Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflections on Rosh HaShanah 5777

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, On Prayer

On September 11th 2016, in Washington DC, Terrence Sterling was murdered by Brian Trainer, a member of MPDC. Very little information was released about his murder. Terrence's good friend Stephen Douglass, a local organizer, immediately set to work to organize and find answers. The organizers planned an action for the evening of October 3rd. This year, October 3rd was the night following the first day of Rosh HaShanah. For Rosh Hashanah, I usually take two days off from school and work to celebrate the holiday by unplugging from tech, spending time with friends and family, attending services, and doing self-reflection. This year, I chose to do something different;  I chose to attend the action on October 3rd.

In making this decision, I was particularly inspired by a small group of Jewish activists from 1966. They leafleted Washington Hebrew Congregation on Yom Kippur to protest Jewish segregationist landlords and the Jewish leadership who refused to speak out against them because "business practices of congregants are of no concern [to the rabbi]." Although in 1966 many congregants were disgusted by the protestors for "ruining the High Holy Days," I was inspired by them. Like Heschel, these activists understood that to be Jewish is to be active and to fight for a just world.  I went to the Terence Sterling protest on Rosh HaShanah with these Jewish activists in mind. I had spent 5776 trying to link social justice with Judaism; I would start 5777 doing exactly that.

After attending services on Monday, I went to the protest. I had heard about the protest through the DC chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.  From SURJ, I had learned the necessity of showing up in solidarity as a white person for actions organized by black communities. Because I gave careful thought and set intentions before heading to the protest, it felt like no other action that I had been to before.

When I arrived, I found my friends who organize with SURJ.  They asked me to hold a large banner by an intersection.  People honked their support as they drove by. Among the speakers at the event was Alonzo Smith's mother. She spoke about her son who had been murdered by the police a year ago in DC. She still doesn't have answers. After several more people spoke, we moved into the intersection to block traffic. Soon, we began to march, singing hopeful chants along the way. I loved when we chanted, "Show me what democracy looks like/ this is what democracy looks like" because it reminded me that this march is part of my civic duty to improve my city and country.

At one intersection we paused and joined hands into a giant woven circle that reminded me of Havdallah at summer camp. We were instructed to look to the people to the right and left, look into their eyes, and declare, "I need you to survive."   I looked into the eyes of the stranger to my right, squeezed his big warm hand, and said, "I need you to survive." He then, looked me in the eye and told me that he needed me to survive.  It's hard to describe the feeling of vulnerability and empowerment when you look into the eyes of a stranger and say, "I need you to survive" with intent and have it said back to you with that same sincere intent. It was an authentic, human moment. It felt like being perceived by another, like what I imagine was meant by Martin Buber when he described connecting with the other.

There is genius in the line, "I need you to survive" because of its multiple facets.
I need you to survive can mean:

-I need you for my own survival
-You need to survive.

In its dual interpretations, the line encapsulates what we mean when we say collective liberation. Collective liberation is the idea that, "none of us are free until all of us are free." I used to think the idea was simply a nice sentiment, but through my learning I have realized that it is much more. All of us, ALL of us, are harmed by white supremacy.  White supremacy denies us our humanity, isolates us, and makes us fearful. Silence is complicity. We will all benefit when we dismantle racist systems and institutions.

After over two hours of marching in the streets, singing, meeting people who knew Terrence, who were disgusted with police brutality, who wanted a better country for everyone, we sang the Assata chant:

"It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and protect each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains"

I want to end the police brutality that is committed in my community in the name of my "safety." At previous rallies, I have thanked the police for protecting our right to protest. At this rally, I felt differently. Whether they knew the officers who shot Terrence Sterling, these officers were colleagues with the officers that killed him and that scares me.  I felt compelled to march with friends and family of Terrence Sterling to demand answers and justice.  

While there are efforts in the Jewish community to stand up for racial justice, I have been disappointed by the tepid response of the organized white Jewish community. Because of this tepid response, my attendance to the action on Rosh HaShanah felt like a rejection of the behaviors of the white Jewish community over the past several years which has not forcefully stood up for black lives in 2016.  I do not mean to accuse people who chose to celebrate Rosh HaShanah traditionally, but I do want to call-in Jewish people who are not taking a stand on every other day of the year. Pursuing justice is the most Jewish action we can take. The essence of Judaism is doing what is right, is standing up for the stranger. This is at the heart of Jewish values and identity.

