24 September 2014

Shanah Tovah 5775

Time is unstoppable.  And though sometimes our impulse is to reach out and control its inexorable, forward march, in fact its ongoing, pulsing reality means that growth and change are a constant in life.  Each moment building on a prior event; each day founded upon that which came before; each year an opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

Some look down at the starting gates of life and never look up until they cross the finish line; others go about reflectively, embracing each moment as it arrives.  And most of us are somewhere in between, caught up in life's exigencies, looking inward when we can, doing our best to understand the events and circumstances that life brings us.

One of the Jewish calendar's unique gifts to us is in its dual-call to look inward both as individuals and as a community.  With the blasts of the Shofar, the piercing, penetrating, primitive calls awaken in each of us life's fundamental questions of identity and meaning:  What kind of person am I?  What are the values I live by? Who are my partners in this endeavor we call Life?

The Sages of our Tradition, in codifying these ideas in the Mahzor, meant to shake our souls awake to the awareness of life's fragility, life's preciousness, and life's demand that in our wakefulness we do what is right and what is just in the eyes of God.  "U-Netaneh Tokef.  Let us speak to the sacred power of the day."  When all our deeds are exposed to a Judge, spread before that Judge as one sees an accounting on a ledger, we ask the obvious, most radical questions of the year.

"Who will pass on and who will be born?  Who will live and who will die?  Who will be poor and who will be rich?"

The questions terrify.  This is one reason why the High Holy Days are called the Days of Awe.  The Mahzor itself responds to its own searing questions.  In the face of such earth-shattering questions, it proposes that "Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah--that Repentance, Prayer and Charity transform the harshness of our destiny."  In other words, we have agency in responding to the passivity of being acted upon by seizing life itself and demanding that we be God's partner in building a world for Good, for Justice, and for Peace.  

Equally critical is the notion to remember that Judaism defines the ultimate expression of religious "fear" as Love.  And Love rendered through the commitment to serve God and our fellow human being with kindness, justice and humility is, as they say, what it's all about. 

As the words of the prophet Micah demonstrate on the Chapel windows in our Temple House, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Eternal requires of you:  To do justice, to love with kindness, and walk humbly with your God."

Life in the world around us emanates in ever-expanding circles:  from Park Slope to greater Brooklyn; from Brooklyn to greater New York City; from New York west and across the nation; from America to Israel and beyond.  Everything is connected and in reality, no one person or no one nation is any longer truly separate.  The Jewish people, the people of One God, have always believed that if God is one then ultimately, we are all one.  After all, the Sages taught, God made the human being in the Divine Image so that no one should be able to say that he or she is better than their neighbor.

And so as we pause, in time and awe and humility, to accept time's constant trajectory, may our reflections at this plateau be filled with meaningful and soulful examination; may we strengthen one another in our fearlessness to ask the hard questions of ourselves and others; and may we hold ourselves and others to eternal ideas that have animated and inspired us to build a better world.

May each of you and your loved ones be inspired as you look out across the city and the world to make this New Year, 5775, a year of blessing, justice and peace--for our People and for all Humankind.

Shanah Tovah

Rabbi Andy Bachman

17 September 2014

Door Jam = Democracy

We didn't start out poor but then it became that way, pretty much immediately after Mom and Dad broke up. First there was the expected additional strain of two homes, followed by Dad losing his job, which precipitated what I often refer to as the Great Unraveling. It happens to people and it happened to him. The trip, stumble and fall of his mid-life was, in two years, his father dying, his divorce and the loss of his job. Eight years later he'd be knocked out cold by a heart attack and that was that.

I write these words all these years later in part to remember how quickly one's life actually can fall apart; how what one once expected to be the rhythms of life to set a watch to can become, in the seeming split of an eye, the challenging darkness of the Trial. Some make it past the Judge. Others don't. For some there are those to pick you up; for others, luck runs out. For some, there is a regenerative well of persistence and optimism; for others, a debilitating depression, a rendering of essence to dross.

