27 October 2014

As If He Were Green

I heard a good story recently and wanted to write it down.  To share it, so it could be remembered.

A short time after his survival in a work camp during the Second World War, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was brought out of the Displaced Persons camp where he was placed immediately after the war's end and then transported to America with his wife and son by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  

American Jewish communities in virtually every part of the United States participated in this highly coordinated effort to relocate refugees and allow them an opportunity to begin life all over again, an often devastatingly difficult endeavor, given all that had been lost and destroyed.  "Since one starts with absolutely nothing--no family, no town, no history--one had to decide who one would be." 

Some transcended the destruction with a will to begin again--vibrant, hopeful, alluringly engaging, reflecting the notion that every breath of life is an expression of good fortune, a blessing.  Others remained in place, if not in unavoidable decline, shrouded in the darkness of death, mired in the shadowed valley.

One such man, yeshiva-trained in Poland, fiercely intellectual, destined for a higher education and an exemplary professional life, emerged from the war never quite able to break free from its bonds.  He would have no such luxury.  His pride and dignity bolstered his refusal to take "charity" once he was brought to America and with no time to devote himself to getting the university training once he was distributed and settled into a small, southern Jewish community, he set out to find whatever work he could.  He wouldn't aspire.  He would merely work.  But his Jewish principles remained rock solid.

He saw an ad for a job with the designation, "Colored Only Need Apply," so he applied.  
"I'm Colored," he declared.  After all, he explained, everyone kept calling him "Greenhorn" when he arrived.  The application was for a driving job and the man who taught him to drive was an older African American, who graciously accepted him into his world.  Others, seeing the Jewish survivor driven around town by a Black man as he received his lessons asked what he was doing with a "Colored person."  "I'm Colored," he said.  "I'm Green."

As I heard this I was reminded of a story I once read about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German Jewish refugee himself who was a rabbi in Berlin before serving with distinction in Newark, New Jersey. American Jews often refer to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in near iconic terms, from his stand against the Vietnam  War to marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights era; but it was Prinz who preceded King on the dais at the March on Washington in 1963.

You can find and listen to his speech here.

In 1937, Prinz also went south for a time following his arrival in America; and as the story goes, was on a speaking tour in Atlanta, raising awareness of the Jewish plight in Europe and for the Zionist cause.  One of his first stops in Atlanta, then still deeply segregated, was a visit to Dr. Willis Jefferson King, an African American Bible scholar.  Prinz had actually met King the prior year in Jerusalem at an academic conference under the auspices of the American School for Oriental Research.  

After their visit, explained Prinz in his autobiography, he invited the professor for a drink and dinner in his hotel.  "We should eat in your room," said Dr. King, fully aware of the racially divide, taboos against inter-racial amity, and the undergirding assumptions and racist barriers of "southern etiquette."  

Later, on the same trip, Prinz was in a Jewish home when his host expressed shock that he had broken bread with a Black man.  "I simply did not understand nor had I known that Jews, the classical victims of racial persecution, could themselves be racist," wrote Prinz.  "I said that what was evidently happening to the black people of America was the very same thing that was happening to the Jewish people in Europe."  The argument ensued and to break the tension, the host offered Rabbi Prinz a drink.  Hoping for a stiff whiskey to ease the impasse, he was passed a Coca Cola.  It would be the first and last time in his life he'd drink a Coke.  "Coca-Cola was for me a symbol of hatred and prejudice with which I did not want to be identified."

While there was great Jewish heroism during the Civil Rights movement, there were also pockets of Jewish racism and Prinz's story has always been an inspiring one.  The insidious associations to color and race in American history is an ongoing, ever-unfolding burden that each of us continue to bear as citizens obligated to uphold the greatest values embedded in our democratic ideals.

In his speech to the March on Washington in 1963, Prinz said, "America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.  Not merely black America but all of America.  It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of all, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."

He knew that truth--from heart to his bones to the surface of skin.  And it showed on the surface.  As apparent to all as if he were green.

23 October 2014

The Best Answer

Some time ago I called Mom on a rainy day in November, just as the Holiday Season was kicking in to gear at the Bay Shore Mall in Milwaukee where she worked.  Intrepid, hard-working, a cheerful demeanor for her customers always hiding the jaded perspective she hid well beneath the surface, she brought me up to speed on the goings on at Boston Store.  

