30 November 2012

Poking, Jabbing

The laugh is what I always remember about this encounter.

It was late on a Friday afternoon.  Chicken was in the oven in the Hillel kitchen and the rest of the building was quiet except for the quiet discussion going on between me and Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory.  The biblical patriarch Jacob had just awakened from his dream, realized his place of slumber was holy ground, named the rock "House of God" and "Gate of Heaven" and then extracted a deal from God.  "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee."

Calling this 'hutzpah' is an understatement, Irv laughed. 

He who had taken the birthright from his brother Esau; conspired with his mother to steal his father's blessing; had fled for his life in the rapid retreat of the refugee; and, was now making demands to establish on his own terms the House of God which had already been made quite apparent to him--in a dream.  

Maybe he was anticipating Herzl--"If you will it, it is no dream"--claiming for future generations that one can dream of home in the Holy Land but making it so is another matter.    

But maybe not.  It seems more in Jacob's nature to make demands as a condition for his faith.  Give me bread, give me clothing, give me shelter--and then I will call this place God's house.   

This is a real tension that I have seen among people of all ages when it comes to talking about God.  Give me material proof that God exists, people say, and then I will believe.  That's the general proposition.  But how many people get up in the morning and thank God when getting dressed; thank God at breakfast; and thank God when leaving the house that has sheltered them all night long?  Who among us is so bound to a sense of simple faith that the obvious is a daily blessing?  I wonder.

It's more true that people taking daily blessings for granted; or, even more likely, credit themselves for the benefits of their own hard work.  You can't blame them.  People work hard.  Everyone wants credit.

So says Jacob, perhaps:  You want my devotion?  Prove it to me.  With a material structure that will secure my being.  And on he goes:  obtaining wives, handmaids, children, and wealth; and still, he's left alone, beside a river, deeply troubled and insecure.  Terrified to face his brother.

He lays down again--this time as he moves toward his brother--and dreams of wrestling an angel from whom he extracts another blessing, which is not material but conceptual:  the angel changes Jacob's name to Israel.  He who strives with God, even God's champion, some suggest.

It's quite remarkable how much sorting out of his unconscious mind Jacob does while he sleeps.  His material angst; the emotional landscape of his sibling rivalry; his place, with his brother, in the Biblical land of Israel.  

Jacob, after gaining the name Israel, bows before his brother Esau, who runs to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and weeps with him.  Their reunion--each materially satisfied--is a seeking of favor in one another's eyes.

Would that it were with Bibi and Abbas:  both locked, child-like, in their own restricting narratives.  Neither yet capable of the generous acts of men comfortable in their fate to concede that peace is possible.  A pseudo-state declared; settlements expanded in East Jerusalem.  A continual finger in the eye, two brothers, still wrestling, jabbing, poking and fatefully ignoring the radical gesture of bowing generously to one another in the land. 

What else can you do right now, but laugh.

22 November 2012

Nowhere to Hide

"O say, can you see?"  Well, no.  Not really.  At least not without batteries and a flashlight.  O say, can you get some for me?

One of my favorite Sandy recovery stories in our community came a couple weeks ago when late on Friday afternoon a delivery truck pulled up in front of CBE and dropped off three pallets of batteries, courtesy of Rayovac in Madison, Wisconsin.  Ever the loyal Badger, I walked home that day to briefly prepare for Shabbat while singing my Alma Mater and favorite football fight song.  The unrequested but deeply needed cache of energy was a real boost, a shot from the darkened distance beyond New York's battered borders, a reminder that we're all in this together.

Now more than three weeks since Sandy devastated lives and land in our beloved Brooklyn, supplies abound in relative measure and the larger questions of infrastructure and socio-economic dimension emerge.  That a human being could be abandoned to the tops floors of public housing, waiting for electricity, heat and water says as much about our society as any random test of our character as a nation.  Because while it may be easy to dismiss the holdouts as nutty and stubborn (a description more fitting for House Speaker Boehner, perhaps) the reality is that the poor had nowhere to go while the rich had an escape plan.  And while it required a massive outpouring of cooperation between government (the Mayor, City Councilmen, the Governor, FEMA) and the people (Occupy Sandy, CBE, UJA, countless others) to solve the immediate crisis and basic human needs, the long-term divisions, the greater challenges of how to guard our borders and deliver the instruments of justice to all the citizens of the city remain.

Our city's schools, our housing projects, our senior centers; our immigration policy, our tax code, our budgets, beaches, bridges and roadways--all require our undivided attention as the planet warms and as the storms lie in wait, ready to pounce again.

The humanitarian outpouring of support across the city was a revelation.  A demonstration of what is possible, regardless of difference, when it's obvious that we are all united by a common humanity.  Painfully, as the Sandy efforts began to develop a new narrative of long-term solutions, one of the oldest, most intractable divisions exploded onto the scene:  rockets from Gaza into Southern Israel; a justified Israeli response; the terrifying prospect of an existential regional war that would unleash a storm of violence and like Sandy, re-draw the map.

The volleys between Gaza and Israel--with Hamas openly calling for the "end of Israel" while Israel sought merely to defend its borders--produced nowhere near the daily death toll in say, Syria, but nevertheless took up most of the world's attention these past days.  This is because, as Jeffrey Goldberg put it so well, Jews were killing people.  A dystopic Passion Play of the mind.  This quadrennial blood-letting out of the way, borders come into view.  The same questions remain.  To be worked out yet again.

What is particularly challenging is managing the particular-universal divide.   My friend Sharon Brous has been drawn into a public debate with her former teacher Daniel Gordis, who unjustifiably attacked Sharon for expressing humane feelings toward an enemy--a moral sentiment commanded of us by our religious tradition.  It's precisely the most difficult questions that demand our attention, Sharon correctly argues.  And with a ceasefire upon us, those most difficult questions remain--to be solved, not blown into oblivion.