Whatever the answer, the reality is we were poor but hadn't started out that way. Mom went right to work in the time leading up to the divorce and during the hardest parts, worked two jobs, doing whatever was necessary to make ends meet. One job she had was as scheduler for a local politician named Lynn Adelman, a brilliant lawyer from Milwaukee's East Side. His whole team was smart--a bunch of young Jews interested in policy and reform-minded Democratic politics. They were trying to knock off the golden boy of Milwaukee's ├╝ber Gentile community, Robert Kasten, a conservative who was seen as very much the voice of the city's business and commercial elite, such as it was. The son of Milwaukee dry-cleaners, Lynn went to Princeton and Columbia Law (where he had defended students in the anti-war protests as a law student) then came back to Milwaukee and did legal aid work before going in to private practice. When he ran against Kasten in 1974, it was the first of three unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Congress. Mom (and I) worked on all three campaigns. He eventually served in the Wisconsin State Senate (where, as a college freshman I worked in his office in Madison) and in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed him as a federal judge.

Even though we were newly poor, we had three cars. Ours was a temporary condition and we somehow knew it. Dad's car, Mom's car and then, as was the trend in those days, the kids had a car.  I think it was an AMC Gremlin. Might have even had the Levi's jeans interior. You can guess the decade.

The point is, we had a car. And the adults had drivers' licenses. Which were used to drive the candidate to his appointments and campaign stops. One time Mom picked up Lynn for a day of campaigning and he got into the car dressed in a suit and tie but he wasn't wearing socks. So they stopped at the dry cleaners and as the son of the owner, he took the liberties. His campaigns were filled with stories like that.

Or like this:  One summer, when he was running for re-election in a newly re-districted and more decidedly conservative part of southwest Milwaukee, I was campaigning for him door-to-door and encountered a vehemently hostile constituent. The vituperations flew through the screen door.  "Communist.  Socialist.  Jew." That kind of thing. I was shaken and needless to say, this was not a vote Lynn was going to win. Dejected, I walked down this man's driveway and out to the street where I saw Lynn coming up the block. I told him what happened and he said, "Watch this."

And in an instant, he had bounded up the walk, knocked on the door, and then, with the persuasion of a persistent prophet, stuck his foot in the screen door so the man couldn't shut it. "Don't say things about me that aren't true," Lynn said. "Now tell me, really, what do you know about my views? Let's talk!" And for the next several minutes they argued positions--taxes, education, spending on the poor. No names, no accusations. Just two citizens disagreeing.

"Did you change his mind?"  I asked.  "No," he said, "but that doesn't matter.  The process was as important as the outcome."  That's what he told me back at his house where we went for lunch that day.  He made me a sandwich, we talked about my classes at UW, my interest in going to Israel, my ideas for the future.  "I guess a rabbi is kind of like a politician," he said. "Come on," he continued, his mouth full. "Let's go knock on some more doors."

In that district Lynn's constituents were mostly white. And had cars.  So we walked down streets with no sidewalks and up lots of driveways.  Knocking on doors.  Pushing for votes.

But there was another job that Mom had in those years, where she was an office staff member in the Community Development Corporation, which in the 1970s on into today was devoted to enhancing the economic position of low-income communities. The people who came to CDC, most of whom were black, took buses or walked to where they needed to go. Their economic scene was in serious distress; schools were rough; and there certainly wasn't a lot of kids in high school drivers' ed classes.
This means that, like thousands upon thousands of similarly disadvantaged people today, those folks didn't have drivers license which was once a burden if you wanted to drive but certainly wasn't a burden if you wanted to vote.

Until recently.

