Bridging Two Sides of a Troubled Divide

A bridge in Paterson, New Jersey, spans a turbulent river. Behind the bridge is a waterfall. On the right-hand side an American flag flies.

Philanthropists Ray and Vivian Scott Chew see their good work as a higher calling. They founded the Power 2 Inspire Foundation. These are dark times, but there is a ray of light, of hope. The Chews created Be the Light, a “call to action to unite the country in a climate of social, political and environmental unrest.” Why? “As our leaders and communities look for ways to highlight our common bonds instead of our personal differences, we have all been given the charge of looking for ways to “be the light.”

The Be the Light Project is producing an eight-song album, “celebrating the Jewish and Christian faiths coming together as one.” For the first track, released during the time of Pesach and Easter, Cantor Azi Schwartz and Israel Houghton, backed by an interfaith Gospel choir produced a masterful cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic, Bridge over Troubled Water.

It is worth noting that, back in December 2019, Cantor Azi Schwartz and Valerie Simpson sang the same song, again with a lively Gospel choir. Collaborating here, too, were Ray and Vivian Scott Chew.

Everyone, please be safe!

Calling on the President to Welcome the Stranger; End Detention and Expulsion

A children's playground is surrounded by a fence of metal bars. Behind the bars are play structures, one of which bears a smiling face against a blue background.
During a visit to Philadelphia, the irony of a playground surrounded by a gate was not lost on me. Now I think of the child refugees along our southern border who face a very real assault on their human liberty.

An open letter to Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States, and copied to my representatives in Congress:

Dear Mr. President,

You, your presidency, represent hope for America. Yet, there are many people in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala who do not have that. Instead, the situation where they live has been so bad, that they are fleeing the place they called home, saying good-bye to beloved family. They arrived at our southern border, seeking protection. They, too, seek that hope. They are not migrants; they are refugees and asylum seekers. They need your hope. Moreover, they need your action.

In 2020, under the previous administration, the U.S. government used Title 42 of the Code of Federal Regulations as pretext to expel people seeking entry into the U.S. at the Mexico border. Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Immigrant Justice Project stated, “The invocation of Title 42 was a thinly-veiled bigoted and xenophobic action that has achieved its goal of cutting off access to asylum for thousands, cloaked in the pretense of protecting public health. This policy has been roundly denounced by public health experts, including CDC scientists, as both unnecessary and ineffective. The continued use of this policy is indefensible.” In fact, continues the SPLC, the action under Title 42 is illegal:

  • It misuses public health authority (from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control) to expel individuals seeking this country’s protection without granting them access to the asylum system.
  • It violates U.S. refugee and anti-trafficking laws, as well as international treaty obligations. Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
  • It violates the civil and human rights of children and families who asylum by expelling them to face persecution, torture, and other serious danger.

Mr. President, I applaud your many humane and humanitarian efforts to undo injustices the previous administration inflicted at home and abroad. I call on you to be a beacon of decency and hope not only in America, but the world. Yet children still languish along our southern border. During this weekend of Good Friday/Easter and Passover, we are all called on to help the stranger in need. In that spirit, I urge you end the expulsion of refugees and asylum seekers and grant them the shelter they desperately need.

I leave the last word to the great Yo Yo Ma, who last year spread his message of human unity on both sides of the border:

Trans Rights Are Human Rights

A group of people sit and stand in a circle. One person holds a Pride flag. The background is the wall of an historic building with two arches. This artistic photo is tinted yellow.
“Dia de Trans,” celebrated in the beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia. Picture by Juan Pajaro Velasquez

“Rarely has an issue that so few people encounter — and one that public opinion analysts have only recently begun to study in depth—become a political and cultural flash point so quickly,” said Jeremy W. Peters in a brilliant New York Times news analysis. The piece points out that while a minuscule part of the population feels “threatened” by the “unfair competition” of trans girls in school and college sports, nearly all students feel unsafe in school — and with good reason. Another piece, this by Megan Rapinoe in the Washington Post, talks about social conservatives chasing a problem that does not exist.

In the White House, thankfully, reason and human decency recently prevailed, when the Senate confirmed Dr. Rachel Levine as the first Assistant Secretary for Health. She pledged to “promote policies that advance the health and well-being of all Americans,” including transgender people like herself. But her confirmation 52 to 48 should not have been so close. The article quotes Dr. Levine as saying, “Sadly, some of the challenges you face are from people who would seek to use your identity and circumstance as a weapon. It hurts. I know. I cannot promise you that these attacks will immediately cease, but I will do everything I can to support you and advocate for you.”

“Any attempt to discriminate against trans kids or trans people is actually against the law and against nondiscrimination laws already on the books,” said Reggie Greer, senior White House advisor on LGBT issues to the White House.