"Some genius went to the bathroom in the changing room yesterday," she sighed.  "Such is the nature of the work.  I put on gloves and cleaned it up."  

I was silent on the other end of the phone.  Seeing public defecation in New York isn't exactly news. However the relative anonymity of the city tends to often veil us from this excremental reality, other than its malodorous intrusions or, God forbid, an unfortunate misstep.  Additionally, in the heart of Baby-Centric Brooklyn, one's day is often punctuated by moms and dads changing kids in all sorts of venues--coffee shops, restaurant benches, beneath the arboreal canopy of the park, on a subway seat, what have you.  So, you know, everyone poops.  

But there was something particularly violative of changing room poop.  It conveyed, what?  A lack of self-control; a malevolent intent; mental illness; a political statement?  Against malls?  

Mom was unmoved.

"I'm a wage earner," she explained.  "This is the kind of shit we deal with."

We laughed, but not uproariously.

Yesterday, after a meeting in a nice Midtown office, speaking about the loftiness of Jewish values, identity and Israel engagement, I jumped over to Macy's to buy some socks.  I needed socks. After making my selections--solids and a few trendy stripes (when did stripes get so trendy?  everyone's wearing striped socks)--I went to ring up.

The man behind the counter was in his early seventies.  He was wearing nice slacks, a grey shirt and a floral patterned tie.  We talked about the book I had set on the counter (Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns) just next to my umbrella, and the incessant rain.  I politely declined his invitation to apply for a Macy's card and as he totalled me up, I could sense the next customer in line tensing over our conversation and the salesclerk reading the awkwardness, if not the yearning, for more such encounters, the social grease of capitalism's "weal" that is perhaps a dying art in our click-to-shop material culture.  When he asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or in print, I said, "Give me the paper," and he generously placed it in the plastic bag, at rest among the socks.

As I walked away I thought of Mom--how could I not?--and back to man, wondering what rooms he'd clean that day; what customers would look right past him, down into their phone, their wallet, the exigencies of their own transactional lives.  Would he work Black Friday, folding and refolding the piles of clothes left on the floor in the mad rush of sale shoppers?  Would his packed lunch sit uneaten, lost in time to too much work on the floor?  And when he went home at night, would he have a kid to call and recount the day's work to, the din of late night television in the background, the newspaper out on the table next to dinner, a story, a laugh?

Earlier that day I had gone down to our corner grocer to get some laundry detergent and conscientious Brooklyn consumer that I am, had taken my cloth bag, to avoid the plastic.  At the end of the day I went back to get some popcorn kernels and seltzer as an after school snack for the girls.  I forgot the cloth bag as I approached the cash register.  The clerk from the morning was still there, ringing people up all day.  

"What happened to your principles?" she asked with a wink.

"How was your day?" I responded.  It was the best answer I could come up with.

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.

09 October 2014

JVP Doublespeak

If you want to read an exercise in passive aggressive, moral obfuscation, read the statement on the Jewish Voice Peace website about the physical attack on Leonard Petlakh at the Barclays Center on Tuesday night.

Typical of JVP's moralistic stance on Middle East Peace in which they defend only the rights of those who are victims of the Jewish right to self-defense, JVP nods its hypocritical head toward peace while casting blame on the Jews for bad behavior.  Beating Leonard was deplorable.  But bad Jewish behavior made someone do it.

Read closely.

1.  "JVP members held signs and handed out flyers expressing the view that honoring the IDF only a few weeks after Israel's attack on Gaza has ended contradicts our values as Jewish New Yorkers."

Which values?  Some Jews have the right to protection and self-defense but others don't?  And JVP gets to determine which ones, according to their Jewish values?  And was it the IDF being honored or the specific project of supporting wounded soldiers?  I was at the game.  "Friends of the IDF" was mentioned once.  Which clearly was not enough, but too much for JVP.

During this summer's war in Israel, several friends--Zionists and Israelis who live in Israel and vote in elections and support the two-state solution by voting for the left-wing parties that support territorial compromise, had sons, who also vote for those same political parties, defending Israel's borders by fighting in Gaza.  One lost an eye in the ground invasion.  While JVP leaders were drawing protest posters with Sharpies in Brooklyn, other Jews, with other Jewish values, were both defending their right to live as Jews and taking the daily risk of working for peace, on the ground, in Israel and Palestine.  One such price of citizenship is service in the IDF, a people's army, with soldiers who vote across the political spectrum.