It is time to take a stand. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Down to the River to Pray

During orientation week of AVODAH, all of us corps members shared our “Jewish and Social Justice Journeys.” These were three-minute “presentations” accompanied with a drawing of a river to show our journey. Many people had two rivers that got wider or smaller when commitments grew or shrank and sometimes the rivers overlapped. For many folks, the rivers didn’t come together until the present.  I traced my rivers back to values from my parents, which must have been undoubtedly Jewish. Still, my two most salient identifies felt separate. As AVODAH corps members, many of us, myself included, hoped this year would be the chance to bridge two of our most salient identities.

But four months in and I wasn’t feeling like my rivers were any more meaningfully connected. I’d learned a lot about Judaism and a lot about social justice; my Jewish identity had deepened from the slow trickle that it had been in college. However, this radical combination of my identities hadn’t occurred and I was forced to reexamine my expectations. It had been silly to think these two things would come together, because that’s just not the kind of justice leader or Jew that I am.

Still, I do find value in the bridging; People who embed deep purpose in their activism are people who have the fortitude for life-long activism.

Having turned this question around in my mind for the past six months, I still have a challenging time articulating the intersection. On the first day, we were asked, “What’s Jewish About Social Justice?”  Some find the connection through biblical study. Others say it is because the foundational narrative of Judaism is the exodus from slavery to freedom and thus Jews must ensure the freedom of all peoples. Some people look to the Jewish history of persecution and the relative privilege of many Jews today and see an obligation.

During January, our educational theme was “methods of social change.” During a session we discussed the spectrum of service and advocacy of organizations that challenge existing power dynamics and organization and methods that accept existing power dynamics.  A few weeks later, Rabbi Sid Schwartz came to facilitate a conversation about Judaism and advocacy work.  He showed that the service/advocacy discussion is one that exists in Judaism as well with tzedek and chesed.

He went on to give a talk about the connections between Judaism from historical and religious perspectives that made fireworks go off in my brain.  He drew from biblical texts to say that that purpose of Jewish life is Tzedek and Kedusha, to pursue holiness and justice in the world. He spoke about Jewish obligation and our histories and present. In typing it out, I don’t know if it was necessarily new, but perhaps the way he painted the picture, or maybe I was just open to it at that time.

I can’t say why his talk resonated, but since I’ve started intentionally (3 points for an AVODAH buzzword) looking to make Jewish-Social Justice connections I’ve begun to find some. My rivers still feel separate, but some days something will stick. Maybe I’ll read a bit on Jewish leftist history, or start thinking of the modern connections to the Passover Seder. Recently, I’ve been writing short essays connecting Jewish biblical stories to Yachad’s present day work. Sometimes, it’s something altogether random and somehow Jewish, but when the light strikes right and for a moment I can grab on to that connection between Judaism and social justice, a bridge between my two rivers is created and for a few peaceful moments, I feel shalom, I feel whole.

Monday, January 18, 2016

To Build A Home

The thing that most scares new AVODAH applicants and most excites alumni is the communal living. Now, I know I've already expressed my deep love for my home and communal living (and I am so so happy to say that I still feel that way), but AVODAH utilizes a “spiral curriculum.” By that I mean that we revisit topics again and again each time in more depth. Having recently completed mid year evaluations and a quarterly reflection, I find myself circling back to the communal living.

At first glance, intentional communal living seems to be something fun and perhaps a bonus. It is helpful in our daily lives and in adjustmenting to the city and new jobs. It's a built in support system for us folks doing the often difficult and sometimes emotional work of direct service. But, like everything in AVODAH, the choice to have intentional-living-community was in and of itself intentional.

In an experiential learning experience so perfectly crafted it took me nearly four months to understand, AVODAH gave us the space to gain some of the most important soft-skills for social justice organizers. Communal living is not just something tacked on to the program; communal living teaches through day-in day-out member interaction the soft skills required of social justice leaders: non-violent communication, connected decision making, active listening, etc. etc.