Mississippi recently became the second state to ban transgender women in sports, and lawmakers have introduced similar bills in 25 other states. And the Arkansas governor earlier this month allowed medical workers to refuse to treat LGBTQ people.

“Transgender and non-binary people face significant cultural, legal and economic challenges, but continue to bravely share their stories, boldly claim their seats at the table and tirelessly push equality forward,” said Human Rights Commission President Alphonso David. “The transgender and non-binary community’s pride, power and resilience should be a lesson to us all. As advocates, we must commit to learning together and building a world where every person can truly thrive.” HRC has already marked 12 violent killings of transgender people for 2021.

For those who doubt the authenticity of sexual and gender identity, the science supports the trans community. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Gender identity and sexual orientation are fundamental independent characteristics of an individual’s sexual identity. Scientific American documented that “sex is anything but binary” and urges people to “stop using phony science to justify transphobia. Sex and gender are not the same. s

Human decency and kindness also support the trans community.

 

Honoring Miriam, Women, and Marginalized People Everywhere

A wooden bowl contains oranges. One of the oranges has the top cut off, showing off the segments inside. Three cut oranges are arranged in front of the bowl.

B’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. The Passover Seder is as much a remembering of days past as an act of looking ahead into the future. The Late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his final masterpiece, Morality, told how Holocaust survivors had done what they had. “Almost without exception… they focused with single-minded intensity on the future. Strangers in a strange land, they built homes and careers, they had married and had children, and brought new life into the world.”

During the Seder, we speak of Moses. Indeed, he was one of the greatest prophets in history. However, it was a woman who rescued him when he was a baby, floating on the river Nile in a basket. She was audacious; yet, we will never know her name. Another woman in the book of Exodus we must not overlook is Miriam, Moses’s elder sister. In fact, women deserve far greater recognition in this important Jewish celebration.

(For a related discussion Jewish women reclaiming their voice, please see my column on kol isha.)

An ever-increasing number of congregations and families included an orange on the Seder plate, in fact right in the place of honor at the very center. The idea originated with Susannah Heschel (daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – author of the classic The Sabbath) as way to recognize members of the LGBTQ community and, by extension. The symbolism has been extended to recognize other marginalized people around the world, especially poignant at a time we remember our own liberation from a narrow place.

Debbie Friedman was a songwriter and singer, beloved among the Jewish Reform and Renewal movements, best known for her achingly beautiful Mi Shebeirach, prayer for healing. Such a song is particularly moving at this time of remembering a time when we were enslaved. Notable is her invoking not only our avateinu, forefathers, but also our imoteinu, our mothers and all the mothers who came before them. Debbie Friedman also sung of our heroine, in “Miriam’s Song – Not By Might.” Very recently, an educational website, Kveller, recognized a new cover of Debbie’s song. Author Maddy Albert points out how the video “includes scenes from Women’s Marches across the world, reminding us that gender inequality is yet another plague in our society from which we need an exodus.” Project Kesher is an organization that aims “build Jewish community and advance civil society by developing and empowering women leaders.” As we read in Exodus (Chapter 15, Verse 20), “Then, Miriam, the Prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after with timbrels.” This beautiful video is for Miriam, and all strong women like her.

A Scholar and a Rabbi Explore the Season of Our Discontent

Two portraits show Doctor Isabel Wilkerson and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. Doctor Wilkerson is young Black woman with long, dark hair. She wears a black dress and a white pearl necklace. Rabbi Buchdahl is a middle-aged Asian American woman. She has short dark hair parted at the right. She wears a white tallit, prayer shawl, with purple trim. Both women smile.

The year 2111. On that year, the U.S. will have experienced as many years as a nation without slavery as it did with “the peculiar institution.” That is just one of the astonishing facts Dr. Isabel Wilkerson revealed in a recent conversation with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the Central Synagogue, New York City. The Museum of Jewish Heritage sponsored the conversation as part of its excellent lecture series..

Drawing on her scholarship in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Dr. Wilkerson explained how structural racism in the U.S. is an “American caste system—a rigid hierarchy of human divisions.” She does not use the term lightly; it bears resemblances to the caste systems of India and, most frighteningly, Nazi Germany. In fact, Jim Crow laws and the eugenics movement provided a great deal of inspiration for the German Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany. In her talk, Dr. Wilkerson “points forward to ways that we can move beyond artificial and destructive separations towards a common humanity”

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of Caste and, previously, The Warmth of Other Suns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Great Migration that draws on the power of narrative history. Both books have garnered acclaim from top organizations, including the New York Times and National Public Radio.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl is Senior Rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue and the first Asian-American person to be ordained as cantor or rabbi in North America. In her outstanding 2020 Yom Kippur sermon, “We Are Family,” Rabbi said, suggesting that it is time to stop thinking of Jewish Peoplehood as a race. Instead, think of Jewish Peoplehood as a family.”