Painful indeed.  I'll grant that it's easy to see our common humanity when we're all sitting in the dark, waiting for light.  It's another matter entirely when you're under existential threat.  But when there are no "rockets red glare, [the] bombs bursting in air," we've gained a moment to see another's suffering, anguish, even hatred of us.  And for some particular individual amidst that universal, albeit temporary calm, there is hope in seeing into another person's suffering.  That's what ceasefires are for.

When word reached us that the fighting had stopped, I heard that a slumlord in Red Hook was not doing his duty for one of our employees at the synagogue.  We'll do battle with him next week.

And then I reached for Robert Frost, who gave me some much needed perspective going in to this Thanksgiving.


We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend

But so with all from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.


It's precisely where there's light, and peace, that there's nowhere to hide from doing what's right.

20 November 2012

So Will It

wherein a father teaches his children, "this city is large enough for all of us"
First of all, many if not most of the rockets being fired by Hamas and other radical Islamist groups are manufactured in Iran, smuggled through the Sudan, a recently re-aligned and Muslim Brotherhood dominated Egypt, and sent flying to Israel.  This is to terrorize a population, attempt to wear away their will, and instill fear into children.  It's also meant, ineffectually, to kill people for the crime of being Jews.  If you follow the rhetoric of Hamas and their insidious charter as well as the insanely apocalyptic language of the leadership in Iran, this is the stated goal:  rid the Middle East of Jews.  The problem with this idiotic and racist thinking is that Jews have lived in the Middle East for more than three thousand years.  And Israel is a modern nation-state, whose founding in 1948, was agreed upon by the body of other states known as the United Nations.  One would be hard-pressed to think of another example of an effort to eradicate an actual nation elsewhere in the world today.  This idea is a loser.

Second, one must never forget to charge the leadership of Hamas with its own moral culpability in putting at risk its own population.  That there are many dozens of innocent Palestinians currently dying in Gaza, it's because they have been put at risk by a delusional policy that says, "We win this war by drawing fire from Jews whose bombs will kill innocent Palestinians, earning the world's condemnation, making Israel a pariah among the nations."  Hamas wants this to happen.  Its population glorifies these deaths.  These are the grotesque tickets to heaven of our new messianic age.  Why this is not a crime against humanity boggles the mind.

Third, please don't start arguing with me about blockades.  This is real easy.  Hamas publicly recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.  It offers to negotiate.  What does Iran, Hezbollah, or the radicalized Muslim Brotherhood have to do with anything except the view that Israel is a temporary problem in the Middle East?  Jews are many things but two for sure:  intelligent and stubborn.  We're not leaving a place that has been ours for three thousand years.  And I'll even go so far as to say God has nothing to do with it.  I'm talking pure, archaeologically verifiable history.  So stop your nonsense.

Now let's shift direction.

While Israel has to strike ammunitions in Gaza and take out the weapons systems that threaten the sovereign existence of its citizens who deserve their country's rightful defense, there is a tragic and cynical element to Bibi Netanyahu's government.

First, the hands of moderation have not been strengthened but rather ignored.  Rather than sit down for direct negotiations with Palestinian leadership, Bibi's government has continually opted for expansion of settlements (since we're talking no nonsense, let's admit that "ten month freezes" are meaningless in the face of a 45 year settlement policy.)  Rather than publicly taking every opportunity to partner with the most moderate Palestinian forces and forge a relationship of cooperation, economic growth, expansion of civil services and basic infrastructure support, a policy of separation has driven a harsh wedge between two populations, two nations.  East Jerusalem is probably the best and easiest example. The kinds of settlements and radical political and religious views of Jewish settlers living amidst Palestinian populations in East Jerusalem is a provocation that sows seeds of discontent and distrust.  Israel controls Jerusalem.  It doesn't need to be a finger in the eye by building massive settlements amidst Arab populations just for the sake of "sovereignty."  It tears at the fragile fabric of the idea of cooperation.

Second, for nearly two years we have watched in horror and guarded breath the provocations wrought by a potentially nuclear Iran.  We have been subjected to the most invasive intrusion of Israel into an American campaign in modern memory.  And we have tried--against voices of anger, concern, and at times, deeply disturbing, even racist hysteria--to temper the diatribes against President Obama, who has demonstrated stalwart friendship for Israel through it all.  And despite it all, it's hard not to believe, on a certain level, that Israelis have been killed and threatened; and many more Palestinians have been killed and threatened because Iran and Israel and Hezbollah are fighting a proxy war.  Innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians are being subjected to a greater fight--among radical forces of Islam and an Israeli leadership that sees no chance for peace and negotiation with any Arab nation.  This is a war of hopelessness, a deeply cynical war, whose eventual cease-fire will only be the briefest of breaks until the next re-arming.

Third, don't underestimate the Jewish state's own delusional radicalism.  If Syria falls (which it will) and if Jordan falls (which it might, eventually) and if Gaza allies with Egypt in a more radicalized Mediterranean corridor of apocalyptical visions, then a Greater Israel movement is vindicated.  Jordan is Palestine and Gaza is Egypt and the map is re-drawn and Rand McNally makes a killing next Christmas, if anyone buys maps anymore.

I hope that my worst fears, here articulated, are not realized.  But the truth is, I don't know.  And so, like countless generations of Jews, I hope against those crippling fears and hatreds that a sanity prevails.  In my meager, diaspora ways, I attempt to strengthen the hands of tolerance, cooperation and moderation.  I support, despite insidious attempts to delegitimate them as "un-patriotic," the NGOs that support cooperation, toleration, even two states for two peoples.   I will lead more than 50 Jews from our Brooklyn community to their ancestral homeland, to love, celebrate, and simply be with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

And upon the wall in my study will remain a map that I believe in:  a Jewish state whose largest city is one of the greatest on earth and whose capital means City of Peace.