It is one thing to learn these skills in classrooms and role plays, it is quite another to apply them every day at house meetings resolving issues that come up. And if you think we haven't faced house conflict, please remember that we grocery shop and cook communally for thirteen people with different diets and allergies including folks that are vegetarians, carnivores, vegans, allergic to gluten, allergic to nuts, allergic to peppers, kosher, not kosher, enjoy spicy food, enjoy bland food and much much more.

The AVODAH bayit (house) is a safe and supportive place to practice skills and find peer mentors to help us with skills we want to improve because we're all in this house together, and we all have to make it work. There is no out, and even on our most frustrating days, I don’t think anyone in my house really wants out.

In a sense, it's trial by fire, and in another it's trial by putting us in the best possible situation to grow. Comfortable and in relationship with each other--even from the start--we had a lot in common.  This makes the community form a bit easier but, even so, we are constantly being nudged ever so gently to the edge of our comfort zone.

None of us spilled our entire selves the first week as the systems were being created, and so as people become more and more willing to share their anxieties, their frustrations, their needs and wants, we, as a house, have had to find ways to make sure both the individual and the house are safe, healthy, and most importantly, comfortable. This often means reconciling multiple priorities and finding ways to make sure these priorities work in harmony rather than in hierarchy. I know this sounds paradoxical because aren't priorities inherently hierarchical? By doing this work, have we learned ways to acknowledge everyone's priorities and help people feel heard, supported and recognized in a way that allows us to exist in a better world?

And I think all of this brings it back to why I felt my interfaith training provided such good context for the work I am doing here this year, especially in community. Because to value the relationship so highly, that everything else comes secondary, to work so hard to find solutions for everyone, and to recognize that with the right mindset, everyone's needs and wants can all be accounted for eventually, this is what interfaith can be and this is what the world can be. This is what social justice can look like and I know it's utopian. I know thirteen Jewish women living in a house together cannot and will not be the model for this future that I long for. Still this house, these women, this program gives me the skills to replicate this feeling in the future communities of which I will be a part and hope for the greater world as well.

P.S I am certainly not the only corps member to be having theses thoughts. My wonderful housemate, Sarah, works at an organization whose mission is to teach emotional intelligence to high school students through a running/mentoring program. She recently wrote her reflections on her service year and communal living here.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Message From Our Sponsors

Hey folks,
Thank you to everyone who has been reading and following along with my adventures. For those who don't know, as part of my AVODAH year, I've been asked to fundraise to support their programs. Since 2002, AVODAH DC has placed 224 corps members in 44 front-line organization dedicated to changing the lives of individuals and community coping with challenges of poverty. AVODAH participants have added $4.2 million in staffing capacity to these agencies, and helped bring critical service and support to District residents.

Today is the last day to support my AVODAH fundraiser. I currently have 37 donors and was hoping to reach a goal of 40 donors.  Thank you to everyone who has donated already, I really appreciate your support.

If you haven't donated yet, this is your chance! I'm asking for a one time-donation of any amount.  I've been having an amazing time with AVODAH and I can say with absolute certainty that the work my friends and I are doing is making a difference in Washington DC.

To donate, follow this link:

Thank you again for reading and supporting.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bang Bang (It's a Beautiful Morning)

The day started out with a bang-- or rather, the threat of a bang. Moments after boarding my bus, a police car pulled us over and and the bus-driver was told to stop. Something about a bomb threat on 17th and I? Given DC is a small city (67 sq. miles), but we were pretty far from 17th and I, so most commuters were disgruntled at the interruption to their morning routine. We all filed out and started walking as did those on the bus right ahead of us. As we got closer, we found the streets blocked off, police cruisers everywhere. I asked everyone what was going on and someone asked a policeman. Apparently, there was a bank robbery and a suspicious package.

I just followed the large crowds down a side street, called my boss to say I'd be late to work, and continued on my way.

My morning routine goes something like this: I wake up and hit the snooze button 15 times. I'm working on changing this. My roommate has been a wonderfully positive influence.

