Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’Av

This week it seems the world is talking about Trayvon Martin. All while my people are observing Tisha B’Av – one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar.

Tisha B’Av is a holiday in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First due to idolatry and again for sinat chinam or baseless hatred. Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent verdict of “not guilty” for George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, is related to both.

In our world we idolize individuality. The individual right to do whatever makes you feel good – like “stand your ground” – even if others are hurt or killed. Couple this idolatry of individual rights and the oppression of people with marginalized identities and our laws create unjust situations where we value some individuality over others. Case in point is Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor who fired a warning shot toward a wall, which injured no one, invoked “stand your ground” and received a 20-year sentence.

Trayvon Martin experienced baseless hatred the night he was murdered. Baseless hatred is often felt on an individual level but too often it begins from a systemic, institutional place. This kind of baseless hatred is raced and gendered. It’s systemic and perpetrated by police and civilians alike.

It’s a Jewish value to seek justice (tzedek tzedek tirdof). If I don’t work to change the systemic racism endemic in my nation, then I am no better than those who actively contribute to the systems. If I only work for justice when it directly impacts me, I’m doing it wrong. And making a mockery of every value Jewish value I claim to hold dear.

I was born into a system which gives me privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It’s my job to recognize that and to educate others about it. It’s my job to recognize my own prejudices — not so I can beat myself up about them, but so I can unlearn them. And it’s my job to work toward a future in which racism and prejudice are eradicated; not only on an individual level, but on a societal and systemic level.

We’re reminded in Pirkei Avot, “it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task…but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.” It’s our obligation to begin to build a better world, a more just and righteous world for ourselves and our future generations.


Voting no

With 1,000-some “friends” on facebook, most days when I log in, I see that someone has gotten engaged or married. While I am happy for these couples, truly, something about this is also really sad to me.

It’s not just that I am unsure when that day will come for me, it’s that I’m unsure if it can – legally. Couples I know have discussed where they plan to marry, they grew up in different states and have to decide – they can decide. This is a privilege.

In a few days my home state will vote on marriage equality. Minnesotans will vote on a civil right, my civil right, the freedom to marry. The vote is not about the religious institution of marriage but marriage can certainly be a religious institution. Religion is often how marriage is framed; for me, I’ve dreamed of being married in a synagogue all my life – so, yes, marriage is religious.

There are so many right wing Christians speaking out about the Minnesota marriage amendment that it’s sometimes easy, as a Jew to feel superior, or at least comforted. My people don’t get that crazy. Except, they do. A rabbi from New York stated this week that Hurricane Sandy is punishment for gay marriage being legal in New York.

Well, rabbi – while you may wish for me to think that a few phrases in Leviticus (18:22, 20:13) forbid same-sex marriage, I know that in reality, classic rabbinic texts do not address same-sex marriage at all.  Being one of the few kids who actually paid attention during Hebrew school, I know Judaism says that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in G-d’s image. Deuteronomy teaches tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. And, time and time again, the Torah commands us not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know the heart of the stranger.

Opponents of marriage equality base their opposition on two sentences from the holiest document of the Jewish faith; it seems to me that Jews should have something to say about this! In reality, Jewish values obligate us. We are challenged to work for the betterment and perfection of this world and for me, voting no is one small step to doing just that. Join me on Tuesday.


Planting a seed

There’s this old Jewish story about a carob tree, I can’t recall where it comes from but it goes something like this:

A wise man was walking along the road and saw a poor man planting a carob tree. The wise man asks, “Why are you planting that tree? It will take 70 years to bear fruit. Do you think you will live another 70 years to eat the fruit of the tree?” The poor man answers, “maybe not. But, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

I’ve recently realized that so often in my work I am like the man planting the tree.

A small moment or routine part of my day, to a student in my office, may be huge. Like the man planting the carob tree, I often do not see the fruits of my labor. I often meet with students only once and do not know if they use the advice or information I give them. I can only hope that the students reflect and are able to see their own growth. I simply plant seeds, provide a watering can and sometimes sunlight.

There are people with whom I’ve spent just a few moments who have made the largest impact on me. They planted a seed. Where I am today, my professional path is largely due to the words and actions of other people. Most of those moments were, at the time, small and seemingly inconsequential. Only when I look back can I connect the dots and see the many people who have shaped my path – each adding a drop of water or a ray of sunlight.

My students and my mentors have helped me realize that you never truly know when your words or actions might make an impact on someone else. A little encouragement, acceptance or praise, small actions that seem insignificant may alter the course of someone’s life.

