devastation from hurricane Sandy a few months ago, we were eager to see what progress had been made and to lobby for more work to be done. Even now, there are still people without power and heat and we seized the opportunity to make our voices heard even louder than before. All in all, it was a productive day.
But more than that, it was an important day. At the end of it all, I found myself exhausted but buzzing with excitement. I realized that while many of my days are important, I could tangibly feel the difference I made for my community and my country. Social action and social justice have ALWAYS been important to me. As a rabbi, it guides so much of the work I do in my community. But as a citizen, I don’t often get the chance to do the kind of work that I did or contribute to the politics of our nation as I was blessed to do, that day. My voice was heard. And I spoke up – for you, for me, and for everyone. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, she’natan lanu hizdam’nut l’takein et ha-olam.
Blessed are You, most glorious One, who has given us the opportunity to create harmony and repair our world. Amen.
This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.
Posted on October 24th, 2012 2 comments
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:
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.
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.
Posted on July 25th, 2012 6 comments
Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.
I love stories. I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history. Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level. I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter. Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA. Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean. Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees. Centropa’s goals include: connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking. I have heard this before. But Centropa is different. Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war. For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies. After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways. Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone. In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history. I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves. When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels. I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt. I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm. We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning. We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom. I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning. The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.
The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me. I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about. Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews. It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students. I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II. I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels. I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well. But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right. There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere. It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government. There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin. The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest. Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that. Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.
Posted on June 12th, 2012 No comments
This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder.
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.
Posted on April 30th, 2012 No comments
-by Ruth Abusch-Magder
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.
Posted on March 21st, 2012 3 comments
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.”
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.
Posted on March 15th, 2012 No comments
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.
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, 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.
Posted on February 13th, 2012 No comments
There is nothing more perfect than a red ripe tomato, sweet and savory, fleshy and juicy, the tomato is one of nature’s most precious gifts. Yet, the process by which tomatoes come to our tables is often completely rotten. This week Rabbi Jonathan Katz, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Longboat Key, Florida, writes about his experience visiting with those who pick tomatoes in Florida and the vision for a different future that emerged out of that encounter.
Recently, I joined several other rabbis from around the country in Immokalee, FL (forty minutes northeast of Naples) for a three day program organized by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America designed to acquire greater understanding of the struggle of migrant farm workers to obtain gain fairer wages and more rights. Immokalee is considered ground zero in this push.
What we saw was shocking. The dilapidated trailers that farm workers pay exorbitant rents to live in, stood in the middle of a large parking lot. There were no amenities. At 5:30 a.m. we rose to watch the daily ritual of hundreds of farm workers boarding buses to labor that day for any one of several large growers in the area. We visited a site where a group of farm workers had been held against their will and forced to work fields in 2008, one of several incidents of modern slavery that have taken place in Florida in the last twenty years.
We also learned about the heroic efforts CIW (the Coalition of Immokalee Workers ciw-online.org) has undertaken to end abuse in the fields, ensure safer working conditions and procure higher compensation for the arduous work required to pick tomatoes. Sexual harassment is a fact of life. Work breaks are rare. And when rest is possible, there is no shade from the heat of the sun.
Particularly problematic is the issue of pay. For many years farm workers have received only fifty-cents for every thirty-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. That same amount of tomatoes is often sold for around seventy dollars in major grocery stores. In an average year, farm workers only make about $10,000.
In 2001 CIW launched a Campaign for Fair Food that sought a one penny per pound increase for each pound of tomatoes farm workers pick and as well more rights in the field. A penny increase may not seem like much but will raise the earnings of the average working by an estimated $7,000. Additionally the campaign hopes to ameliorate the worst aspects of working conditions.
After confronting a boycott and increasing pressure from a wide range of CIW advocates, in 2005 Taco Bell agreed to absorb the one penny per pound increase and to purchase tomatoes only from growers who adhered to a code of conduct that echoed CIW’s Fair Food Principles. In subsequent years McDonalds, Burger King and Subway all followed suit.
In September 2008, the campaign broke new ground with its first agreement in the supermarket industry, as Whole Foods Market agreed to the CIW principles. By August 2010, foodservice industry giants Aramark and Sodexo had also agreed to comply. Fourteen months ago Jon Esformes, Pacific Tomato’s operating partner and chief marketing officer, became the first grower to comply with the new Fair Food Principles. For those who wonder about the power of the rabbinate, it is good to keep in mind that Esformes’ rabbi apparently played a significant role in his decision to join with CIW.