I'm a pessimist in the mornings. I never want to get out of bed. I wake up, roll over and see a patch of grey sky through my window and announce to my roommate that it looks disgusting out. She then tells me how BEAAUUUTIFUL it is outside, and this convinces me to give the day a try. I then try and think positively, and get out of bed and the day is better. I also realize that it’s isn’t really sunny here. In Denver, it's sunny 300 days of the year, which usually means if it isn't sunny, it's gross out. That isn't true here. It can be grey out, but the weather might still be pleasant. Today wasn't that case though. It was raining and when I was evicted from the bus, I was thrust into a 45 degree drizzle.

There was something so odd about the situation, a bomb threat seemed so far-fetched; None of the commuters I saw seemed to react other than to vent frustration at how they'd make their meetings and classes.

I forgot a step of my morning routine. I check my phone and read up on the day's news. My newsfeed is full of stories from Mizzou. Of students subjected to racists comments, and of bomb and shooting threats made to the people of color, specifically the black students, at Mizzou. I see posts about the church burnings in St. Louis, MO. In case you missed it, arsonists set fire to 7 black churches.

I see posts from my sister who has just started a blog, My Friends Are Living In Fear, detailing the stories of people currently living in Israel. As she says, on her about page:
"My friends are living in fear and I want the world to know their stories. I want to combat silence, ignorance and apathy. 
I welcome stories from Jews and non-Jews alike. Fear knows no politics. 
My friends are living in fear. I’m sharing their stories.
What will you do?"
My sister has heard sirens and gone into bomb shelters before.

And here I am, in Washington DC, privileged enough to laugh off a bomb threat. Privileged enough to not know violence. This is not a privilege I ever hope to give up, but it is one I like to acknowledge. I live in a safe neighborhood in a safe city, in a safe country. I can choose to live in a "bad area" of town to take advantage of cheaper rent, but also leave that area if I ever feel unsafe thanks to my race and class privilege. This is not a luxury all of my clients at work enjoy and it's important to remember. And that’s all I have to say.

I hope tomorrow is a wonderful day for all of you. I’m sure I’ll wake up and complain about the grey sky, before my roommate reminds me what a BEAUUUTIFUL day it really is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Our House (In The Middle Of The Street)

Not really. Our house is on the corner. Here it is in all it's glory. You can't actually see, but we have a pointy roof on the right side that's kinda cool. You also can't see our garage or our porch in this picture.

The House. I wish the stupid tree didn't block the view, I'l try and take a better picture tomorrow morning. 
We live on Girard St, so they call us the Girard Bayit. Bayit is the hebrew word for house. It's a 3-story row house with a large finished basement. There are 7 bedrooms, 2 kitchens, 2 living rooms, and 4 bathrooms for 13 women. Surpassingly, it's quite spacious.

I live on the second floor in the middle room. My window is mostly blocked by the tree, but you can sort of see it peaking out, above the front porch overhang.

I love my house. I really really love my house, my housemates, and even my living situation. This usually shocks people. When I tell them this, they pause, then shake their finger at me as if to say "gotcha" and then warn, "Oh-ho, just wait another three months! Then you'll be at each other's throats!"

This response bothers me. While I am not so naive to think that they are wrong, I am trying to hold on to my rose-colored glasses for as long as possible. Also, the words we use to describe our situations impact our thoughts and feelings; By purposely using positive words, I'm setting myself up to feel happy about the situation. Intentional community doesn't work without buy-in, and my chips are all in. 

But as of this moment, I'm not even wearing my rose colored glasses, because I really do love my house. It is rare in life to find even one person who cares about you, but to find 12 other friends who understand your experience is a blessing. 

I walk away from dinner every night with a full stomach and a huge grin. Someone always has a funny work story that leaves us all cracking up. One person is really sassy and makes lots of sarcastic jokes. Another person will vent about an issue they are having at work, and we'll crowd-source solutions.  If someone has a romantic interest, we have to get all the details on them. Most nights, we'll end up talking about one social issue or another as we navigate our way through the professional activist world. 

