At-Risk Communities from Syria to the South Side: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5774

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While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.

So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.

As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.

In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”

In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:

These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…

Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.

When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?

But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.

I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.

Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.

Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.

Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.

The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.

To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.

No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.

How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”

Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.

This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?

I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.

I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.

It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.

The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.

This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.

Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.

Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.

So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.

Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.

Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:

It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.

I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.

They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.

I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.

We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.

But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.

I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.

I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and  learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)

I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.

The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.

Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.

In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:

There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.

Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.

Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.

But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.

So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?

May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.

May it be a rewarding year for us all.

(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)


In Memory of our Voting Rights Martyrs: A Sermon for Kol Nidre 5774

Jimmie Lee Jaskson

Jimmie Lee Jackson

I’d like to begin tonight by telling you the stories of three heroes of the civil rights era. I’d wager most Americans have never heard of them – but as far as I’m concerned, they deserve to be at least as well known as Emmett Till, Medger Evers and Rosa Parks.

The first is Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African-American farmer and woodcutter from in Marion, Alabama. Jackson grew up in poverty, but planned to move North for a better life after graduating from high school. After his father’s early death however, he spent his the remainder of his life on his small family farm in Marion, where he lived together with his sister, mother, and grandfather.

Jackson was an army veteran and a deeply faithful man; he became the youngest deacon in the history of Marion’s St. James Baptist Church. He also turned into a political activist at an early age after unsuccessfully attempting to register to vote for four years. Jackson spearheaded his church’s voter registration drive and eventually became a prominent civil rights leader in Merion.

On the night of February 18, 1965, Jackson participated in a demonstration in which 500 people peacefully marched from a church in Marion to the county Jail about a half a block away to protest the imprisonment of a young civil rights worker. On their way, the marchers were met and beaten by a line of Marion City police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama State Troopers. Among the injured were two United Press International photographers. A NBC News correspondent was so badly beaten that he was later hospitalized.

The marchers quickly turned and scattered back towards the church. Pursued by the state troopers, Jackson, his sister, mother, and 82-year-old grandfather ran into a café. The troopers followed them in and clubbed his grandfather to the floor. When Jackson’s sister and mother attempted to pull the police off and they began to beat them as well. Jackson went to protect them and a trooper threw him against a cigarette machine. A second trooper moved in and shot Jackson twice at point blank range in the abdomen.

Jackson staggered outside, was clubbed again and fell wounded in the street, where he lay for half an hour. Later that night, Jackson, his mother and grandfather were transported to a hospital in Selma. His mother and grandfather suffered head wounds but were treated and released – Jimmie Lee remained in the hospital where his condition grew steadily worse. Four days later, an Alabama state trooper walked into and hospital room and charged Jackson with assault and battery with intent to murder a peace officer. Eight days later, on Friday, February 26, Jimmie Lee Jackson died from his wounds.

His funeral took place on March 3. Dr. Martin Luther King was among the speakers at the service, after which a thousand people followed Jackson’s casket through the rain to a local cemetery. Four days later, several hundred marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, formed a long column, and began walking up the steep incline of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River. Their goal was to walk 54 miles to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and petition the governor and legislature to open the state’s voting rolls to all citizens. The march ended violently on a day we would all come to know as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a galvanizing moment in the fight for voting rights in this country.

Reverend James Reeb

Reverend James Reeb

The second person I’d like to profile for you now is Reverend James Reeb. Reeb was raised in Caspar, Wyoming, served in the Army during World War II, and was later ordained by the Princeton Theological Seminary. Soon after, however, he left the Presbyterians and joined the Unitarian Universalist church. As a white man who believed in civil rights, he was particularly drawn to the UU’s strong emphasis on social justice.

Reverend Reeb was fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1962. After serving for a few years at All Souls Church in Washington DC, he became the director of the American Friends Service Committee Metropolitan Boston Low Income Housing Program in 1964. With his wife and four children, he moved to Boston and purchased a home in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American area of the city. His daughter Anne later recalled that her father “was adamant that you could not make a difference for African-Americans while living comfortable in a white community.”