CIW is now vigorously working to bring large grocery store chains like Walmart and Publix to the table and agree to the code. On the last day of our visit to Immokalee, we gathered at Trader Joe’s first Florida store in Naples, which was set open only a few days later. As workmen were completing last minute touches to the building, we affixed (with scotch tape) to the front door post a card detailing the farm workers struggle together with a penny as “mezuzza of justice.” Less than twenty-four hours later and knowing that protest actions were being planned this weekend at forty-one Trader Joe’s stores throughout the country, Trader Joe’s came to an agreement with CIW.
This outcome is a tribute to the power of organizing. As Reform Jews, we know that repairing the world is our responsibility. Often that task seems a never ending one, sometimes working well can make all the difference.
Posted on November 16th, 2011 2 comments
This morning American’s across the country awoke to news that the various “Occupy” encampments from New York to Oakland had been shut down over night. In the slightly less than two months since it began the movement has captured attention across the country. On Yom Kippur a group of Jews came together in New York to pray and Occupy Judaism was born.
How does this movement play out for the students and alumni of HUC? To be sure, Occupy Judaism is non-denominational enshewing the hierarchies of movement based Judaism. Yet over the last few week I put out calls and connected with some current HUC students and Nancy Weiner, the Clinical Director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and faculty advisor to the Student Association and Interfaith programs to understand their perspective.
The students spoke candidly but asked that I not use names. They were concerned about the perception their involvement might have on employment –current or future- which suggests that even as the mainstream media covers the protests, Occupy remains a fairly small group on the margins. For the students there is both fear and pride. Fear, that involvement will mark a person as too radical (there are rumors that people involved with Occupy Judaism and currently employed in mainstream Jewish organizations have been asked not to be too public about Occupy involvement.) Pride, that they are carrying out the prophetic tradition.
For Nancy Weiner, a tenured professor as well as a rabbi to a small congregation, pride dominates. Growing up, social justice was the essence of what it meant to be a Reform Jew. Her High Holidays sermon on the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street protests and her participation in the protests during Sukkot were obvious extensions of a long standing commitment to social justice. Was she concerned that her sermon might offend or provoke her financially comfortable congregants? Not really. “They understand that there is a need to fix the system.” Nor is she alone in speaking out. According to Weiner several rabbinic colleagues, in wealthy congregations spoke about the movement over the High Holidays. As she pointed out, all of these communities have been touched by the concerns raised by those who were camping in Zuccotti Park. Weiner was neither the only HUC faculty member nor the only HUC rabbi taking part in the Occupy Sukkot action that took place. Shirely Idelsohn Dean of the New York School was there as was Ellen Lippmann.
Lippmann wrote in the Huffington Post about the connection between the holiday and the contemporary movement. For one of the students, the highlight of eating and sleeping in the sukkot in Zucotti Park was studying the laws of sukkot and recognizing that everyone, from the richest person with the most beautiful home to the poorest person, all have the same obligation to dwell in a sukkah during the holiday, reinforcing a vision of fundamental equality no matter our earthly riches. Another described a scene that amazed her, Councilman Brad Lander was teaching the Occupy Judaism group about law pertaining to housing in New York and all of a sudden Jesse Jackson comes by. The learning stopped, the two embraced and spoke and then the learning continued. It was the embodiment of the sukkah as an open place of peace.
But for all that I spoke to, the message of Occupy Judaism transcends the direct connection to sukkot. Repeatedly I was told of David Sapperstein’s recent address to the HUC-JIR community in which he spoke of the Occupy Wall Street as a prophetic voice in the best tradition of the prophets of old. True enough there is no clear agenda, no clear answers to fix the problems of society. But that does not seem to bother the supporters. Our ancient prophets did not focus on the fix but rather the identification of the difficulties.
As for concerns about OWS being anti-semitic, according to those who had spent significant time in the park in Manhattan, they are simply part of the attempts to discredit the movement. Yes, there have been negative signs and slogans here and there, but they have been overshadowed by bigger signs discrediting the anti-semites and the general signage that says nothing about Jews at all.
No doubt there will be those among the alumni who do not support either or both Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Judaism, I’d love to hear from you as well. For whatever happens next, it is clear that the voices of Jewish wisdom and tradition should not be left out of the economic debates that are so critical for our collective future.