And it's not just dinners. We go out as a house to explore the city, attend events and such.  Usually, it's not all 13 of us together, but we do go out in pairs and sometimes we get the majority of the house to the same bar.

Before you go thinking we spend every waking moment together, that's not true either. My roommate and I have different enough schedules that I get plenty of time in my room on my own. Even if we had identical schedules, the house is pretty big and it's not too hard to find your own space in it. And if you really can't find space in the house, DC has lots of places open late and most of us have at least one friend here we can visit when we need to be elsewhere.

In terms of the nitty gritty, we've got systems set up for cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and house contributions (aka chores). All-in-all, it's a pretty sweet deal living here and I'm having a ton of fun.

If you have more questions about how this all works, leave em for me in the comments section and I'll reply when I have a chance!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hair Cut? I Got Them All Cut!

I got a hair cut last week. On a recommendation from an AVODAH alumna, I went to the AVEDA teaching institute to get a low-cost cut from a student. When you check-in, they make you sign a waiver saying you won't cause a fuss if there is suffering or damages.

I expected a mediocre haircut, in-and-out in an hour. I knew it would take longer because I had a student, but I thought an hour was plenty of time to cut my hair.  This was not the case.

First, I had a chat with my stylist about my current hair routine where she reviewed the AVEDA products with them. Next, she had to check-in with her teacher to make sure that she was ready to cut my hair. After deciding on products, she washed my hair, cut it, and got instructor approval. All of this did not take too long. But then came the styling. Oh, the styling.  I got the blow-out to end all blow outs.  She blow-dried, curled, sprayed, pulled, and poked at my hair. She styled my hair tiny section, by tiny section. When the stylist was finished with me, my usually straight, curl-less hair looked like I'd just walked out of the 70s. I'm talking like Farah Fawcett hair. After all this, everyone was packing up and going home, but she still needed to do my make-up demo for my AVEDA experience to be complete. So that by the time I walked out two hours later, I felt ready to go take my "glamour shots."

To be clear, she did a great job, and I looked fabulous by the end of it, but I was trying to get home to eat dinner and go to bed, so while I love a good pampering, I had other priorities. Once she started though, I didn't feel like I could ask her to stop.