If you will it, it is no dream.  So will it.  Do it.  Make peace.  Enough with death!

18 November 2012

But It Shouldn't Be

It's said that chickens were first cultivated for the purposes of fighting, perhaps in ancient India, thousands of years ago.  Only later does the gregarious bird get domesticated for food and eggs.  The Greeks employ the chicken as a kind of talisman against evil; and the Jews famously use the chicken each year at Yom Kippur time, to symbolically hoist sins from man to bird with a few turns of the wrist, a quick slaughter and then on to the festival table of the poor.

Chickens are tough, resilient, at times belligerent, and if prepared correctly, delicious.

The best chicken I've ever eaten in my entire life has been prepared by either Jews or Palestinians and the place of repose from which said repast has been enjoyed is, of course, Jerusalem, sacred to both people.


Kids play Chicken.  One daring another to move, risking injury, even life.  On the sidewalk, in a field, in a car:  danger of head-on conflict, collision.  Where the one who chooses to preserve life is a "chicken."


The Hamas Charter calls for the destruction of Israel.  The language of Hamas leadership, launching rockets made in Iran and smuggled into Gaza through the Sudan and Egypt, are launched with the goal of ending Zionism.  They are the metallic manifestation of the idea that the Jew is a foreign body, a cancer, on any historic claim to the ancient Land of Israel.  The scars left on the ground, the bodies mangled and destroyed and drenched in blood, are so abused by those who say the Holocaust is a lie, a Zionist invention.

This creates fury in the Jew.  It makes him want to slaughter the man who says this, kill him quickly, like a chicken.


To not understand the demographic reality of Jewish and Palestinian population growth in the West Bank is to cluck around the yard, pretending that everyone has become a vegetarian.


To not pay attention to Hezbollah, armed by Iran, waiting in Lebanon; to not pay attention to the daily slaughter in Syria; to not notice the increased destabilization in Jordan; to ignore the radicalized politics of Egypt; and to not view the Hamas decision to launch rocket attacks on Israel is to be worse than a chicken, it's to be an ostrich, with one's head buried deep, deep in the sand.  How come no one is paying attention to Salam Fayyad?  In contrast to the current violence and destruction, a civiv infrastructure quietly builds.  Getting a state declared in the West Bank might strengthen moderation.  Is support for such an idea "chicken?"  Which chicken?  The valorous, chivalrous kind?  Or the idiotic, hopelessly slaughterable kind?


Great winds and rains blew through New York three weeks ago, killing dozens, rendering homeless thousands, traumatizing hundreds of thousands.  And a great love and hard work has sought to forge healing from the damage.  In our community, Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue which 150 years ago took its name from the Biblical legend of Jacob, the covenanted Jew, who dreamed a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder while he slept on a desert floor in desperate flight from his brother Esau, the proto-Palestinian, we have fed thousands of people meals made from chicken.  We've made roasted chicken with potatoes and vegetables; we've made chicken stew and chicken soup; we've made chicken salad sandwiches and thousands and thousands of egg salad sandwiches.

We've made these meals in a synagogue, dedicated to a Jewish God, where people pray in the Hebrew language, where each year dozens visit Israel, the Jewish state, and each week hundreds of Israelis educate their children.

We buy the chicken from two Palestinian grocers who are here in Brooklyn, like us, living in the Diaspora, trying to make sense of it all.  Living life, getting by.  When we first started cooking after the Hurricane we asked for 800 eggs on Facebook and got 4500 eggs.

Chicken redeems Brooklyn and Queens.


Rockets drop in Israel.  Rockets drop in Gaza.  Homes fall in the Rockaways, in Gaza, in Ashdod.  Some are playing chicken.  Some are cooking chicken.  Some are eating chicken.

Chicken is he who denies the Holocaust and the Jewish right to live in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.  Chicken is he who denies the Palestinian right to statehood.  Chicken is he who hides behind bombs, hatred, and death, wearing the mask of false heroism, false faith, false life.


The best chicken I ever had was in Jerusalem.  Home to two nations, two peoples, two brothers.

I ate, was satisfied, then blessed.  It could be worse.  Today it is.

But it shouldn't be.

16 November 2012

From the Rockaways to Tel Aviv

Natan Sharansky at CBE: 11-16-12
I remember three things about the 1987 rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, DC.  We drove all night from Madison to get there, sleeping on someone's floor in Philadelphia;  I lifted my friend Debbie up on my shoulders to help her get a better view of the stage; and I learned that if 250,000 people show up in the nation's capital and demand action, following through on that demand with more action, things can actually happen.

So today, when Natan Sharansky came to CBE to thank us for our efforts on behalf of Russian Jews living in Coney Island and the Rockaways, scarred, proud, scared, cold and hungry victims of Hurricane Sandy, I have to admit to feeling a certain disconnect.

After all, he had languished in a Soviet jail for the crime of being a Jew; he had determined that by refusing to cave in to totalitarian pressure, he could liberate a million people.  That we were feeding and clothing and sheltering a few thousand was a mere footnote to the enormity of the achievements he had wrought in his life.

But that's not how life works.  One Red Sea, as it were, is not enough.

It turns out that we are forever in someone's debt, forever humbled by the blessing or grace of life, by the gift of its manifest reality.  What someone did before brought us to this place, a brief resting place until the journey begins anew.  Another river to cross; another sea to part; another mouth to feed.

Sharansky's visit came against the brutal backdrop of another "war" between Israelis and Palestinians.   An intolerable year of Hamas rockets falling on sovereign Israeli territory was finally enough.  Palestinians feeling locked into Gaza was finally enough.  No negotiations or a sign of the smallest interest in discussions was finally enough.  And a new reality comes into play.  New limits--with new leadership in Egypt, a divided Syria, Jordan being tested--come into view.  By most estimates, this is how negotiations happen when you can no longer talk.  This is Hamas asserting its power and independence and new alliances with an Egyptian government led not by Mubarak but by the Muslim Brotherhood; this is Israel saying to Iran via Hamas, "We will cause suffering to those who deploy the rockets you smuggle into Gaza."  It's even about Israeli elections and shoring up support and dividing internal oppositions.

