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.