Before and After 

That said, as I watched other women enter and leave with much less fanfare, some with wet-hair even, I was reminded of a story my father used to tell about a man and his haircut.*
One cold night Beryl and Rivke Yancovic were in their bed sleeping. Suddenly, their door was blown open by a gust of wind. It kept banging open and closed, with a deafening clatter. 
"Didn't you lock the door?" Beryl asked his wife.
"No," she answered.
"Go and close the door"
"Why should I? You close it!"
Beryl replied, "Because I said, 'Go and close the door.' When I say something I keep my word."
"I'm your wife. If you're a man who keeps his word, I must be worthy of you, and I have to keep my word, too. I said, 'You go and close the door,' so you have to do it." 
"Well," answered Beryl, "I like your stubbornness. You're a fit wife for an honest man like me. Therefore, the situation is complicated. I can't shut the door because I gave my word not to, and I can't tarnish my reputation. I can't make you lock it because you're my wife and you must also keep your word.  Let's agree that whomever speaks first must close the door." 
The rain turned to snow, the wind into a hurricane. The window kept banging and the house became quite cold. Beryl and Rivke were shivering in their bed and neither could sleep. Still, neither of them closed the door. 
Before dawn, the storm quieted a bit, and two thieves went out to see what they could pick up. When they passed Beryl's house and saw the open door, they entered. Beryl and Rivke heard voices. 
While Rivke and Beryl shivered in their beds, too cold and scared to confront the thieves, the two robbers cleaned out the house. The next morning, Beryl and Rivke found their house empty of everything, but the furniture.  
When Rivke saw there was not even food for breakfast, she left to go to the store and walk around the town while Beryl stayed home and sulked.
Things hadn't turned out right, His wife had not closed the door, the thieves had taken everything. 
Now, in those days, barbers did not have shops, but they went from house to house looking for work. A passing barber noticed the open door and wandered in. He looked in and saw Beryl sitting on a chair deep in thought. 
"You know, Beryl," the barber said, "you need a haircut badly. Shall I cut your hair?" 
 Beryl did not answer. Well, in that town, silence meant consent. So the barber spread his tools on a table, removed Beryl's hat and began to cut his hair. He trimmed and sang merrily, and after a while, asked, "Well, Beryl, how do you like it? I think I did a good job!" 
Beryl was boiling with anger. He didn't want a haircut! But, of course, he couldn't answer, for he would have to closed the door. He grunted, but did not speak. 
"Well," said the barber. "I think you look great, but I think you'd look better with a closer trim! What do you think?"
Beryl said nothing. So the barber enthusiastically continued to cut and chat, cut and chat. Beryl became angrier and angrier, but not a word escaped his lips.
So the barber cut and cut and trimmed and tripped, until Beryl resembled a shorn sheep.
"Do you like the haircut now?"
Well, what could Beryl do? He couldn't say that he didn't need a haircut, didn't want a haircut, and looked ridiculous!
The barber looked at the silent Beryl and said, "You know, you do look really good right now, but I think you should just shave your head so that the hair will grow better! How about it?" 
When there was no answer, the barber soaped Beryl's head and shaved it clean. 
When the barber had shaved his head, Beryl was still quiet. The barber looked at him, and squinted one eye. "You know, Beryl, with a clean shaven head like this, your bear looks wild and bushy. I'll trim your beard!"
Beryl wanted to jump and scream, but he couldn't say anything!  
So the barber trimmed Beryl's beard. He stopped and asked whether it was enough, but Beryl did not answer and the barber contnued to cut and trim until all that was left was a tiny goatee. 
Then the barber turned to Beryl and said, "You owe me ten bucks, and I must say you got your money's worth. Pay me." 
Words cannot describer Beryl's anger, but what could he do? HE couldn't argue the price or else he'd have to close the door, so he sat in angry silence. 
The barber began to plead, "Beryl, I'm a poor man and I worked hard! Pay what's coming to me. Look how clean I shaved your head!" 
Beryl's face became red with rage, but he did not say a word. 
The barber became angry. He gathered his tools and erupted, "WAIT! I'll teach you a lesson, you stubborn silent donkey!" 
The barber went to the chimney, took some soot and covered Bery's face and head then stormed out of the house and did not close the door. 
When Rivke returned, she found her husband sitting o the chair, head shaven, beard gone, and his face black with soot. She forgot the agreement, dropped the groceries, and cried out
Beryl rose calmly from his chair, and yelled,  "LADY! YOU SPOKE FIRST. YOU CLOSE THE DOOR!"

Was this whole blog post just an excuse to tell one of my favorite stories from my childhood? Initially no, but actually, quite possibly.

There are some serious lessons to be gleaned thought. Looking back on my experience at AVEDA, I can't help but wonder if I had made my desires for a quick haircut heard, if I wouldn't have walked out with just what I wanted and nothing more.

During this AVODAH year, I have already learning the importance of voicing needs and desires. This is the way consensus decision making works, when we all participate fully and honestly about what we need.  It is easy to confuse a strong desire and a need, so we make sure to self-reflect.

Unlike Beryl in the story, people living in intentional living communities must exercise flexibility and  humility in order to serve the community. While we have a chore chart and accountability systems to make sure everyone participates equally, I try to not keep score and to do more than is asked of me when I am able. On the request of a house-mate, we try not to call our tasks chores; instead we call them contributions.

Honest communication, flexibility, and dampening the ego, are all steps to creating "everybody wins" situations. Before AVODAH, I'm not sure I really believed in those, but now, I believe that when we communicate effectively, allow for enough time, and have patience with each other, it is possible to create a living environment where everyone can be happy. But not just happy, a situation where everyone can feel like they "won" and got most (if not all) their needs and desires met.

This is something I actually want to devote an entire blog post to next week. The idea of "everybody wins" and how I've seen it play out thus far in AVOADH and how I hope to see it play out in the world around me, especially as it relates to my interfaith work.

Until then, loyal readers. ;)

*I copied then edited this story from Simon Solomon's story Go Close the Door printed in his book called More Stories of Chelm.