My friend N wrote just after coming out of his bomb shelter last night; and I woke up this morning to find out they were back in there again a few hours later.  Sharansky said this afternoon, "More than a million Israelis have been in bomb shelters the past twenty-four hours.  In Israel we claim we protect you but we're in shelters; but then in America we expect you to protect us, but a storm just destroyed your houses--so I guess we work together to protect each other."

He gestured, with a laugh, toward fifteen Scouts, young men and women of high school age who are staying in our community for the next two weeks, doing volunteer work in the Rockaways and Coney Island.  They were listening, and checking their phones for reports from family back home. While Hamas and the IDF tweeted threats and updates to one another.

Death is sometimes fast and death is sometimes slow.  But you can tweet it in an instant.

Sharansky is always shorter than I remember.  And when 250,000 Jews gathered in Washington to free Soviet Jewry, there was no internet, no Twitter, no Facebook.

But human will is not measured vertically; nor is it reckoned in horizontal technological grids.  It is measured in the capacity of a man or a woman to believe in a cause and to see that belief through to its necessary conclusion.   This man in a beige sweater, tired, with a runny nose, helped free millions in his lifetime while devoting this part of his life to the idea that a Jew ought to be safe wherever he or she lives.

This can yield a dangerous absolutism, of course.  Sharansky, for instance, opposed the pullout from Gaza, which, while imperfect, was an important Zionist sacrifice for the two-state solution.  And, the argument goes, a "similar" absolutism impairs the Palestinian ability for compromise.  Which regrettably leads to more bloodshed.

But for the past few days I have been haunted by the assassination of Ahmed Jabari--not so much by the calculating precision of it but by the worshipful reduction of his body into an object of devotion.  I found it an abhorrence that was stunningly lacking in the very humility that death ought to teach us.  Not regret over another life lost but a macabre celebration of another martyr to be worshipped.

As if the cause were no longer freedom, but something else.

I'm struggling to be honest here.

While not entirely in agreement with Sharansky's political agenda, I nevertheless am a man who prefers preserving lives in shelters to parading corpses through the streets.  One is a unification of the sacred; the other is sacralization of the one.

I pray for the peace of everyone.  I always have and always will.  But as a Jew I pray for the safety of my family, my big family:  contentious, argumentative, singularly creative and brilliant and generous and Jewish--from the Rockaways to Tel Aviv.

15 November 2012


Life is crazy isn't it?

The last few weeks really are a blur.  The tsunami of campaign commercials and phone calls and misleading attacks, washed away by the greater hurricane winds and rains of Sandy.  Lives lost, countless thousands displaced and devastated.  Politically, a balancing out.  Turnout of young, black, Asian and Latino voters along with college students and of course, women, tip the balance.  The President is re-elected.  The Jewish Right's strategy seems not to have worked--they were outfoxed by the President on that one, who threw pitches over the plate to American Jews, fastballs down the middle to the idea that equality, fairness and economic justice were equally if not more important than a singular devotion to Prime Minister Netanyahu's definition of Israel's security interests.  (Because it's so disheartening and grotesque, we'll leave on the trash heap of history the grotesque assertions and scared tactics used to frighten voters about the President's identity.  Xenophobia, thank God, was crushed.)

In our community we have made and personally delivered more than 15,000 meals and developed a devoted volunteer corps of more than 1400 individuals.  Rozanne Gold and Michael Whiteman are the culinary heroes of Park Slope.  We love them.  As we love everyone -- members and non-members, generations across the ages.  Background, race, nation and belief don't matter--the body politic of CBE's hurricane relief is as diverse as America itself.  They're happy and proud to serve.

The founders, who built the Main Sanctuary in 1909 and carved above the door "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples" knew what they were doing.  We've worked with Councilmen Lander and Levin, Mayor Bloomberg, Occupy Sandy, FEMA, the Red Cross, the Red Hook Initiative, the Center for Court Innovation, Speaker Quinn, President Markowitz, and Senator Adams.  We've worked with Masbia, UJA, the URJ, JASA, COJECO and the hero of heroes, Leonard Petlakh and the Kings Bay Y.  And Cindy Greenberg, our intrepid Program Director, who refuses to believe we should ever stop helping.  Ever.   Synagogues and churches and individuals from around the country have come to CBE to lend a hand.  We sent 20 AmericaCorps Fellows to the Nets-Cavs game the other night and at sundown yesterday found 4 tickets to the Who concert for the Fellows as well.  This week 15 Israeli Scouts come to help--we'll house them, feed them, and send them out into the field with UJA.  Sounds good.

This is what happens when you say "yes."

When you say "yes" more than fifty people travel to Israel with their rabbis in February.  Kids, adults, a couple buses, a bunch of hotels, great food, warm people, complicated situations and dangerous borders.  We pulled this trip off in the middle of this chaos--it seems to be the theme of the 21st century--do what you can with what you got--because we care about Israel, its future, its relationship to American Jewry.  Our relationship with each other.

I'll admit to a kind of weary head-scratch yesterday when I read the news and watched the video of new conflict in Gaza and Southern Israel.  An email from a friend immediately said it all:  "My heart aches for innocent lives, for children, for families, for soldiers risking their lives in a call to duty.  For Palestinians and Israelis."  I'd add, led by people saying "no."

