01 December 2016

Water Over Rocks: An Introduction


December 1, 2016

Dear Friends:

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

Andy Bachman
President and Founder
Water Over Rocks

Brooklyn, NY

18 November 2016

Hope and Hard Work

He said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, long-standing organizations at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement, were "un-American" and "Communist-inspired."

He called African-American federal prosecutor Thomas Figures "boy."

He said the Ku Klux Klan was fine "until I found out they smoked pot."  He later said it was a joke.

Hilarious guy, isn't he.

So funny in fact that his 1986 nomination for a federal judge position--a nomination made by Republican President Ronald Reagan--was ultimately rejected by a Republican Senate Judiciary Committee.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is a vocal opponent of the Voting Rights Act and is a proponent of mandatory sentencing, the leading cause of mass incarceration in the United States, which every objective measure shows effects most egregiously the African American community.

Our President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a racist to be U.S. Attorney General.

I've been to Alabama three times in my life.  I found the people there, black and white, to be warm and hospitable and open to a critically important reckoning with the history of slavery, race and civil rights in this country.  Are there still challenging examples of racism and discrimination there?  Of course.  But it's out in the open and slowly but surely, people of good will continue to endeavor, heroically, to turn the tide.  It has taken decades and no doubt will take decades more.  But as Martin Luther King, Jr, said as one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the "arc of history is long but it bends toward justice."

Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which runs out of a former slave market in downtown Montgomery, often quotes Dr. King's line in the work he does defending inmates on death row, incarcerated youth, and advocating for a just and fair criminal justice system.  You can see Bryan speak in this enormously powerful Ted Talk he gave.



The Guardian carried a moving story yesterday about Congressman John Lewis winning the National Book Award.  Particularly stirring was his recollection that as a young child in rural Alabama, he was barred from the library because was black.  He received an education, nevertheless.  He rose to prominence in the Civil Rights movement.  He was a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  He had his head beaten in by Klan members who were part of the Selma police force that attempted to stop freedom of assembly and protest of racial segregation in the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery.  He was there when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.  He was shattered when Dr. King was assassinated.  And then he went to Congress, where he has served Atlanta, with distinction, for a generation.
And in his moving and inspiring life story, told in graphic novel form for which he won the National Book Award for youth literature, he brings readers to tears with the emotional impact of what it meant to sit on the Capitol steps and see Barak Obama be sworn in as President of the United States.

I read the trilogy this summer and I can testify, dear reader, that John Lewis will give you hope and strength in the weeks and months ahead as people of good will in our country come together to resist the forces of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia that appear to be very much at the center of Donald Trump's vision for America.

Love does trump hate.  The arc of history does bend toward justice.

Hope and hard work will get us through.  Be inspired by the sacrifices of those who came before us. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants.

Now let's get to it!


17 November 2016

I'll Wear a Yellow Star

One of the many threats of the 2016 Presidential campaign that may be moving a step closer to reality is the odious specter of a Muslim registry.  Stoking these fears in an openly offensive and traumatizing way for millions of Muslim citizens and refugees, Trump backer Carl Higbie, in conversation with Megyn Kelly, that Japanese internment camps during World War Two serve as "precedent" for Trump's proposed Muslim registry.

This echoes, for the second day in a row, Kansas Secretary of State and Trump Transition Team member Kris Kobach's proposed Muslim registry.

As a Jew and an American, I find this proposal to be undemocratic and lacking any semblance of decency.  The idea of registering a specific group on religious terms flies in the face of the U.S. Constitution, which, since its ratification, has stated clearly, in the First Amendment, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Forced registration of one specific religion (and likely forcing the registration of ANY religion) would be a direct violation Americans' constitutional rights.

Therefore, I declare here:  

I will fight this idea with all my strength; I will ally myself with people of good conscience from all backgrounds to defeat its passage; and should we lose this righteous battle, I hereby pledge to wear a Yellow Star, stitched on to my clothing, to publicly mark my Jewish identity.  If the racist policies of the past are to be revived by this historically disastrous new administration, then let good people stand with those being singled out wrongly and let us all stand as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

16 November 2016

Whose Shande, Bernie Marcus?

