Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Advancing the Dream

One event after another this past summer reminded us of the endurance of a monstrous and insidious racism in our country. From the Supreme Court decision to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act, to the Trayvon Martin verdict, Americans have had to take a hard look at this abiding plague in our nation’s culture. I have heard the pain of people who feel deeply affected, not only by these decisions, but by the conversations, and the lack of conversation, in the aftermath.

I have to admit that I was silent after the verdict in July. I could say that I was just returning from vacation, or that my mind was elsewhere. The truth is that I did not know what to say. Trayvon’s death, by itself, was a tragedy. The laws of Florida that permitted George Zimmerman to walk away—both immediately after the event and again after the verdict—are a disgrace to all Americans. Nevertheless, the verdict was based on those impossibly unjust laws. What I can say is that we need to work to change unjust laws that promote and excuse gun violence. We need to work to change unjust laws that exclude citizens from the voting booth on flimsy and supposedly innocent grounds of preventing non-existent voter fraud.

On the other hand, the confluence of these events with the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom offers us a magnificent opportunity. As I listened to the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial on this historic anniversary, I was moved and inspired. Just when we suspect that nothing has changed, John Lewis dramatically described how his life was changed; that in place of “separate but equal” our country has made it possible for a leader in the civil rights movement to become a US congressman. Just when we are tempted to believe that the gap between whites and blacks is wider than ever, President Jimmy Carter paid homage to those brave leaders in 1963, men and women, labor organizers and civil rights activists, who made the march possible and changed our country forever. Just when we feel despair over the political gridlock and polarization that has created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to justice, President Bill Clinton urged us to draw on the examples of the leaders of the past to stop complaining and to start working for change.

And then, our first African-American president took the podium, and with humility spoke in the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. had roused a nation with words that continue to vibrate across state borders and political divides. If you missed the speech, his words are worth reading. In fact, I plan to quote them at the next Martin Luther King Day observance.

It’s true that the milestone of electing an African-American president does not excuse the imprisonment of more African Americans than the number of slaves in 1850.
It’s true that while Dr. King’s speech spurred the civil rights movement as a national priority, the focus on jobs went unanswered, and the economic situation of the masses of people of color in the US is no better today than it was in 1963.

It’s true that while the concrete walls of segregation were torn down, the invisible walls that lead to racial profiling, suspicion of people of color remain.

But when we have an opportunity, like today, to stop and remember, to celebrate our achievements, to honor the brave men and women who courageously risked everything, including their lives, when the speeches are broadcast across the country and the event is publicized throughout our land, we are all stronger.  And the walls that divide us will surely come down. Not by hope alone, but by actions fueled by hope and conviction.

N.B. Thirty years ago, Brian and I, returning to Washington D.C. from our honeymoon in Cape May, attended the 20th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom.

Arthur Waskow and Sheila Weinberg

Barbara and Brian
 Looking at photos from that event, I’m struck by our youthful naiveté and the blissful confidence that change comes easily.

Today’s anniversary appears to be more sober; the celebration is more reflective.

Today may be one of the greatest moments of Barack Obama’s presidency, a rare moment when he can offer his personal gratitude for all he has received and all he has (so far) accomplished. It was a true moment of authenticity for him, not only as an African-American but also as a community organizer. He may not be the preacher MLK was, but by his very being, he preached a powerful sermon at the Lincoln Memorial in 2013.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The View from Limestone

The cry of a loon across the moonlit lake. A cloudburst that sends the workers scurrying to cover lumber with tarps. Fields of fragrant potatoes. Harsh sun on our backs as we paint the boards covering the underside of a trailer. Fresh blueberries for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

These are some of this year’s sights and sounds for the eleven adults and teens working in Northern Maine on the Tikkun Olam Family Work Project. With so many of our regulars heading off to college this week, our workforce is diminished in size, but not in spirit. Each one of us has been to Limestone before and we can all handle power tools. 

As usual, we are adding insulation to homes where the wind whips around the underside and leaves no trace of heat within. We are also doing a little carpentry:  adding rails to a deck, rebuilding a stoop, installing a new door.

Each year we learn a little more about Limestone, Northern Maine, and what life is like in a community that has not thrived for many years. We also realized that, despite our best efforts and the strength and grace of the community here, we cannot repair more than our limited corner of the world.