No peace; no talks; no negotiations.  Itchy trigger fingers, war games, in a region that right now is a cauldron for change.  It was enough to wake up yesterday and learn about riots in Jordan over gasoline prices; to read through weary eyes about tensions and border incursions with Syria and Egypt in the Sinai.  To wonder if and when Hezbollah will pounce.   Jeffrey Goldberg will be good to follow if you don't already.  As Jeffrey points out, rockets into Kiryat Malachi today, killing three Israelis, could trigger a ground war into Gaza.  That's just not good for anybody.  It'll be painful to watch.

An election season where nuclear Iran was a major wedge between the President and Governor Romney, vying for votes in Florida, the smoke clears and Florida's electoral contribution was a mere afterthought, a forgotten civic sacrifice, now obliterated by the klieg lights of General Petraeus' libido, a Romanesque circus of military might and phony charities taking place in a gated Tampa that makes Las Vegas look like a Mormon enclave in Utah.

Okay, that might have been too much but you get my drift.

The world's a big mess.  And sometimes, you're born into the obligation to clean it up.  You didn't make it, it might even annoy you that you're left holding the bag, but there really isn't an acceptable alternative.

You simply roll up your sleeves and say "yes."

Yes to Coney Island and yes to Red Hook; yes to the Rockaways and yes to Canarsie.  Yes to Israel.  Yes to Palestine.  Yes to love and caring for others.  Yes to peace.  Sometimes you travel a few blocks from home to make it; sometimes you get on a plane and go half-way around the world.  Yes in any language is easily understood.  It means "yes."


12 November 2012

Call It A Night

streets of brooklyn:  11.12.12
On days off of school, Mom would sometimes take us to the Milwaukee Museum, which, if it were in New York, would be called The Museum of Natural History.  We didn't have Teddy Roosevelt out there but we did have the Pabst and Schlitz families, as well as an exhibit called, "The Streets of Old Milwaukee."  I couldn't get enough of that display.  It was late 19th century urban midwest and it was redolent of an exaggerated sentimentality, prairie social convention, and what George Mosse would later teach us as good German values of order and patriotism.
streets of old milwaukee, milwaukee museum
Our peculiar expression of "Sewer Socialism" made us very proud.  Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to Congress from Milwaukee, preceding Meyer London of New York, as well as Emil Seidel, Milwaukee's Socialist mayor (and Eugene Debs vice presidential candidate in 1912 for the Socialist Party nomination) were heroic figures in my youth, their era en-waxed and exhibited figures and ideas, on display in matter or in words for the day off meanderings of suburban school kids looking for time to kill.
victor berger
The Streets of Old Milwaukee have never eluded my imagination.  I think I've always been chasing them.   Depending:  either in the Springsteenian or Homerian sense.

Through the vacuity of the groovy sixties and seventies; the repetitive narcissism of the eighties; the compromised, ephemeral nihilism of the nineties; and into the brutal violence of the twenty-first century naughts--that amounts-to-nothing of a decade of countless lives lost for access to oil on the most cynical one hand and a valorous defense against Islamo-fascism on the other hand (and every opportunist making every advantage in between.)  Some okay music.  A decent local food movement.  Bike lanes. Yawn.

I've never doubted the human capacity to screw things up.  And as a little kid, it always struck me as odd, macabre and monumentally pathetic that a museum needed to display a yellow-leaved lit era, gooey with nostalgia, as just barely out-of-reach.

So time seemed to slip away like polar ice caps, flooding the mind, while angels, like those in Jacob's deram, ascended and descended from here to there--and the other way, too.

The angels laughed at standing-still-time; at men who resined memory.  And so we became, in the face of heavenly mockery, men of action.  Like Father Jacob, with a rock beneath his dreaming head, there was only so long a man could bear to stay in one place, seeking his God, before it was time to move on.    No sooner did Jacob realize that the divine could be found in the vertical axis than he intuited the need to keep driving forward, along a horizontal plane.

In the calendar grid I try to keep current, I am on Jury Duty Tuesday followed by getting in my car Wednesday, driving to Milwaukee, and retrieving from Mom's collection of family treasures a stained maple table and chairs that belonged to her mother; a small, wall-hanging grandfather clock; and a wicker storage chest, which housed afghan blankets knit by grandma and Mom and an enfolded Houdini mini-me, buried, beneath the streets.

I'll show up in the morning at Kings County Court; but because of the hurricane will stay close to home, helping provide further relief to the streets of old Brooklyn, torn, tattered, and much beloved.  We're feeding and clothing people; and wrapping our heads around what it might mean for our synagogue to commit to feed hundreds, daily, for the duration:  til the ice caps melt or freeze again; til the angels go down instead of up; til the leaves moisten, not dry, on the branches; til Hilquit and London and Berger put their feet up on the sofa, relax a bit, shoot a look to Debs, high five one another over everyone being fed, and call it a night.

On the streets of old wherever.

Anyway, a road trip seems so bourgeois.  So profligate.  We ration so as not to fight a war.  Turns out sharing is hopeful.  A sign of peace.

10 November 2012

History's Call to Serve

ny mag
Most of the poorest people in New York City live on the edges of the city, which is different from the way it is in the suburbs where people used to talk about an "inner city."  In New York it's about the inner circle, the 'in' crowd.  We even have bouncers to keep you out (as if getting bounced is a ball.)

But an interesting thing happened when the winds kicked up and the largest storm of the last one hundred years devastated the perimeters of the city.  The relatively wealthier citizens were able to leave and poorest were not.  And while electricity restoration has brought much of Lower Manhattan (where not only wealthy people live but is an economic engine that drives the city, so that it has to be restored quickly) the real energy restoration--human energy--has been on the perimeters:  Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways.  

Uncommon feats of strength, generosity and nerve tattering wakefulness of such relentless proportions have, without question out-Sandied Sandy, and have done for New York what Katrina began to do for New Orleans as well:  create the potential to do things differently from this day forward, to cross borders, build human bridges of compassion and giving that shrink an expansive metropolis, that bounce bouncers from the cynical elitism that too often feeds itself on a desire to keep safe distance between rich and poor, have and have not, the inner city and the forgotten, outlying dunes of despair.