It’s hard to remember on those days when I have eight back-to-back meetings but I’m certain someone is going to benefit from the fruit, enjoy the shade and swing from the branches of my work.

A journey toward justice.

This week marks the Jewish holiday of Passover. The theme of Passover is liberation from exile. It’s a tale of perseverance and I think it serves as a great opportunity to begin a dialogue around some of these issues.

Passover has four famous questions, typically recited by the youngest child. Each question gets at a component of the introductory question ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’ Yet, while reflecting on the holiday this week I kept coming back to the same question: Is this night any different than the exodus?

During the Passover Seder we symbolically reenact the exodus journey from Egypt. We engage with the community, welcoming the stranger and encouraging all who have no place to go to join us at our table. But, what if the stranger is the person you passed on your way home, holding a sign and asking for spare change? Would we invite them in or would we give our food and send them on their way? I think the ultimate message in Passover is not that we were slaves and now we are free, the ultimate message is a question; what are we doing with our freedom?

Activism is more than sharing a video on facebook, eating a piece of matzah and retelling our story. As we remember and eat our bread of affliction we need to realize that in our schools and on our streets all over the world many are still forced to eat their bread of affliction (if they have anything to eat at all). In reality, this night is not any different than the exodus for so many. And as long as we remain bystanders, that truth will keep us all in exile.

“I hate my neighbor!:” A little bit about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship

Another roommate conflict?! …No, not this time, this is much much larger, nations hating other nations. Yet it all seems so childish.  Just like some of the stuff I hear about in the residence halls – ‘she took the soap out of the bathroom,’ ‘My pet fish is missing!’ etc… this conflict is clearly a problem but also so foolish…and it seems to have the ability to bring out the worst in everyone.

Like everything in life, this is contextual; it is NOT black and white but painted in shades if grey. Jess reminded me today that there are a lot of different sides, not just a Palestinian or Israeli one, not a Jewish or Muslim one (put two Jews in the same room and you get three opinions), not a UN ruling, not a government – it’s murky.  While in most facets of my own life I have trouble seeing in shades of grey, I think in this, I get it.  And it’s something I’ve worked really hard to be able to see.  Here’s why – a lot of the things I was taught about Israel were only from one perspective. I’d argue that the majority of American Jews (even most American non-Jews) were only taught from one perspective. And that is the one that makes Israel look like the victors all the time.  Because of this and because of the way the media has portrayed Israel folks either don’t care or don’t know to look at this issues through a different lens.

I know I often hold unpopular views on Israel within my religion, I am reminded time and time again when I’m called a traitor or naive by my own people. I don’t do it because I don’t like my religion. On the contrary, I think being Jewish has shaped me into who I am – it has given me and formed my values and those values inform my current viewpoints. Judaism taught me to question everything and not to take things at face value – think about Responsa, the questions we ask and how one may halachically rule on those questions. Judaism has taught me about tikkun olam – that I must work to heal, repair and transform the world and about tzedek, pursuing justice – and all of this can be applied to how I feel about the recent relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So, please – do not call me a traitor or naive, I do not need your hate e-mails or messages on facebook or twitter, please do not tell me I am going against my people or disowning my roots…because I have a poster of the shema hanging over my bed and a mezuzah on my door. Try, as I have, to see beyond what you have been taught in Hebrew school. Try, as I try to see beyond the side you are supposed to see. Try, as I try to see the shades of grey. It is not comfortable, it is not fun, it is does not paint a pretty picture and it is certainly not popular but it allows you the opportunity to be more informed about something you are clearly passionate about…

In the words of Kohelet-Ecclesiastes: eit livnot, there is a time to build, but Kohelet also teaches, eit lifrotz, there is a time to tear down (Eccles. 3.3).  At a time of political divisiveness and economic stress, eit livnot, walls tend to go up.  Perhaps at this time of uncertainty and fear in our peoples and nations history when we seek the comfort of family, friends and, community, eit lifrotz it is, in fact, time to pull walls down.  It’s time to tear walls down…please work to make that happen. Try to see that non-violence is the answer and that this issue can be solved through understanding and collaboratively working toward a just community.

I had intended to write about the flotillas but at this point I can’t even begin to do so… I am simply too enraged with the situation and the responses I have received from my peers, teachers and mentors. I do hope this calls attention to Israel and the human rights violations perpetrated at the hands of my people. I hope this is a wake up call for America and the rest of the world. And let’s all watch as Obama plays RA and mediates for the Israelis and Palestinians. Accountability is paramount.