30 March 2012

Call Council Speaker Quinn: No Exemptions for Living Wage

News that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is proposing an exemption to the Living Wage bill for the Hudson Yards project is not a welcome development.

$10 an hour with benefits ($400 per week/$1600 per month) and $11.50 without benefits ($460 per week/$1840 per month) is hardly affordable living for working New Yorkers.

Exemptions and compromises of this nature in a city already deeply divided by class will only exacerbate those differences and continue to reward the wealthy in gaining profit on the backs of low-wage workers.

I read an inspiring profile of New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, and was struck by a story he told of experiencing his father's death at the age of 13:   "Woodson's father Chester worked two or three jobs at a time, delivering pianos, managing laundromats, mowing lawns; he died of a heart attack when Woodson was thirteen.  'I just truly believe that he worked himself to death,' Woodson said."

It's important to remember that policy decisions of this nature effect real people in real ways.

Parents working themselves to death; workers getting sick without health care; and over-taxing an already burdened health-care system (running dangerously close to having recently passed reforms dismantled by the Supreme Court); and perpetuating an economic and class divide in a city that prides itself on its diversity are realities that will all come to bear without a decent Living Wage.

I would like to see a future candidate for Mayor of New York fully endorse a Living Wage for working New Yorkers, without exemptions.

If you don't like this idea of exemptions either, join me in letting the Council Speaker know.  You can contact her office at 212.564.7757.

29 March 2012

The Opposite of Stand Your Ground

the *Opposite* of Stand Your Ground
The grandfather I never knew was shot and killed in 1939, by a mentally ill employee whom he managed, when my mother was just a girl of six.  For this reason alone, we were never allowed to have toy guns in our house.  My middle name, Norman, is for him.

For this reason alone I feel a special, personal pain when people die unnecessarily from guns wielded by those who really ought not to have them.  Trayvon Martin's tragic death is another in a countless list of those whose lives unjustly came to an end because of guns in the hands of those people, buttressed by state law, who have too much discretion to do too much damage.

In two interesting pieces today--one by Gail Collins in the New York Times and another unattributed editorial in the Forward--the practicalities and moralities of the trendy Stand Your Ground laws, fully armed and loaded by the notorious National Rifle Association, are laid out as among the most wrongfully minded and dangerous set of laws we have in this country.

In our own area of Brooklyn, people are doing very important to stop violence of this kind.  S.O.S Save Our Streets in Crown Heights, is an organization I support and look forward to further helping out.  I hope you'll take a look, too.  I give annually to S.O.S. from my Rabbi's Discretionary Fund and invite you to help me in those efforts.

The issue of how we understand guns, violence and race remains at the center of the soul of our nation.  Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and past New York City administrations, our civic values are leading the country in helping to maintain safe streets with tough gun laws.  But the broader challenges are far from over.

The Wild West and ideas like Stand Your Ground are best left to the Spaghetti Westerns of yore.

28 March 2012

BDS Referendum Defeated: Reflections

A version of this piece appears over at the Forward.


The defeat of the referendum in support of the BDS movement’s campaign to boycott Israel at the Park Slope Food Coop was a victory for peace.  Most fundamentally, and as was spoken of consistently from the dais at the Brooklyn Tech High School Auditorium, food coop members want peace--as passionately among themselves as they do for those living under violence and oppression in all corners of the earth.  In fact it may well be, years from now, that social historians will see the efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically at various food coops throughout the country are as much about the unique “politically correct” bourgeois but nevertheless self-satisfying values of the organic food movement as they are about realistically attempting to rectify injustices--felt by Israelis or Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for legitimate national self-determination.

After all, just beneath the surface of tonight’s debate among the more than 2000 coop members assembled was an absence of any discussion of those foods conspicuously absent from boycott lists, foods that are products of a variety of oppressive regimes around the world: Syria, China, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uganda--the list is potentially endless.  And if Israel, why not Palestine?  Surely victims of terror deserve their day in boycott court, no? It just may be that an organization dedicated to good farming and good eating can’t very well practically start picking and choosing its objects of boycott and therefore might as well just leave things as they are:  if you don’t like a product, don’t buy it. Many people tonight said just that.

