08 January 2017

Pray, Talk, Walk, and Work for Peace

Minna & Me at the Promenade 2004.  She will be there with classmates in February, for the 10th time.

Another senseless terror attack in Jerusalem.  Another nail in the coffin for the two-state solution. Another example of shameless acts of murder carried out by cowardly terrorists afraid to take the risks for peace.  Another example of a strengthening of the Right wing's territorial agenda.

What a bloody tragedy.

As a teacher, rabbi, activist and sometime Jerusalem resident, I have been to the Promenade countless times.  Too many to mention.  And I am like hundreds of such leaders who have used the Promenade to actually teach one aspect of the conflict, to encourage a judicious understanding of the delicate balance of Jerusalem's contended reality, to show, visually and in that place, how both settlement policy and terror often work hand in hand to thwart compromise and a two-state solution.

When I woke to the news of the attack this morning, I thought of hundreds of high school and college students and congregants with whom I have stood at the site of the killing.  I thought of my wife and children, and their deep joy at being witness to such a view of Jerusalem in all its glory.  And I thought of the soldiers who were standing there today, obligated, regardless of political views, to serve their country.  It's likely that one of the people killed was an advocate for justice for all peoples.

If you have been in Israel on a Sunday, you know it's the day that soldiers go back to their bases after going home for Shabbat.  And you know that many soldiers spend part of their Sunday on mandatory education trips, learning about their own nation they are sworn to protect, working in communities at risk, and yes, learning about the very complexity of this horrible, seemingly endless conflict.

I've seen firsthand those soldiers ask searching questions, arguing with their teachers and fellow soldiers about the nation's direction, and growing into men and women far faster than most do--if only for the responsibility they carry with them each day.

And if you have been in Israel on a Sunday and walked along the Promenade, you have seen Palestinian kids playing soccer; young families having a barbecue, Israelis and Palestinians of a reasoned and steady mien seeking to set an example for what co-existence may look like.  Those are "facts on the ground," too.

Through the tears and the cries and the condemnations and the recriminations remember this:  Peace will come only when the worst among us can be stopped and when senseless violence, which serves no purpose, is brought to a stop.

Man's particularly twisted habit of serving as his own worst enemy was on display in Jerusalem today.  A freedom fighter doesn't drive a truck into a crowd of innocent people.  And until Palestinian leadership gets that message straight and controls its population accordingly, the only thing they will be upholding is their side of a terrible bargain.

Pray, Talk, Walk and Work for the Peace of Jerusalem, not the shedding of its blood.  This is our only Hope.


29 December 2016

Waiting for Leaders to Step Forward and Make Peace

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the United Nations Security Council vote censuring Israel for settlements and their expansion in territories conquered in 1967 has generated yet another firestorm between Israel and the Obama Administration.
Sadly, this drama has played itself out before on numerous occasions over the past 8 years, representing, in my view, a series of gamesmanship maneuvers that are entirely and frustratingly predictable. Despite Bibi and Obama not having any great shared admiration for each other, the United States government under President Obama has consistently supported Israel in the court of public opinion and perhaps most importantly, with more military aid than any other American president has ever authorized. This is an incontrovertible fact.
As an American Jew who has long supported and defended Israel and its right to exist within defensible borders and as someone who has stood up for Israel in the face of virulent and passive anti-Semitism on the Left and the Right, I come to this moment with my own mild, if discernible battle wounds.
Having been born in 1963, I have only the vaguest memories of Israel's striking victory in the Six Day War. That it faced possible annihilation and virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric less than twenty years after the Holocaust only lent an air of the "miraculous" to its stunning achievement. Jerusalem became unified for the first time in 2000 years and Israelis were able to travel to Biblical towns that for generations were forbidden to them. From a purely historical and archaeological perspective, this was awe-inspiring (and frankly, remains so for lovers of history like me.)
But where I never stood as a Jew or as a leader was on the side of those who see God's hand in that victory. However, the Israeli government policy for the better part of the last nearly 50 years, has been to deploy the messianic religious fervor found most profoundly in the religious nationalist movement to channel a settlement policy throughout the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria in what the Palestinians rightfully claim as their homeland and to do so without an agreed upon policy based on negotiations. I have always believed that this is wrong.
My entire adult life I supported the idea of the two-state solution and like many, was sorely disillusioned by Palestinian terror which rejected compromise and unleashed a wave of murderous attacks on Jews in the wake of the Oslo Accords; and I was equally disillusioned by Jewish extremists who were responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
And as each day goes by, I see the growing Palestinian disillusionment and the growing right wing Israeli nationalist movement as being locked in a zero-sum game that is as determined as it is dangerous. Each side is banking on the other backing down or being destroyed.
If the two-state solution is not dead, it is on life support with very little chance of survival. Where this leads is anybody's guess but like so much of Jewish history, there may be surprises both good and bad in the offing.
While I recognize that the United Nations Security Council has never really been a friend of Israel and most American presidents have generally used the veto there to prevent strident anti-Israeli measures (including Barack Obama on a number of occasions) this latest vote, based on relatively steady but critical language, is not the firestorm many people believe it to be.
It is true and it is just, this outrageous hypocrisy we sense in the U.N.'s inaction over genocidal massacre in Syria barely registers in the UNSC; especially when considering how easy it was to corral the necessary votes to censure Israel's settlement policy and make it across the finish line.
But let's be honest, please? When had Prime Minister Netanyahu or his Ambassadors to the U.N. ever shown regard or respect for that institution? It has a history of being anti-Israel and Israel has more often or not used the dais on 42nd Street to remind the U.N. of its hypocrisy.
Therefore, I am not surprised by the vote. It's disappointing to me that President Obama felt he had to do it as a parting shot at the end of a fraught relationship, but it won't amount to a hill of beans and three things remain certain: 1. U.S. military aid will continue; and, 2. so will the expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise; and 3. the Palestinian leadership will not produce a viable partner and stable leadership to serve as a peace partner.
On goes the endless cycle.
Therefore, I conclude that the pronouncements, mostly hysterical, from Jewish leaders and organizations on the American scene ( and I refer here to the crowing Left and the angry Right) as well the undiplomatic and unprofessional comportment of Netanyahu, Dermer and many other members of the Knesset who rejoice in saying the most offensive things about Barack Obama while also cashing his checks is not about the issue at hand but really about their own relevance and survival.
Bibi is forever looking rightward because he's a master at political survival. And until an alternative leader arises to knock him off the top of the hill, the two-state solution slips further and further away.
They like to say that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. One could add a third: the inability to resolve sharing land that two peoples call home.
So we soldier on. Seeking justice in ways that we can and trying to argue with those we may disagree with respectfully.
It's a hard knock life.

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.