For Shabbat last night, to honor the veterans in attendance on Veteran's Day weekend, among those we blessed were two men in their 90s who served heroically in the Navy in the Second World War and another who served as a tank commander in the Korean War.  All these men were drafted.  They were impelled but they willingly served.  In other words, the law called upon them to give of themselves for the sake of their nation and because history demanded it, they submitted to the commandment.  

I often wonder if the revelation at Mount Sinai that brought the Five Books of Moses to human civilization is really about nothing more than Moses' particular historical world view:  a people freed from slavery need Law to give structure and meaning to their lives.  A Sabbath for rest; care for the widow, stranger, orphan and child; just wages for the worker; mandatory education for children; injunction against murder and theft; the knowledge that the needy will always require our care; faithfulness in relationships; honor for those who brought us into the world.  

He needed Commandment as much as he needed God.  And since God stayed up on the mountain, Commandment came down to the people, first in the form of stone Tablets, then in a Scroll of Law, then books, and now, one can read the entire Jewish legal tradition, downloaded as an app.  (When you read it in that order, you get how silly the word "app" is but that's for another day.)

Back to Brooklyn and Queens.  I am convinced that New York City has the potential to galvanize a national debate in this country about the obligation to serve, about the commanding voice that gives to those most in need, that denies artificial barriers based on income, race, nationality, or whether you live in a high rise with a doorman whose power is restored or you live in high rise by the sea, in public housing, where darkness and desertion have covered you in the freezing winds of the past two weeks.

The basic truths we now know we've always known: the poor and neglected have a mountain of unmet needs; our national, state and city infrastructures need massive repair and reinvention; and yes, climate change is a reality.

But the new basic truth we learned as a city these last two weeks is that the desire to serve, to care, to be commanded to hear the voice calling us to repair and rebuild the material and the human dimensions of life, is a voice that can transform the whole country.  It can serve as the groundswell of service, the galvanizing historical moment, a draft for public service--not to fight wars that kill people but to battle poverty, despair, and illiteracy; to re-create a public infrastructure; to build barriers at sea that limit a storm's potential but to open doors and create pathways of possibility for millions living on the edge.

Hurricane winds destroyed large sections of the city's outer perimeter; but a mere draft to public service could change for the better our whole country.   

Who knows?  Maybe one day we'll look back and say we were all veterans of a time when history called us to serve.


08 November 2012

Return On Investment (or How We Roll)

voting with feet:  cbe helping hurricane victims on election day
The most famous Jewish leader known for his profligate spending--Sheldon Adelson, with casinos for pockets--spent $60 million on ten races that ran the table for ten losses.  The house won but I guess the tourist had fun in Vegas.  

Besides the grotesquery of the statement--wholly justifying Sarah Silverman's "in-your-face" comedic response to such disdain for women and the economic philosophy of his fellow gamblers--an even greater truth is revealed:  billionaires are allowed to waste money but government programs to help the poor and the middle class with health care, funding for schools and teachers, alternative energy research, student loans, family planning, and on and on--should not exist.  

Billions down the drain; advertising dollars filling pockets somewhere; millions of people still out of work; and one man still standing, our President, Barack H. Obama.  Personally, I feel vindicated.  Like the better message won.  Whatever happened in Vegas actually did stay in Vegas.  Thank God.

$60 million = 10 losses.  Incredible.

For less than $5,000, here's a list of the meals we made since Hurricane Sandy struck last week, powered by love and a belief in community (excerpted from a kitchen memo I received late last night):

Thursday, November 1 -- 600 sandwiches

Friday, November 2 --  500 hard-boiled eggs/850 sandwiches

Saturday, November 3 --  600 hard-boiled eggs/1250 sandwiches/500 hot roast chicken dinners

Sunday, November 4 --  yogurts/hard-boiled eggs/2400 sandwiches/trays of homemade stuffing with apples/stringbeans, potato & caramelized onions 

Monday, November 5 --   1000 sandwiches/freshly cooked vegetables and potatoes

Tuesday, November 6 --  1058 sandwiches/350 buffet-style platters of chicken, potatoes, and vegetables/200 individual roast chicken dinners 

Wednesday, November 7 -- 800 sandwiches/200 warm individual crustless pot "pies"  

--Our sandwiches included peanut butter and jelly, turkey, kosher turkey, homemade egg salad, homemade chicken salad, cream cheese sandwiches, kosher cheese
sandwiches, cheddar cheese sandwiches (with romaine lettuce and mayonnaise.)  

--We sent out more than 3000 hard-boiled eggs and received most of the them from the community.

--We used 16,000 slices of bread, wrapped and labelled more than 8000 sandwiches.  

We have also collected and distributed clothing, diapers, batteries, candles, socks, shoes, cleaning supplies, school supplies, and much more to thousands of people from Coney Island to Canarsie and from Red Hook to the Rockaways.  By late last night, in the midst of an early November snowstorm, we evacuated 40 elderly Russians to the Park Slope Armory and their first shower and heated night sleep in ten days.

It's been no spin of the roulette wheel; just a series of safe bets from generous and loving hearts. 


While billions were spent in this campaign by one side that barely if ever even mentioned the poor, we created a "return on investment" that counts as its bottom line the idea of redemption and the oneness of all humanity.

$1 million of that wasted $60 million could permanently establish a feeding program at CBE so that acts of lovingkindness might be carried on forever in Brooklyn.

If you got it in you for one more campaign email, help us out.

06 November 2012


Some things pass.  Others last forever.

The outpouring of volunteer efforts and generosity in our community--devoted toward caring for others--has been spectacular.  The superlative form in diction was created for moments like this.