After waiting for an hour to enter Brooklyn Tech, the arguments I heard once I finally took my place among my fellow coop members were overwhelmingly of the variety that stated, succinctly, “I like my coop. Despite our differences we learn to get along.  The food is good and cheap. Don’t mess with it.” 

On the other hand, in the ongoing work that our synagogue community engaged in over the past several  months--assembling a coalition of multi-denominational Jewish and Christian clergy who oppose BDS; sponsoring two large public forums in which divergent views could be expressed; hearing from foreign affairs experts like Elliot Abrams and Robert Malley; and assembling a panel at our synagogue with leaders from Peace Now, J-Street and the New Israel Fund, organizations that in recent years have been demonized and vilified for their efforts on behalf of peace and two states for Israelis and Palestinians, we were able to lead by example and demonstrate to the broader New York community that a reasoned and nuanced debate about the way forward for Israelis and Palestinians is possible.  We needn’t resort to exaggeration, name-calling, and hatred. Rather, we can, as intelligent and discerning beings, argue, listen, reason and debate--while struggling to find our way together toward peace.

I’ll add another piece to the puzzle.  On our recent congregational trip to Israel in February, when twenty-two members of our community traveled throughout the country, we met Israelis and Palestinians from the right and left of the political spectrum; we spent a day with Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv; we marveled at the complex, challenging, and inspiring reality of a contemporary Jewish democracy in an ancient land.  And tonight, as the debate raged at the food coop, the listserv from our congregational trip debated these issues and watched the results unfold as well.  Tweets, Texts and Facebook updates contributed to the culture of immediacy surrounding this issue.  There is nothing like a genuine engagement with a genuine reality.  When it comes to Israel, it truly matters because it enriches the debate.  Platitudes fall away and differing perceptions of reality take center stage.  The more we visit Israel, the more we know Israelis, the more we know Palestinians, the less will matter the comfortable platitudes and vilifications of those who seek no peace.

That reasonable center is what I felt in the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech tonight.  The intellectually cooperative result of what happens when a community is willing to model tolerance of perspective, moderation in behavior, is that a community makes rational decisions to get along, to support even those whose views are defeated by the majority, to understand that there is always more that unites us than divides us.

Before I entered Brooklyn Tech for the debate and the vote tonight, I had a brief engagement with an anti-Israel agitator.  I know of no other way to say this except to say that he had hatred of Jews in his eyes.  You know when you know.  The blood quickens; defense mechanisms engage.  I can’t believe that in the twenty-first century, there are still those who believe that Jew are the root of all evil.  My first impulse--I won’t lie--was to break his nose.  My second impulse, after cogitating upon the fact that I was a father, husband, rabbi and leader--was to demur.  Thank God for second impulses.

It helped me tolerate the intolerable comments I heard from a few speakers tonight:  Jews control the media; Jews control Congress; Jews in America have shut down the debate about Israel.  Fuming while listening, I remained paradoxically calm, even bemused:  for in my profound discomfort, I was hearing what I didn’t want to hear.  Which meant, of course, that my opponents were subjected to the self-same rules.  And when the votes were counted, our side won.  Israeli products stayed on the shelves.  And in turn, we were privileged to articulate a way forward that was rooted in reason, tolerance, justice and peace.  While on one hand the “moral equivalency” rules that “everyone’s opinion is valid” struck me as classic cooperative sophistry, I knew that in the end, the reasonable argument would prevail.  That people would recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are perfect.  But that with enough food and room around the table, there may be something to discuss after all.


The conversation continues at CBE next Tuesday April 3 at 7 pm, when we host New York CIty Councilman Brad Lander and Peace Now Activists Yariv Oppenheimer and Hagit Ofran, talking about the Haggadah, Passover and Social Justice in New York & Israel; followed at 8 pm by Jonathan Safran Foer and yours truly in a conversation about Jonathan’s New American Haggadah.  Hope to see you then!