Following Bloody Sunday, Reeb went down to Selma with 45 Unitarian ministers and 15 laypeople to participate in the voting rights demonstrations that arose in the wake of Bloody Sunday. On March 9, he joined 2,500 marchers for a second march from Selma to Montgomery. As on previous attempts they were stopped by the police – and so the marchers returned to Browns Chapel for an evening of speeches, singing and prayers.

Later that night, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers had dinner in a local black restaurant. Although he had planned to return to Boston that night, he called his wife and told her he had decided to stay for one more day. Upon leaving the cafe, the trio was set upon by four men brandishing clubs and yelling racist slurs. They attacked and beat the three men – wounding his two colleagues and severely injuring Reeb with a blow to his skull. Needing a neurosurgeon, he was driven ninety miles by ambulance to University Hospital in Birmingham. He died two days later.

Reverend James Reeb’s death sparked mourning event throughout the country – tens of thousands held vigils in his honor, including a ceremony in Selma, where he, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, was eulogized by Dr. King. That evening, on March 15, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress on behalf of the Voting Rights Act. It was his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech, in which he urged Congress to outlaw all voting practices that denied or abridged “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Six months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo

And finally, let me tell you now about Viola Liuzzo – born in 1925 to a poor white family that moved constantly throughout the Deep South. During the early months of World War II, her family moved to Michigan, where she worked in a bomber factory. Eager to contribute to the war effort herself, Viola moved to Detroit, where she married and had two daughters. They divorced shortly after and she eventually married Anthony James Liuzzo, a union organizer for the Teamsters. Anthony adopted her daughters and they had three more children together.

Though she was a high school dropout, Liuzzo trained as a medical laboratory assistant and later took classes at Wayne State University. There she was exposed to political ideas of the time, including debates about the Vietnam War, education reform, and economic justice. This period marked the beginning of her political activism. She was arrested twice in demonstrations and both times she insisted on a trial in order to publicize her causes.

In 1964 Liuzzo, a former Catholic, joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit – attracted, like Reverend Reeb, by its commitment to civil rights. She also became active in the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Like so many others, Liuzzo was galvanized by events in Selma. Following Reverend Reeb’s murder she attended a memorial service for him and soon after, she decided to go down to Selma herself to volunteer for a week. As she explained to her husband, she believed there were “too many people who just stand around talking.” She asked her closest friend, an African-American woman named Sarah Evans, to explain to her children where their mother had gone and to tell them she would call home every night. When Evans warned her that she could be killed, she replied simply, “I want to be part of it.”

So on March 21, Liuzzo joined 3,000 other marchers as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge attempting to reach Montgomery. She stayed on to volunteer over the next few days, driving shuttle runs from the airport to the marchers’ campsite and helping at a first-aid station.

On March 25, she joined the marchers for the final four miles to Montgomery, where she joined the thousands that demonstrated at the Alabama State House. When the march was over, Liuzzo and African-American civil rights worker named Leroy Moton drove five marchers back to Selma. After they were dropped off, Viola volunteered to return Moton to Montgomery. On their way back, four Ku Klux Klan members pulled up alongside their car. Liuzzo tried to outrun them, but they caught up with her car and opened fire. Viola was shot twice in the head and died instantly.

Following her murder, President Johnson publicly demanded that the arrest of Liuzzo’s murderers be a top priority. In just 24 hours, the FBI arrested the four Klan members, one of home was an FBI informant. Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest.

The FBI would later attempt to publicly discredit Liuzzo – most likely to cover up the fact that their agent was a KKK member and may have actively participated in her murder. J. Edgar Hoover personally spread rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist party and a drug addict and that she had traveled to Selma to have sexual relations with black men. Viola’s family was also targeted by hate groups – after crosses were burned in front of their home. Anthony Liuzzo had to hire armed guards to protect his family.

However, as in the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Revered James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s death had a powerful impact on the voting rights movement across the country. On March 27 hundreds of protesters marched to the Dallas County courthouse in Selma in her memory. The next day Dr. King eulogized her at San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral. The NAACP also sponsored a memorial service for Liuzzo at a Detroit church that was attended by fifteen hundred people including Rosa Parks. A Roman Catholic Church in Detroit celebrated a high requiem mass that was broadcast on TV. Dr. King was among the 750 people in attendance.