As the New York Times reminded us on Tuesday morning, electoral chaos is about to occur in Wisconsin, primarily among the more than 300,000 poorer citizens of the state who will not be able to vote because of a conservative appellate court's decision to overturn Judge Lynn Adelman's stay of the Wisconsin Voter ID law, which Judge Adelman argued last April contained several serious violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Several commentators appropriately, I believe, have criticized this decision of the appellate court to overturn Judge Adelman's sound reasoning, particularly in light of the fact that Governor Scott Walker and his Republican legislature passed the initial voter ID law precisely to protect an electoral advantage they had hoped to use to govern. Except that Governor Walker has recently begun to trail Democratic candidate and businesswoman Mary Burke (whose family makes the much beloved Wisconsin gem, Trek Bicycles). And what better way to climb back into the lead with less than two months to go in a gubernatorial election than to be aided by a panel of judges to undo the constitutional work of defending the right to vote.

I got half a mind to head out to Wisconsin after the Jewish holidays this Fall and spend the second half of October knocking on doors for Mary Burke. To cover more territory in the limited time available, perhaps I'll take my Trek.

I'm sure I'll meet my share of Republicans, as it should be. Who doesn't like a good argument?

I'll even stick my foot in the door, insist on engaging, and if the power of persuasion doesn't work, we'll agree to disagree.

But what I won't do is suppress someone's right to vote just because they're poor and don't drive.


15 September 2014

Hands Off

I didn't watch the Packers game on Sunday.  As a shareholder and lifelong fan living in New York, it's rare to see my team on TV.  But truth be told, my stomach turned at the gnawing thought of enabling that low grade tolerance for immoral violence that wore away at my conscience as the day hurdled toward the late afternoon kickoff.  I couldn't "just do it."

Ray Rice is a Baltimore Raven and Adrian Peterson is a Minnesota Viking but I knew enough about the game to know that Green Bay has had its own troubles with sexual violence.  In 2000, its star tight end Mark Chmura was accused of assaulting his family's 17 year old babysitter; and frankly, I get a headache trying to figure out this whole "baby mama" thing with Packers cornerback Sam Shields.

Understatement of the Year:  The NFL has a sex and violence problem.

Runner-up for Understatement of the Year:  ISIS is evil.

Back to football.

As a former student athlete whose greatest achievements were sunset by the time I turned 16, I've always fostered a relatively healthy distance from the over-valorized role that athletes play in our society.  Still, the mere physicality, discipline and psychological fortitude required of champions is admirable--and ignites in the mind the epic dimensions of a child's imagination.  Spectacle.  Grand Arc Narratives.  Greatness.

And I've even inculcated fandom in the kids.  Touring campuses last winter on a college tour, we took in a Wisconsin-Michigan basketball game.  Three years ago on a winter road-trip, we took in a Packers-Bears Christmas night game.  Despite their late season collapse, the Brewers Baseball Club continue to receive our devotions, even after Ryan Braun's half-assed apologies for PED use.

So I get loyalty.  You stick with those you love when they're down.  Got it.

But what are our obligations when they cross the line?  When athletes violate--egregiously--the covenant of devotion between themselves and the fans who support their careers?  Violence against women and children is serious enough to merit a one-day blackout, no?  How much does our fawning enable?

Like:  How about one NFL Sunday soon the fans don't show up?  Hit the league hard.  Where it counts--in the wallets of the owners who enable themselves, with a wink and a handshake at contract talks, the rampant violence that has come to define the league for what it is.  Big guys getting paid a lot of dough to inflict punishment on and off the field.

Is painting faces, wearing over-sized jerseys, grilling meat in a parking lot, eating salted corn-products, and consuming artificially sweetened soft-drinks and beer SO IMPORTANT that we can't do without it for one day in order to send a message that we find violence perpetrated by large men against women and children to be morally revolting?

Seriously.

And I'm just talking about the fans.

What definition of teammate necessitates tolerating this?  I'd like to see an athlete brave enough to step forward and say aloud:  "Yo.  This is bullshit.  Keep your hands off women and kids."

That would be heroic.