26 March 2012

Pro-Israel = Pro-Democracy

When our synagogue recently hosted two State Department veterans, Elliot Abrams and Robert Malley, a few congregants and even a local merchant objected to our having invited Mr. Abrams, a known “war criminal.”  Similarly, when our synagogue hosted Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian academic, others claimed our pulpit now had “Jewish blood on its hands.”  Another congregant asked, “How can you invite Malley?  He and the President hate Jews.”

In all three cases, as reasonable people know, and as I calmly and dispassionately demonstrated, Mr. Abrams is not a war criminal; Dr. Khalidi has never killed anyone; and Mr. Malley spoke with candor about Israel’s vulnerability that convinced detractors of his objectivity.  Nevertheless, this set of reactions speaks to the treacherous and often enflamed environment of Israel programming in the public sphere (in a synagogue no less), where passions that justifiably run high but often miss the mark in their attempt to reach understanding and peace.

For the past several years, as America has wound down its military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; as Israel has continued to remain a nation at war with its Palestinian neighbors; and, the region surrounding Israel continues to represent a cold peace at best and with Iran, an existential, nuclear threat, our synagogue community has convened ongoing discussions with academics, journalists and activists across the spectrum in order to educate ourselves and the broader community about what may be done to bring peace to lands loved by hundreds of millions of people.

Before events featuring Malley and Abrams, Rashid Khalidi, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Akiva Eldar, Gershom Gorenberg, Breaking the Silence, Jeremy Ben Ami, Anat Hoffman and countless others, I always say the same thing:

“God chose the Jewish people to share the message of Torah with the world--a Book that says it’s our sacred duty to work on behalf of justice and peace.  Let’s agree that in this day and age, with Israel at the center of so many people’s minds, God calls upon to demonstrate that with reasonableness and civility, we can be a light unto the nations for how we argue as well.”

Maimonides is particularly helpful as well.  He makes very clear in the Mishneh Torah that moderation of temperament is critical for living a moral life.  Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum regarding Israel, one is bound to hear things one doesn’t want to hear.  From Arutz Sheva, Settler media, I learn about outrageous statements from Palestinian leaders; from Ir Amim in East Jerusalem, I learn about unjust government support for Jews in Arab villages.  How will we know what to think if we don’t hear it all?  Surely Israel’s vibrant democracy can handle divergent expressions and opinions.

Here in the States we’re still too caught up in the pro-Israel / anti-Israel dichotomy.  Rather than rush to judgement, however, I think it’s best to listen to all sides as an expression of the Jewish people’s unique view that “each of us stood at Sinai.”  Each of us have a perspective on the truth that bears hearing.

The test is found in how we react.  Do we listen and argue back?  Or do we demonize and vilify?  Slander, tale-bearing, revenge, bearing grudges--all of these are considered by the Sages to be sinful behavior.  All are often quite present in public forums when Jews talk about Israel.  

That’s a shame.  

On a recent weeknight in Brooklyn, where I serve, we hosted a public forum called “Progressive Voices Against BDS” about the absurd and immoral proposal before the Park Slope Food Coop (where I and several synagogue members belong) to boycott products made in Israel.  The BDS movement’s real goal--the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state--has been convincingly demonstrated elsewhere in this publication.  

Being a somewhat “liberal” neighborhood, our community felt it was essential that our strong support for Israel (where I spend my summers and lead annual synagogue trips each year) be demonstrated by hosting three organizations that are working assiduously to strengthen Israeli democracy, even while criticizing government policy with regard to Settlements.  Our forum included leaders from the New Israel Fund, J-Street U, and Peace Now--three organizations that are often erroneously vilified for being “anti-Israel.”  

During our ninety minute program I heard no such thing except impassioned, loving, strongly argued “pro-Israel” statements coming from three organizations who fervently believe that the best hope for maintaining a “Jewish, democratic, secular state” necessitates the separation from most of the territories captured in 1967--a view articulated by Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, and Ariel Sharon.  Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state and we eagerly await his proposed borders as well.  

You don’t get more pro-Israel than that.