Word came over the transom that Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus rose to the defense of Stephen Bannon, the much maligned advisor to President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Bannon's infamous and bigoted news outlet, Breitbart News, reported it, printing in full Bernie Marcus's press release, written in his capacity as Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Here's what Bernie said:

"I have known Steve Bannon for many years. I have been shocked and saddened to see the recent personal attacks on Steve. Nothing could be further from the truth. The person that is being demonized in the media is not the person I know. These attacks on Steve are nothing more than an attempt to undermine the incoming Trump Administration. I have known Steve to be a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel who felt so strongly about this that he opened a Breitbart office in Israel to ensure that the true pro-Israel story would get out. What is being done to Steve Bannon is a shonda."
I suppose gentlemen can disagree on whether word or deed makes someone a bigot. Breitbart, as has been amply reported, for alt-right bigotry, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  But under cover of Bannon being "pro-Israel" (though has he ever read Israel's Declaration of Independence, a decidedly un-Trumpian document of inclusion for minority rights?) Bernie Marcus declares that the attacks on his pal Stephen Bannon are a "shonda." 

This term, as may be well known, is a Yiddish term meaning a shame, an embarrassment, even a disgrace.   It's most popular use is in the phrase "a shande fur de goyim," meaning something that Jews do that's embarrassing for non-Jews to see.  

And so looking more deeply into Bernie's use of the term, one might say it doesn't really measure up.  After all, Bannon's language and political strategy elevating Trump to the White House may in fact be the greater shande, if you really think about it.

This is what Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL, was going for when he issued his statement about the appointment of Bannon:

“The ADL strongly opposes the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior advisor and chief strategist in the White House,” the organization wrote about one of President-elect Donald Trump’s first choices for his new team. “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house.’ ”

I'm on Jonathan's side.  Truly.  

After all, is it not the greater shande for the President-elect to have deployed misogynistic language about women's genitals, breasts and menstruation as weapons in his battle to win the White House?

Is it not the greater shande for the President-elect to have mocked the disabled?

Is it not the greater shande for the President-elect to have derided a Mexican-American judge who is an American-born U.S. citizen?

Is it not the greater shande for the President-elect to shame the name and the family of a Muslim American soldier who sacrificed his life for our country?

The shande list goes on and on.  So much so that one can only conclude that at Home Depot, the rulers and measuring sticks are so bent out of shape that for a Jew to sell them to unsuspecting Gentile buyers is, well, a shande.




We Should All Be Feminists

About six months ago my fierce thirteen year old daughter put Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "We Should All Be Feminists" on my bedside table and said, "Read this, Dad, when you get a chance." I'm ashamed to say it took me this long but this brief work, based on a TEDx talk she gave, was worth the wait.
As the father of three young women navigating a world in which their national leader is burdened with having said and done so many harmful things to and about women, I'm even more emboldened to give my daughters the strength, guidance and support they need to transcend this threatening period of our history and double-down on maintaining focus to build a better future.
To my daughter's and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's claim, I say, Yes We Should.

You can see her give the Tedx Talk here.

10 November 2016

Lessons Learned: True Story

One of the more quiet and interesting moments of this year's presidential race occurred during the run up to the New York primary.  Hillary and Bernie were in a tight and hard fought race and as it moved to New York, where there is obviously a high Jewish population and Israel is a hot-button issue, Jews and Jewish leaders were even more engaged in the Democratic primary.

Late one afternoon I received a call from a colleague inviting me to a lunch with Bill Clinton.  The former president would be meeting with 25 New York area rabbis to talk about Hillary, Jewish concerns and the primary.  Having always wanted to meet William Jefferson Clinton, I accepted the invitation.

Two things stand out for me from that day.  The first is that as the 25 rabbis sat in the room--women and men from across the denominational spectrum of American Jewish life--we all were scratching our heads about why we were there, how we got invited, and musing aloud about being brought into a campaign event which seemed to have assumed we were all "with her," which was not necessarily the case.  But hey, it was lunch with the 42nd president of the United States, so, you know.

I'll admit that I was on the fence at that point.  Bernie's broad message of social and economic justice was really resonating strongly for me.  His talk of revolution was not resonating for me per se; and yet I still felt, inherently, that his strong critique of the system being "rigged" had a certain truth to it that rang a bell of reason.

And yet, Sanders' positions on Israel troubled me.  While long an advocate of the two-state solution and a vocal critique of the settlement enterprise myself, I was concerned that Bernie was surrounding himself with people who too easily melded their opposition to the settlement enterprise with anything related to Israel at all.  I didn't have a sense that his team grasped the big picture.  That the region was deeply unstable and that in the grand scheme of things, Israel was not actually the problem.  That broader, more oppressive and totalitarian forces were at play.  Sure, Israel had its structural challenges; but they paled in comparison to their neighbors.  The refusal to articulate this bothered me.  And I was becoming gradually persuaded to the view that Hillary would have been both critical when necessary but fundamentally balanced and in clear command of Israel's strategic importance to American and more broadly democratic interests.