This breathtaking conversation has been recorded and can be seen on YouTube here. If you like the video, please consider a donation of $10 (or as much as you can afford) to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, so they can continue to bring outstanding and thought-provoking programs such as this.

You can purchase Caste from an independent bookseller at Bookshop.org.

For additional study, the Museum of Jewish Heritage recommends James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model and Alex Ross’s 2018 New Yorker essay “How American Racism Influenced Hitler.”

I am grateful for the Museum and its sponsors for making this much-needed dialogue possible. It deserves our support. It has certainly earned mine.

Two Authors Refuse to Be Enemies

Walter Ruby, a Jew, had never met a Muslim. And Sabeeha Rehman, a Muslim, had never met a Jew. They met. They got to know each other, not just as members of “the other” faith, but as individuals. And they became friends. As members of minority Americans communities, both often misunderstood and disliked, they devoted themselves to reconciliation. Though their respective faiths are in many different, they were able to find and celebrate many areas of common ground. They chronicled their journey in a remarkable book, We Refuse to Be Enemies.

This book will be published April 20, 2021, and be available from independent booksellers though Bookshop.org. However, both authors will be guests of Or Ha Lev, a Jewish Renewal congregation in New Jersey, via Zoom. Or Ha Lev and Reb Deb are actively involved in interfaith work, including the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

Interested persons should contact Rabbi Debra Smith, at her email, hineni77@gmail.com.

Jewish Women Reclaim Their Voice

A metal sculpture depicts boys and girls standing on a hollow globe.
“Hatikvah” (Hope) by sculptor Ruth Rogier, at Sheba Medical Center

Kol isha is Hebrew for “woman’s voice.” Much of the Orthodox community cites passages in the Torah and especially the Talmud (such as Brachot 24a) as declaring that a woman’s voice is arousing. Her voice is considered ervah, nakedness, sexual or sensual expression. Therefore, it is forbidden. A Talmudic scholar disagrees, as does a women’s prayer group, Women of the Wall. The latter say that the term is open to interpretation. “As a women’s prayer group our focus is on fostering a community—a community of women who will stand united if a member says Kaddish in mourning and united if a member is in celebration. It has always been our spiritual intent to sing out loud.”

In many places, moreover, a growing number of Jewish women, see this prohibition as another decree by men to declare their superior power and literally silence them. They are also reclaiming the phrase kol isha, that their voices are meant to be heard.

Yeshivat Kol Isha is a women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem, that “celebrates feminist spirituality and promotes women’s leadership within the context of deeply honoring the earth and all its inhabitants.” Also in Jerusalem is Kol Ha’Isha, “peace movement to strengthen feminism and women’s activism.”

At the Joshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, California, members have formed Kol Isha an “intensive leadership program” for study and social justice programs. They reclaimed the name as “a way of demonstrating our understanding that Jewish women’s voices are being, and always have been, heard. We intend only to amplify.”

Congregation Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut, has a study group, which believes that “women’s voices have … shaped Judaism as we know it.”

The Union for Reform Judaism includes a teen feminist group that offers members the chance to “learn from each other, increase their feminist knowledge, develop skills to communicate their beliefs to others, and create tangible change through community-oriented projects within a Jewish social justice framework.” Says Imogene Winkleman, “Kol Isha was created in response to our teens’ desire to change and a core belief that young people are key to creating gender equality and significant social change.”

On this, International Women’s Day, what inspired this column is a remarkable young woman who celebrates her Jewish heritage in song. She goes by the name Alex Kol Eisha. “I am resisting the patriarchy by singing Jewish music (GASP!),” she says. “I felt the need to use my voice for good. My voice is not a sexual organ. It is a tool for change, for liberation, and for increasing the joy in our lives.” In May 2020, Alex created Ohr Zarua Latzadik, a memorial to the Black victims of police violence. It’s one of the most haunting, tragic, beautiful pieces I have heard.

 

A Lecture Series Pays Tribute to Korczak and the Child

A poster shows a sculpture of Janusz Korczak carrying a child and leading four others. It is part of a poster that reads "Children's Rights - In Our Time: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak."

The Drew University Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study and the Janusz Korczak Association of the USA are co-sponsoring a very interesting three-part seminar. The theme is Janusz Korczak and Children’s Rights. The seminar is sponsored by the Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study and the Janusz Korczak Association of the USA. Let you friends and colleagues know about these events. Please register here for any or all three webinars to receive the Zoom links.