There is no doubt that Jewish politics has its own set of challenges.  After all, it took Moses more than forty years to get the Children of Israel from Egypt to Israel--a journey today that would take less than two weeks.

Israel’s Knesset is no less complex an endeavor.  And the American Jewish communal landscape should be proudly diverse as well.

This year, our synagogue, which celebrates its 150th year (at its founding in 1861, women couldn’t vote and Blacks were not free) will also celebrate Israel’s 64th founding for Yom Ha’atzmaut.  I plan to be present that day with sign that bears a simple message:

“Because I support Israel, I support AIPAC and Peace Now and J-Street and NIF.”  And when I get yelled at, I’ll smile; and quietly, calmly, argue back.

05 March 2012

"Turn It Off"

A piece I wrote from the current issue of Shma Magazine.


The full text is here:

Recent news of serious labor abuses and alarming suicide rates at a Chinese factory manufacturing Apple products ought to disturb us greatly, particularly if the news of this tragedy is conveyed — read or viewed — by that very same device. Imagine, if you will, individuals enraptured by the magnetism of their iPhone screens — screens that also reflect the suffering and death of the workers who made them, sacrifices on the altar of these coveted electronic devices. It’s a tragedy of biblical proportions.

The unequivocal prophetic voice in Torah warns us against our devotion to the material. Arguably, the moral currents wafting throughout the Exodus narrative paint the starkest of contrasts between our love and our service to that which can be seen and that which is only heard — that which is tactile and that which eludes our grasp. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors intuited that the human would forever seek existential validation in the work of one’s own hands and from the Tower of Babel to the Golden Calf to the iPhone, this has been our tragic folly.
Moses understood this. His demand to Pharaoh was to allow for the removal of the Israelites from the center of idolatry to the ephemeral, stark, image-less wilderness of the desert. The battle lines were drawn: Worship the voice who gives the law vs. worship the man and the cities he builds. Sinai, clouded in mystery, the top of which no one could see and still live, represents eternality; the city, a mere temporal representation, brick over brick over brick.
A child navigates a crosswalk, ears fit with headphones, eyes drawn into the reflecting pools of his hand-held digitron. A driver, by mere chance, looks up from texting, swerves to avoid the child, and narrowly misses ruining both their lives — not to mention the “diameter of the bomb” in any such tragic encounter. Though the social critic Neil Postman died too soon to see this affront to human responsibility, the title of his book captures it completely: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
On a quieter level, are the potentially insidious effects of our devotion to this godless object-god in our human relations closer to home? Think of the child who looks longingly into his parent’s eyes hoping for connection: The parent, though, is consumed by images on the screen. Parenting in this complicated world is complicated enough. Now, add to that a multilayered distraction of data in various and immediate forms, a rush of waves threatening to drown us in the radically individuated messages of contemporary life. Ironically, each message appears to burn with the urgency of the child’s need, while cumulatively amounting to a meaningless, faceless mass of nothingness. When we choose to connect in one direction, we risk alienation along a different vector of space, time, and reality.
And yet, paradoxically, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Isn’t it true that while Moses stood on Mount Sinai speaking with God face-to-face, the children of Israel busied themselves below with the accumulation of material objects to build the Golden Calf? They, too, in their time, were driven to distraction while a more sublime “truth” was revealed. When Moses descends, witnesses their betrayal, and smashes the tablets, is he not channeling a desire so common today to rid ourselves of the objects we’ve become slaves to?
A final paradox: Of course, connectivity and technology (and therefore the tools that convey their power) have broken down barriers and revolutionized our world. Of course! One can argue that these tools have in fact brought about such a monumental expression of democratizing freedom as to be redemptive.
Therein lies the rub. “When you arrive at the stones of pure marble,” Rabbi Akiva warned about the philosophical inquiry into “radical truth,” “don’t say ‘water, water,’ for the psalms teach, ‘He who speaks falsehood will not be established before My eyes.’”
Know what you possess in your hands; know what it can do; and know, please God, when to turn it off, to look your neighbor in the eye, and live.