Bill said what you'd think he'd say.  Hillary loves Israel.  She gets it.  Her team will be my team and Bibi loves Hillary.  He knows they'll get along.  I'd observe that heads nodded in a kind of guarded satisfaction.  We were being pandered to; but there was a layer of truth to the maneuver.  It all felt both rehearsed and real.

But here is what I actually keep thinking about when I reflect on that lunch in the spring.  Each of us had a chance to ask the President a question and as the inquiries moved around the room, I was working on formulating mine.

What has long bothered about Democratic party politics was the generational failure to create real systemic change in our country by a concerted and strategic effort to win state houses across the country.   The GOP had long figured out, going back to Nixon and Reagan, that the country could be won locally.  State assemblies and state senates; governors mansions.  These would be the bread and butter of organizing.  We Democrats went for the big stuff, the star power, the national contests.  And when add in the power of re-districting and gerrymandering to determine future races, it didn't amount a very pretty picture for Democrats.

I knew that Bill Clinton would love this question.  So after a slew of Jewish agenda queries from my colleagues, I hit him with mine.  He sat back, leaned in, and held forth a good while on the importance of long term planning.  He talked about not understanding the middle of the country.  He talked about his own failures and Obama's failures to shore up the local in order to strengthen the national.  And he promised that Hillary would get that when she became President.  That she would do things differently.

Alas, I have reflected on that conversation a lot these past 48 hours when considering the price we are about to pay as a country for neglecting the concerns of the middle, of the neglected, of the voiceless, while paying a disproportionate amount of attention to the larger, flashier, more symbolic "hot-button" issues of national campaigns.

It's clear to me that Donald Trump is President NOT because America is a racist country but because for too long Democratic leadership lost sight of the great pain and suffering felt by people near the lower middle and bottom of the economic chain who in fact are not really brought into the process of civic engagement and responsibility.  Democrats lost sight of one of the foundations of the party--alienated working people of all races who sense that no one is looking out for them.

In our speed-heightened and attention deprived age, it's hard to focus on the mundane.  I get that. And with a misogynist, sexually assaulting, race-baiting, bigoted and shameless, tax-evading salesman charming the pants off the disenfranchised with his misplaced anger and false sense of victimhood, it's no wonder that the smoke and mirrors of his show blinded voters to the plain work of government, which, for all her faults, was Hillary's show.

She was no more self-serving than he.  In fact, I'd bet my life on the fact that, measure for measure, her dedication to the betterment of others over a lifetime will long outlast his.  And yet her twilight rise to power came at a time of such intense anger and alienation that it was not to be.

While our new president is shameless, a debt-master, a sexual predator, his ascent to power is our great shame as Democrats.

My lesson in all this:  We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, at every level of government. Through service and volunteerism; through tolerance and openness; through acts of loving-kindness and justice and love.  And yes, through a strategically executed plan of winning seats at local, city, state and national levels so that we can truly be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

 


09 November 2016

A New Beginning in Our Land

Well friends, to quote my father-in-law, the "unbelievable is here." But it's not unbelievable. Donald Trump will be our country's next president and a Republican House and Senate will put forward an agenda that will attempt to unravel the last 100 years of a social agenda that seeks to protect those most in need of kindness, love and justice.

That there is anger in the land is undeniable; that there is a great uncertainty is true. That millions of people chose to look past Trump's hatred, bigotry, misogyny, tax evasions, sexual assaults and harboring of racists and anti-Semites in his campaign is one of the most challenging realities we have ever faced as a country.

It's like we all were reading the same Bible until last night but in this one, the Book of Esther is now named for Haman. The unbelievable is here indeed.

But we have choice and agency and power. To fight. To do what is right. To articulate with word and deed a vision for a better country and peaceful world. We cannot and we must not despair. We have survived slavery and Civil War and the assassinations of Lincoln, King and Kennedy. We have banded together to defeat Hitler, Nazism and Fascism. In New York City, a town that knows Trump best and resoundingly rejected him, we overcame 9-11, blackouts and hurricanes to show the world that there is more that unites us than divides us; that the greatness of our character as a nation is in our diversity; and that yeah, LOVE trumps hate.

So let's get ready for a fight. The good fight. The right fight. With love and justice for all.