Without ever really knowing how to do something like this, the CBE community has fed thousands of people in the past week, providing basic human needs like water, clothing, shelter and love; and by yesterday afternoon we were able to mobilize doctors and other medical professionals to visit the elderly in Coney Island and the Rockaways who were stranded in dark, cold, waste-filled apartments, in need of care and medicine.  By late yesterday afternoon, we had three restaurants calling us, ready to dispatch warm meals of 200 servings each, to distressed areas of Brooklyn and Queens.

In the past week, when we've asked (and even when we haven't) no single individual has hesitated to help.   And especially for those who make the trips out to devastated areas, there is a corridor of experience they pass through that changes their perspective on things.  The enormity of the damage becomes clear.  Its long-lasting effects are made known.  This is not a "one-off."

And so one concludes:  the human capacity for "response to need" is like what the Sages said about responding to a commandment:  מצוה גוררת מצוה--One commandment drives the performance of another commandment.  Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

This is fundamentally true.  And it means that our efforts to save human lives, to erase somewhat the false distinctions that separate one from another and to be acutely aware of what binds us to one another, is to understand that the caring for and feeding of others is not temporary but permanent.

We've spent the past seven years at CBE taking steps to repair our roofs and windows.  In 2006 and 2007, we spent nearly $1 million in our building fund--the total amount there--to repair the Temple House roof.  And over the past year and a half, we've raised nearly $3 million to repair the Main Sanctuary Roof and Stained Glass windows (including the $250,000 we received from American Expreess for our Partners in Preservation award, where we shared the top prize with our neighbors at the Brooklyn Public Library.)

We're dry.  And grateful.  And blessed to be dry.  Because it allows us to focus and galvanize our efforts on caring for others.  That's the point of taking care of yourself.  It's not to sit back under a tree, a blade of grass between the teeth, contemplating a soft breeze (thought that sounds good, actually); it's to see others in ourselves, to be repaired and repair in turn.

When I came to CBE in 2006, I set as a quiet personal goal the establishment of a permanent feeding program to be run from CBE.  A kitchen of our size; a need to solve hunger that is even greater; a borough that loves food; and a population of willing volunteers to cook and serve to those in need were all the right ingredients for a great project.  And what the uncommonly generous Rozanne Gold and Michael Whiteman and Mark Federman showed us in helping us conceive of feeding thousands this past week is that anything is possible--certainly establishing a feeding program for a mere few hundred a day.  As we now know, that's just a few hours' work!

It's going to make getting the green energy car with the CBE logo for food delivery that much better.  Hey, I'm turning 50 this year.  Aren't I supposed to have a mid-life crisis and get a car?

Yesterday afternoon, in the midst of it all, a community leader called with great news:  a pledge of $25,000 toward our efforts at helping those in need.  What would you use it toward, he asked.  Feeding people, I answered.


And away we go.

04 November 2012

Feels Good/Hard Wired

More than 3000 meals today.

More batteries, paper towels, toilet paper, candles and breakfast bars than you care to know.
But such an awe-inspiring outpouring of love, generosity and purpose:  it turns out prayer might be true.

I'm a skeptic when it comes to faith.  I practice. I believe.  But I don't await results.  Naturally so.   I really don't have a particularly deep answer for why that is.  And yet, whenever there's a crisis of deeply human proportions, I'm always stricken with awe at the human capacity to transcend its own worst instincts, to rise to its best ones, and to love fully and unconditionally its fellow man, woman, child or beast.

Why is that?

Throughout the day today, I've seen people enter our synagogue from all walks of life:  orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians; Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus; secular Jews and secular whomevers; faithful   ones from all the sectors of every shape, dimension and size;  Greeks, Italians, Russians, Israelis, Argentinians, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, French, German, English, Irish, Australian, women, children and men--and many, many more--and never, ever, throughout the day, did it matter "who you were" as much as it mattered "where you were going:"  to Rockaways or Coney Island; to Red Hook or Canarsie--with food, batteries, paper towels, toilet paper, candles and breakfasts bars--more than you care to know or can ever comprehend.

Today people sacrificed family time; personal time; family safety; personal safety.  Why?  Why do people give against their own self-interest?

Of course, maybe the question is wrong.

Maybe we should ask it this way:

Why, despite the erroneous perception that it's against their self-interest, do people transcend their own individuality in order to connect to a larger spirit, a larger organizing morality, a greater connection to a multiple humanity, a gloriously diverse and cacophonously messy whole?

Two reasons.

One, it feels good.

Two, we're hard-wired this way.

I saw both today, and all week, in full force.

On several occasions, while out walking from home to shul or from shul to home, I consulted God on the matter.

He didn't answer directly.

But he kept sending people to the synagogue to help.


03 November 2012

The Bell Is Ringing

We keep saying "yes," which appears to be the only acceptable response to requests for aid and volunteers in a hurricane recovery effort that will be much larger and more challenging than New Yorkers ordinarily "supposedly" have the patience for.  Like most people everywhere, we rise to the occasion--eventually making the right civic decisions that send the appropriate message about where resources and effort ought to be expended.

The decision to postpone the Nets-Knicks debut on November 1 is one such example.  The decision to cancel the New York City Marathon is another.  Diverting precious resources in a crisis would have been inexcusable.  There's a bigger picture here.

So here's another idea:  When one million New York City children return to school on Monday, the Department of Education and UFT should make it perfectly clear that the curriculum over the next month should be all about relief efforts in the city.  And high schools especially, training a new generation of students preparing to live in an inter-connected world with unlimited needs and challenges, have a chance to redefine Civic Education in real time.  

Nearly 75 schools have been turned into temporary shelters.  Countless others are struggling to drain basements, clean floors, and assess damage before re-opening on Monday.  Transportation logistics, food and clothing provisions, child-care for parents who need to work, joining up with meaningful volunteer efforts with city agencies, FEMA, and other aid organizations (including synagogues, churches and mosques like CBE) are among the most invaluable educational experiences a young person can have.  Let's embrace this reality and educate our kids accordingly.  

