22 October 2014

Giving Back While Moving Forward

Hand in Hand members:  Neighbors at Peace
As I begin to plan my post-pulpit career, I recently joined two non-profit boards that represent two ongoing issues I intend to work closely on for the coming many years:  New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Hand in Hand:  Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.

Each organization and its leaders are right at the proverbial cutting edge of dealing substantively with two of the most urgent issues facing us today--gun violence and the seeming insolubility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And to my mind, both NYAGV and Hand in Hand offer practical, this-worldly, meaningful solutions.  And they get it done.

NYAGV has been on the ground for years now and my own involvement has been in speaking at rallies, showing up for meetings with political leaders when advocacy is needed, and helping foster a relationship with communities that want to be involved.  For example, in the past nearly two years since Sandy Hook, NYAGV has helped organize an Anti-Gun Violence Working group at CBE in Brooklyn, where I will serve until June, led by a number of members, including fellow NYGAV board member Rebecca Fischer.  There is a focus and a resiliency to this work that the traditional gun lobby, the NRA, may very well be underestimating; and though there has been no major, headline grabbing legislative victory as yet, my sense is that the national momentum for sane gun laws is really, truly building in this country.  The only obvious tragedy is that we can't work fast enough to prevent the ever-present senseless deaths that occur.  But we can try.

At the NYGAV fundraiser on Monday night, I presented an award to Amy Domini, a mutual fund investor whose company, Domini Social Investments, simply refuses to invest in business that support gun manufacturing.  Her plainspoken, ethical approach to doing business was inspiring to hear.  I also met a member of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr (there to accept an award on his boss' behalf) who has done remarkable work helping stop the flow of illegal guns into New York.  The assistant DA was introduced by Detective Steven McDonald, a New York City police detective who was gunned down in Central Park while on duty.  A quadriplegic who breathes with a ventilator, he is one of the most soulful and spiritually generous men I ever met.  Whose son is now in the NYPD.  Extraordinary.

Finally, I met Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, whose crusade in Washington for gun control is heroic and inspiring.  She retires this year and so was awarded by NYGAV with the Allard Lowenstein Award.  For those who don't know, Allard Lowenstein was a one-term Congressman from New York City who was murdered by a mentally ill student, paranoid that Lowenstein was "out to get him."  Circumstances that were chillingly similar to my grandfather's murder in 1939, an event that I grew up hearing about and shaped my view about guns.  Rep. McCarthy first ran for Congress, remember, when her husband was killed and son was wounded in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad.

But here's what also stuck with me from Monday night.  Conversation after conversation with other board members and guests, each of whom have been irrevocably touched by the scourge of gun violence.  There are so many inter-connected issues here:  poverty, education, economics, faith, social policy, and politics.  It can be overwhelming; but the human capacity for triumph and the determination to do something to make a positive difference after seeing one's life ripped open by senseless violence made me so damn proud to be committing to this new work in this new chapter of my life.


Hand in Hand, the bi-lingual K-12 school system in Israel, is another such endlessly inspiring organization.  As I've written about before and as Roger Cohen helped amplify this past summer, Hand in Hand is doing what every self-respecting educator knows to be the ultimate solution for bringing peace to the world:  teaching, one student at a time.

I first visited the school with fellow board members of the UJA Federation of New York in April 2013 and fell in love with the school and its faculty.  From campuses in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and the Galilee, Hand in Hand is committed to the idea that, as its website says, "there is another way."

This past summer, when violence, war and racism were at all time highs and when both Palestinian and Jewish residents of Jerusalem were fearful for their safety, the parents, teachers and staff of Hand in Hand stepped into the breach, embraced their methodological framework of education and community building, and let a series of peaceful walks that were meant to demonstrate that in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.  It's a basic but essential and powerful statement that needs to be heard, needs to be taught, and needs to be practiced by more and more people.

In addition to bi-lingual education having a whole host of benefits to those recipients of its pedagogical practice, Hand in Hand models what public education is meant to do in democracies--bring people together from diverse backgrounds in order to instill in them a shared value system.

Moving forward, I'm interested in strengthening the school, broadcasting its message to the greater world, and helping build connections between Brooklyn (New York City's great heartland of public education (though imperfectly democratic according to today's New York Times) and my other favorite places in the world--Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Jaffa and the Galilee.


More to come in the weeks ahead but there's an update for you.

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