Just weeks before we arrived in Maine last Sunday, we learned that the King family, the first family we helped in 2006, lost their home in a fire. Though insurance is helping them to acquire a new pre-fab double-wide home, none of their belongings were covered. With the generous support of our friends in Boston, we were able to purchase a new queen-sized mattress, box spring and metal frame, a new living room sofa, and a new flat-screen tv. We also delivered a few assorted used tables and chairs and dressers that we brought up from Boston. These are the bare minimum for them to furnish their new home. Yet they were so grateful, insisting that we let all of you know what a difference we’ve made.

“It is not up to you to complete the work; neither are you free to neglect it.”

This message from the classic Talmudic text, Pirke Avot, is my personal mantra for this annual trip. Do we feel sad that we can’t do more? Yes. Do we wish we could help every needy family in Limestone, not to mention those in need in our own Massachusetts communities? Of course. It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories behind the buildings we are repairing. It’s frustrating to drive up to a familiar neighborhood and see a slab of concrete where, seven years ago we had spent five days installing insulation, putting on a new roof and chimney, replacing windows and rebuilding the back porch. All gone in a puff of smoke.

And in the same week, to be welcomed to the lake home of the owner of the hardware store in Caribou, who treated us to a tasty barbecue dinner (veggie burgers and kosher hot dogs purchased especially for us). He took our kids out on their power boat for water skiing and made us all feel completely at home with his own family. All this hospitality from a man who regularly discounts all the material we purchase for our work. Such generosity and good will balance out the individual pain and sorrow.

The full moon of Elul reminds us all of the approaching New Year. It’s a time to count our blessings, to give thanks for all the good people and their generosity, to bask in the beauty of the landscape, and to prepare for whatever next year will bring—to us and those we love as well as to strangers we have yet to meet. It isn’t up to us to do it all, but what a gift to be able to contribute whatever we can.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On the Second Day of Elul, I realized I have work to do


You know how unsolicited and unexpected offers pop up in your email? I try to buzz through the promotions quickly in order to get to the personal and professional messages. This morning, the second day of Elul, I paused to glance at an email from Jewish Lights, promoting a new book, Repentance:The Meaning and Practice of Teshuva.

An endorsement of this book, a quote from my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Nancy Flam, caught my eye:

“Our greatness will not be judged by our supposedly grand accomplishments, but by how each of us deals with our inevitable moral failings, however great or small.”

This morning, I heard a radio report on the latest MIT study of successfully implanting “false memories” in mice. Though the researcher assured the audience that it will be a long time before this can be accomplished in humans, he also suggested that this is a good time to start the conversation. He noted that for people with debilitating traumas, this can be a valuable tool. However, I would argue that for most of us, the “real memories” we have should suffice.

As we navigate the coming weeks in preparation for the New Year, memory is key. Without memory, can I regret the hurts I have inflicted, the offensive words I’ve spoken, the promises I have broken? Can I look closely at my “inevitable moral failings, however great or small”?

Implanting false memories is a great accomplishment. But it will not lead to greatness for anyone who seeks to escape the uncomfortable past.  Only through examining our deeds, acknowledging our habitual behaviors, and seeking to rectify our mistakes, can we rise to moral and spiritual heights. Without memory, we fall into a false way of living. If we forget what we have done, how can we apologize? How can we ask forgiveness? How can we grow?

Jewish communal life is rooted in remembering our past. Rather than distance ourselves from our past, we recall it ritually. On Pesach, we reenact our ancient slavery and the subsequent Exodus. On Shabbat we recall the stories of our ancestors, with their faults looming as large as their feats.  At weddings we break a glass to remember the destruction of the Temple. Whenever we study Jewish history, we reflect on the experience of wandering and the adaptive culture that has survived dispersion to every region where human beings have settled.

From our memories, collective and individual, we tell our stories and we extract meaning. We look back and discover how we have managed to survive. Most importantly, our memory is full of moral failings from which we learn and grow and contribute to the healing of the world. This month, the twenty-nine days of Elul, let’s examine our memories closely and face “our inevitable moral failings, however great or small.” Then we will be ready, on day one of the year 5774, to achieve greatness.