While the rush to "return to normal" may be tempting, I think there's another way to look at it.  

The New Normal, as they say, is a world struggling to understand the potential dangers of global warming on new storm patterns that may unleash storms of this nature on an annual basis for years to come.  Meterological Studies has much to say on last week's events; so science and physics departments ought to pivot in this direction, adapt curricula accordingly, and teach to events.  History, social studies, and civic classes have much to analyze in the response of government authority to the crisis, to compare and  contrast with past efforts in American history, and ask the big questions, among them, is it right that Americans have no requirement for national service?  We come together so well in moments of crisis--why don't we compel our young to serve their communities for two years after high school as a matter of law?  That's a Stimulus Bill I'd gather might earn bi-partisan support.

At CBE, we received a request late Friday to temporarily house an adult day care center for Russian immigrants, whose center near Sheepshead Bay is flooded.  Let's say we say "yes."  And in saying yes, let's say that our Hebrew school students temporarily suspend their planned learning for the next few weeks and instead learn about a Jewish life wholly unfamiliar to them; crossing cultural and linguistic barriers to grapple with a Jewish narrative other than that we weave for ourselves here in Park Slope; and learn that in service there is learning.  My daughters returned from trying to deliver food in Coney Island yesterday with looks of shock and grief on their faces--immigrants frightened and locked inside of mud-caked housing; foraging in garbage cans for food; darkened vestibules and hungry hands reaching for food.  This is not just Haiti--it's their borough of birth.  These are essential pedagogic maneuvers for our day.  To ignore it is to miss an opportunity of a lifetime.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Story Corps, the Schomburg Center in Harlem and every university history department in the New York area along with countless other organizations, could provide training and support to teach students simple oral history techniques, ways of learning about people from all walks of life, their journeys to America, their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and challenges.  I feel like my fourth grader's Pilgrim Study can wait.  Our shores are crowded with new refugees.

New York City Public Schools don't have much of a physical education program to speak of.  Resources are limited, schools are crowded.  So then let's put kids to work.  There's lifting, cleaning, moving, sorting, delivering of meals, blankets, and clothing--all of which require an expending of energy that I'd guess is more than a kid usually expends on any given day with limited access to a gym.  

Finally, in a city school system besieged by another hurricane--obsessive testing and data collection--we don't want to rush back to the plan that was created before Hurricane Sandy hit.  Rather, the true test we now face is what it means for a city to pull together to heal itself; what it means when a storm of disastrous proportions tests the limits of human behavior; what it means when a city of 8 million people are required to sacrifice of themselves in order to feed, clothe and shelter those in need.  If we don't meet those basic needs, there will be no "race to the top."  We will have simply dragged each other down.  

So what do you say?  

As a kid, I used to be jealous of the way in which my father's experience in the Second World War galvanized his generation to serve.  Historical circumstance called and there was no hesitation in his response, along with countless millions.  One could argue that an equal urgency is upon us now--and its dimensions are complex and many-faceted:  ecology, immigration, finance, unemployment, poverty and wealth, international policy and affairs, local and national infrastructure, education and much more.  Take your pick.  

There is a moment in our city to truly learn, to truly teach, and to enable a new generation of students to face their complex world with hope for a better future.

The bell is ringing--calling us in, to a classroom that has just expanded, far beyond its normal walls.

02 November 2012

What Else Are You Going to Do?

Yesterday a phenomenal effort from hundreds of volunteers, led in the kitchen by Rozanne Gold, Michael Whiteman and Marc Federman.  600 sandwiches (peanut butter & jelly and turkey), grapes and bananas for the Park Slope Armory, which is housing evacuated elderly patients from flooded nursing homes in South Brooklyn.

Hundreds of pounds of dry goods, batteries, flashlights and candles sent over to Red Hook in several shifts, continuing through the weekend; the gym, social hall, pool and basketball court open for restless kids and families; placing orders for food to prep for hundreds more throughout the weekend; Jonathan Safran Foer introducing Paul Auster and Don DeLillo at the end of the night.  But then a call for volunteers with eggs--800 eggs that became 3000 eggs.  And then someone from the Department of Homeless Services asked if we could be a drop-off center for clothes for the now homeless residents of Breezy Point (yes, of course.)  And then at around 8:30 pm a truck from Masbia showed up with hundreds of pounds of carrots, potatoes, squash, onions, green beans, bread, eggs (more eggs), and sliced kosher turkey.

Our Scribe, writing our new Torah, is using a turkey feather.  It says in the Torah, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Seems sensible.

Today breakfast is already served--dozens showed up at 5:15 am to prepare bagels, cream cheese, butter and yes, eggs.

Today lunch for 600 again.  And then Saturday lunch and Saturday night dinner.

Did I mention that in the midst of this week we signed up 34 people to go to Israel in February?

9:30 am this morning we gather as a community to lay to rest Jake Vogelman, one of the sweetest young men I've ever known.  Jake was killed on Monday night with his dear friend Jessie Streich-Kest, while out walking a dog.  A tragedy, an unjust moment in a world in need of justice.  Sunday, our friends from Park Slope Presbyterian, who rent space for their worship, will end early so that Kolot Chayeinu can memorialize Jessie out of our sanctuary at 1 pm.

The human capacity to love, to work together, to draw meaning from the seemingly inexplicable, is truly an awesome power.

Walking home in a moment of quiet last night, I thought of Mom.  Up there in heaven, rubbing her head as I saw her do so much in those closing months of cancer, slowly thinking.  An election is on; a community rallies in the face of a storm; lives are lost and lives are being saved.  She shakes her head at the wonder of it all.

But there's that look in her eye--a look I'll always remember.  It says, "What else are you going to do?"