As with Jackson and Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s murder played a critical role in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. According to historians, Johnson invoked her death repeatedly as he lobbied Congress. Five months after she died, he signed it into law.

Why am I telling you the stories of these three individuals tonight? One simple reason is that I believe they deserve to be told. We owe Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo at least that much. And we owe it to ourselves. I took the time to tell you about them because so few really know the stories of these American heroes. And we should. We should know who they were, how they lived and the significance of their sacrifice.

I also have a specifically liturgical reason for telling you their stories tonight of all nights. The traditional  Yom Kippur service includes a section known as the Martyrology (or as we call it in Hebrew, “Eleh Ezkarah,” meaning “These I Remember.”) The centerpiece of Martyrology is a long liturgical poem that recounts the death of ten rabbis – including the famous Rabbis Akiba, Ishmael and Shimon ben Gamliel – who were executed for their support of the failed revolt against Rome in the year 132.

We traditionally read these accounts on Yom Kippur because of the classical Jewish belief that blood atones.  Our Torah portion tomorrow will, in fact, describe an ancient sacrificial rite of atonement, in which the High Priest sacrifices a goat on behalf of the entire Israelite people. Though the sacrificial system is no more, we ask for God’s forgiveness by invoking the deaths of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And so on Yom Kippur, we beseech God: even if we are unworthy of God’s mercy in the coming year, we ask for forgiveness us on account of those who made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf.

Whether or not we buy into such a theology, I believe the Martyrology has an additional function as well: on Yom Kippur we  pose the question honestly: what have we done in the past year to prove ourselves worthy of these profound sacrifices? What have we done to affirm that these courageous people did not die in vain? Have we honored their memories by transforming these lost lives into justice, hope and healing for our world?

When we ask these questions as 21st century American Jews, I believe they resonate for us on multiple levels. When we invoke those Jews who died for practicing their faith, we must ask: have we done what we can to ensure that this Judaism – this exquisite spiritual tradition of ours – will be passed on to future generations? And as Americans, when we remember those who died in furtherance of justice in our country, we are challenged: how have we honored their sacrifice? What to have we done in the past year to ensure that they did not die in vain?

Indeed, at the heart of this liturgy is a refusal to accept that our martyrs have died for nothing. I’ve just recounted for you the stories of three lesser-known martyrs of the American civil rights movement – but this Sunday, as a matter of fact, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of four others who are much better-known: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – the four little girls who were killed by a KKK bomb in Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.

At the funeral for three of the girls, Dr. King gave a famous address that has since come to be known as the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.” At one point in his eulogy, King said as follows:

So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city … The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the white citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past in to the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event many cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience

Amongst the many religious texts I’ve read on the meaning of martyrdom, I personally find King’s words to be among the most spiritually meaningful and profound. I am particularly moved by his hope, by his realism, but most of all, by his refusal to surrender to the possibility that these four little girls died for nothing. Even in the midst of this wretched tragedy, he was determined to find a spark of spiritual meaning in their loss.

In his eulogy, King also described of blood of the martyrs as redemptive – but he did so in a way that affirmed goodness and justice in the face of an evil, unjust act. As horribly tragic as their deaths were, King could not help but affirm that their deaths would, as he put it, “serve as a redemptive force” that would eventually bring new light during those very dark days. And perhaps most important: his theology was not limited to mere words. As soon as he finished speaking, he continued to lead a movement that would ensure these sacrifices would bring social and political transformation to the American South.

In the end, I’m taking the time to tell you about Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo because I believe their stories are utterly appropriate to this day. On Yom Kippur, as we bear witness to their lives, their work and their sacrifice, we are the recipients of a direct spiritual challenge. Now that we’ve heard their stories, it’s time to ask ourselves: have what have we done to carry on the work that they have left unfinished? Have we done all that we can to give their lives and their deaths meaning? Have we done everything in our power to ensure their deaths were not in vain?