Part 1. Children’s Rights: Concept, History, and Cross-Cultural Perspective. “Jonathan Levy, Director of Pedagogy and Advocacy of Child Rights in Action, will explore the role of children’s rights in the thought of Janusz Korczak.”
Thursday, March 4, 2021, 3:00 p.m. (EST)

Part 2. Janusz Korczak’s Life and Legacy for Educators Today. Mariola Strahlberg will cover “Janusz Korczak’s childhood, his career as a writer, pediatrician, educator, and his advocacy for children’s rights.” Afterward, Sara Efrat Efron, Professor Emerita at National Louis University, will discuss “how to support children in times of crisis by teaching them responsibility for self, others, and communities at large.” 
Thursday, March 11, 2021, 4:00 p.m. (EST)

Part 3. Teaching Today through Children’s Rights and Korczak’s Inspiration. Ira Pataki, is an attorney who changed careers for education. He “will examine the children’s republic in the classroom today. The Youth Court and its emphasis on the concept of restorative justice offers an ideal way to promote individual responsibility and constructive group interaction to promote change and empower our students as stakeholders in the school community. The SKY (Sharpsville Korczak Youth) Court arose as an organic hybrid of Korczak’s progressive vision and the concept of restorative justice.”

These webinars and several others are all part of a very interesting lineup at Drew University over Zoom.

Remembering the Blessings of a Korczak Scholar

An elderly gentleman gives a lecture. He has gray hair. He wears metal-framed glasses. He wears a brown shirt and a golden tie.
Irving Roth (1929-2021)

Mariola Strahlberg, Founder and Executive Director of the Janusz Korczak Association of the U.S.A., reported on the passing of Irving Roth. She wrote the following tribute:

On February 16, 2021, the Korczak community lost one of its greatest teachers about the Holocaust, a promoter of Janusz Korczak’s legacy and pioneer in teaching young people how to be active in creating a better world, a world full of empathy, compassion, inclusion and justice. Irving Roth was born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, in 1929 and arrived in New York in 1947, via Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He traveled extensively all over the world, listening and talking with thousands of people, young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish. He took them on many trips to visit camps in Poland, and participated many times in the March of the Living, an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel. His talks were full of life and hope. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, he taught us how to create a better world, and although during his lifetime, many horrific wars and genocides continued to take place, he never lost hope that peace and justice are possible.
 
We were honored to have Irving present at the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, New York, on August 6, 2017, during our month-long exhibit titled Janusz Korczak—Educational Moments, and then again in August 2018, when he presented at the Seattle International Korczak Conference.

If you are a teacher or have young people around you, reach out to them and introduce them to Irving’s Adopt a Survivor Program. Unfortunately, there are not many Holocaust survivors left in our world, but there are many other survivors of wars who need us to hear their stories in order to spur us into action. It is only through our actions that we will together create a better world.

To learn about Irving Roth:

Thank you, Irving, for your ceaseless dedication to teaching us how to effectively present lessons of the Holocaust to combat ignorance, hatred and violence. May your memory be a blessing to your family and all humanity. 

500,000. Light and Darkness

A high-contrast black-and-white photo shows clouds hiding the sun. Rays of the sun are emerging from the clouds.

100,000 deaths from COVID-19. On May 24, 2020, it was “an incalculable loss.” What Dr. Anthony Faucci predicted at the end of March 2020 became reality. To go from 400,000 to the current total took only a little more than a month.

A graphic on the front page of the New York Times represents deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. Each dot represents a person dead. The graph becomes progressively darker at the bottom, representing more recent times.

The New York Times on February 25 had a stunning graphic. At the top is a single dot, representing the first COVID-19 death in the U.S. With the first outbreak, in March 2020, the area becomes progressively darker. With summer, the image takes on lighter shades of gray… until the winter of 2020-2021. And the rate at which the hue gets darker increases. “From afar, the graphic on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times looks like a blur of gray, a cloudy gradient that slowly descends into a block of solid ink. Up close, it shows something much darker: close to 500,000 individual dots, each representing a single life lost in the United States to the coronavirus.” This powerful graphic simultaneously portrays both each individual and the staggering totals. Even in our age of all-too-common numbness, 500,000 “still has the power to shock.” Photos accompanying this article convey the “ripple effect of loss.”

Or, in the words of the Washington Post, a caravan of buses – each one holding 51 passengers – would stretch 94.7 miles, the highway distance from New York City to Philadelphia. Another way the article visualizes this number is through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. A profound monument, the 493-foot-long memorial lists the names of 58,000 U.S. soldiers who perished in that war. The tallest panels are 10 feet, 1.5 inches tall, each with 660 names on 132 lines. To list the names of the 500,000 dead from COVID-19, a monument of the same length would have to be more than 87 feet tall! To bury that number of people, we would need another Arlington National Cemetery.

In a departure from the enormity of these numbers, NBC News produced a stunning video highlighting a few of the individual people among them. Each had one a zest for life. But COVID-19 took them from us.