December 1, 2016
After a bruising election season, it’s clear we are living in truly historic times. Our country seems to be deeply divided, Many in the land are feeling lost, confused and angry. As one who has always believed in the best of our shared national values, and the honorable aspirations of those who yearn for a better world, I am more determined than ever to help empower friends and neighbors together to do good, deepen our learning, build justice and seek peace.
To that end, let me share with you my future plans and invite you to join me in this endeavor by supporting my new non-profit, “Water Over Rocks.”
Water Over Rocks is a phrase that captures the moment when Rabbi Akiva, not yet a Sage but a 40 year-old farmer with no history of study, stood by the mouth of a well and realized that the steady, consistent pressure of water could hollow a stone. It is a metaphor that speaks powerfully to me in that it captures the idea that over time, we can change things that seem unchangeable.
While working mainly in the Jewish community, building Brooklyn Jews and serving at Congregation Beth Elohim, this was the name of my weekly blog. Now, I am ready to share the news of my new venture: a nonprofit dedicated to “History, Civic Responsibility and Justice.” It, too, is called Water Over Rocks. and I am writing to introduce you to its genesis, mission and goals.
When I left the pulpit two years ago, I embarked on a year of intense soul-searching, and impactful experiences teaching and traveling in the American South, Germany, Belarus, and here at home in our own city, all with a focus on issues of reconciliation and justice. Throughout my thinking and traveling, the ways in which we remember, atone, and repair has emerged as paramount. Sharing the stories of our complex history and standing before memorials - the physical manifestation of how we remember - became a dominant part of affirming what matters to me, widening and deepening my long-standing interest in the architecture and environments of historical memory and justice.
In Atlanta, Selma and Birmingham - the cradle and cauldron of the Civil Rights movement - I felt the pledge not to forget, met those who changed history, marveled at the South’s many memorials, and was ignited by the idea that we have yet to fully confront the legacy of race in the United States. As a Jew in Munich and Berlin, I saw how Germany today confronts the devastating consequences of two world wars and mass death with a distinctive public reckoning and vocal commitment to reconciliation. I had a very different experience in Kopyl, Minsk, the shtetl in Belarus from which my grandmother fled in 1903. There, I stood over a mass grave and said Kaddish for the 2965 Jews who were killed in one day in 1942. Very little marks the memory or reckoning required to memorialize this haunting site.
I returned to the United States feeling anew the ways in which our own country falls short in our historical remembering, in how we acknowledge our own shameful pasts of slavery, and other historical traumas.
Against the backdrop of these experiences, Water Over Rocks will launch the following initiatives in the early winter of 2017:
Many Rivers to Cross will establish a dynamic and ongoing public history engagement with Slavery and Abolition here in New York, including creating government support for signage, building real and virtual walking tours, and writing school curricula, so that the children of our city know and understand the rich legacy that is literally buried beneath the surface and embedded in the walls of New York. Many Rivers to Cross will also bring youth and adults to Memphis, Little Rock, Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, the heart of the Civil Rights movement and build alliances for justice and equality in a new generation.
Sadie’s Coffee is the name of a series of coffee shops staffed in part by graduates of New York State prison educational programs like the Bard Prison Initiative and the Osborne Association, trained in the vocation of food-services and hospitality. The philosopher Maimonides has taught that the greatest act of charity we can perform is to give a person a job and the training to navigate their way through life. This endeavor in particular humbles and thrills me.
Sons of Minsk will aid in the effort to restore the large numbers of Eastern European Jewish cemeteries that lie neglected or in ruins. Water Over Rocks will lead multi-faith participants to this work and partner with organizations that are slowly and single-handedly traveling to Eastern Europe to restore these sacred spaces as well as raise memorials in the towns where Jews were murdered.
With welcome legal support from the Pro Bono division an established New York City law firm in establishing Water Over Rocks as a 501c3, I am finally ready to begin.
My initial operations goal in this first phase is to raise $500,000 in order to make possible these projects.
In concrete terms, the first 24 months will include:
- Sons of Minsk will initiate the restoration of three (3) cemeteries in selected towns in Belarus, in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee and family-led organizations that have been slowly building memorials there. We will partner with local community organizations and educational institutions to create and build interfaith dialogue about Jewish life in Europe, both past and present. I happy thrilled to share that this first trip will take place July 23-28, 2017.
- Sadie’s Coffee will open three (3) locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with the goal of having 50% staff be represented by formerly incarcerated men and women. Partners in this endeavor include the Bard Prison Initiative, the Osborne Association, Sugar Hill Capital Partners, and others.
- Many Rivers to Cross will lead two (2) civil rights journeys for people of all ages to Memphis, Little Rock, Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, in partnership with Etgar 36, a proven educational tour company based in Atlanta.
While I am encouraged by the support I have already had, donations from individuals will be a vital part of launching the non-profit. With great pride in the well of history from which to draw truth and inspiration, with an ever-flowing hope for a future founded on reconciliation and justice, and with deep humility, I ask for your help.
Checks can be made payable to “Water Over Rocks” and sent ℅ yours truly at 20 Plaza Street East, #E2, Brooklyn, NY 11238. Thank you in advance. Truly.
In Friendship and Hope. Forward!
President and Founder
Water Over Rocks