2.  "We were there as part of a large coalition of organizations who were all committed to non-violently protesting this event."

Which organizations?  Name them.  What are their views?  What are their values?  Does speech approximate violence when basketball fans are called "murderers?"

3.  This is the most egregious.  "The police had us behind a barricade on the sidewalk, while many people aggressively waving Israeli flags were in front of Barclays yelling at us and making rude gestures."

Was Leonard Petlakh aggressively waving an Israeli flag and making rude gestures?  Is the claim here that because somehow, somewhere Jews were behaving aggressively that the later violence which victimized Leonard and his family was justified?  Is this part of the Jewish values construct that JVP deploys?  "If it happened, you must have deserved it" they seem to be implying.

Here's more:  "Before we left, a police official said to us, 'Thanks for making our job easier.'  I don't think he would have said that if someone from the protest had attacked someone."

So you organize a protest, you build a broad coalition as your allies, one of your allies assaults a man, breaking his nose, causing a wound requiring 8 stitches to mend, and you imply, strongly, it was deserved.  What you don't say, in your deplorable deploring, is "JVP will fully cooperate with the NYPD in finding the identity of the attacker and see that he or she is brought to justice.  We are a Jewish Voice for Peace and believe that anyone who disturbs the peace by using violence on innocent people should be brought to justice."

The reason that statement does not exist on the JVP website is that JVP doesn't believe it.  Their Jewish values extend only to those they determine to be the true victims of hate and violence and this, in their weird calculation, does not extend to innocent Jews.

Here's another one:  "However, while a small group of us were leaving the area, a group 3 (sic) young men with Israeli flags harassed us and said that we 'need Israeli dick.'"

Vile.  Disgusting.  But did Leonard say that to the person who hit him?  I don't understand the relevance.

Again, this summer in Tel Aviv, while attending a peace rally to protest the war in Gaza, I saw a few feet from where I was standing, a right wing demonstrator assault an Israeli police officer.  The assailant was grabbed violently, wrestled to the ground, and hauled away.  Instantly, police on horseback and others in riot gear, pushed the right wingers two blocks further from the peaceful protest so that the left wing rally could continue.  My point?  People do and say horrible things in political conflict.  Our job, as people of conscience, is to condemn the evil talk and the violent actions--without muddying the waters through doublespeak.

Finally:  "We reaffirm our steadfast opposition to all forms of bigotry, violence and hate, including anti-semitism, anti-arab hate, and misogyny."

I'd correct the spelling to "anti-Semitism" and "anti-Arab."  Capitalizing letters is both correct grammar in this instance as well as a justified expression of pride for both Jews and Arabs to claim the right to national self-determination.

Which brings me to my last point.

Does JVP support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state?  Or is that only a quaint idea debated over drip coffee in a Brooklyn roasting joint?

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, what did Bob Dylan say on "Infidels" about "the man of peace?"  Sometimes he's actually the Adversary.

I remain unconvinced of JVPs righteousness.

What would would have been so wrong about deploring the attack on Leonard Petlakh, wishing him a fast recovery, and encouraging authorities to find the perpetrator?

What would have been wrong is that it would have gone against JVPs main Jewish value:  to undermine the right of Israel to exist.

08 October 2014

CBE Deplores Anti-Semitic Attack on Leonard Petlakh

Congregation Beth Elohim deplores the recent anti-Semitic attack Tuesday evening against our friend and colleague Leonard Petlakh, Executive Director of the Kings Bay Y, who was beaten by pro-Palestinian demonstrators after attending the Brooklyn Nets v Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game at the Barclays Center with his family.  
Leonard suffered a broken nose and lacerations requiring eight stitches.  He is safe and home recovering.  Hate and violence have no place in our diverse city. This attack is totally deplorable and we demand that the NYPD will do all in its power to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for this crime.

As a leader in the Jewish community of New York, reaching across Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities to strengthen our diversity with a voice of tolerance and respect, Leonard is the very model of the Jewish ethic of "love thy neighbor as thyself." 

We wish Leonard a full recovery and pray that our city's leaders will speak out against this anti-Jewish incident and all acts of hate.  

On the Eve of Sukkot, a holy day on the Jewish calendar celebrating both Freedom and the Blessing of a Harvest, we are especially mindful of the need to strengthen our community in the spirit of friendship and gratitude.  Together and tolerant we are a stronger, better city.

Rabbi Andy Bachman
Senior Rabbi

Jonathan Fried