Well my friends, we have a very real opportunity to find out, because these are not merely academic questions. Just three months ago, the US Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the very cause for which these three individuals sacrificed their lives. As I’m sure everyone here tonight knows, on June 25, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to invalidate a key element of the Voting Rights Act – the section that required states with the worst history of voting discrimination to seek preclearance from federal government before implementing new voting changes.

Indeed, there have been numerous attempts to weaken or gut the Voting Rights Act over the past 50 years. Only a month after it was enacted, in fact, it was constitutionally challenged by South Carolina. Over the years, the Voting Rights Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court four separate times – in 1966, 1973, 1980 and 1999 – and each time, the Court has voted to uphold it. Meanwhile, the US Congress has voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act on four separate occasions; each and every time it was signed back into law by a Republican president.

In his ruling for the majority last June, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that there is no longer a need for the federal government to actively ensure voting rights:

Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, (voter) turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.

According to this reasoning, voter suppression is simply not the problem it was back in 1965. As Justice Roberts put it, “the Nation is no longer divided along those lines yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as it were.”

Justice Ruth Ginsberg,in a brave and blistering dissent to the majority, stated the patently obvious: the reason things have changed since 1965 because the Voting Rights Act has been in place since 1965. As she wrote:

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

If there could be any doubt to Justice Ginsberg’s argument, her point has since been driven home with brutal clarity. Two hours after the ruling, officials in Texas announced that they would begin enforcing a strict photo identification requirement for voters, which had been blocked by a federal court on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect African-American and Hispanic voters. And as we speak, state officials in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida, among others, are now moving to change voter identification laws – laws that had previously been rejected as discriminatory by the federal government.

Make no mistake: this Supreme Court ruling has struck a devastating blow to voting rights in our country. And in so doing, it has reinforced a hard truth: it challenges us with a reminder that the struggle for justice is not a one-time moment but an ongoing process. Indeed, we are so very good at commemorating the victories of the past – but too often, it seems to me, we do it at the expense of the present. I do believe as King has famously said that the arc of freedom bends toward justice – but it doesn’t do so all by itself. Justice will only prevail if we remain vigilant. It is not enough to commemorate and teach our children about the heroes of the civil rights movement in ages gone by. On the contrary, we must teach that we ourselves must consistently do what we must to honor their achievements – and most importantly, their sacrifices.

On Yom Kippur, we ask: who has paid the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of righteousness – and what will we do in the coming year to honor their sacrifice? And on this Yom Kippur, I can think of no better spiritual gesture than to lend our support to the political efforts currently underway to restore the hard fought laws that ensure voting rights for all in our country.

At the moment, these efforts are taking many forms. Given the current reality in Washington, it is clear that our bitterly divided Congress is unable to legislatively address this issue. But there are other efforts ongoing that are eminently worthy of our attention and support. This past July, the Obama administration asked a federal court in Texas to restore the preclearance requirement there. In a speech to the Urban League, Attorney General Eric Holder said that this action is only the first of many different moves the Justice Department will make on behalf of voting rights throughout the country. A more ambitious effort: a Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee the right to vote, is currently being advocated by Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, among others.

In fact, there is no explicit right to vote spelled out in the US Constitution – and as a result, individual states continue to set their own electoral policies and procedures. At present, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all, in sense, separate and unequal. As Rep. Ellison has put it, “It’s time we made it clear once and for all: every citizen in the United States has a fundamental right to vote.”

Obviously passing a Constitutional amendment is a daunting prospect, but this campaign certainly has the potential to build a broad movement that would keep this issue front and center of our national consciousness. And such a movement could well create space for more immediate action at the congressional and state levels to address the devastating fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling.

I frankly can think of no political actions more appropriate this Yom Kippur than this: actions that will bring redemption to the lives and deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. I hope you found meaning in their stories – and I fervently hope that we will all come to see ourselves as participants in their stories that continue to unfold even now.

I’d like to conclude with words from Reverend Reeb’s final sermon. They clearly have a heartbreaking significance when you hear them today – but I do believe they speak to us with as much urgency as the day he spoke them in All Souls Church in July 1964: At the very end of his sermon, Reverend Reeb said:

If we are going to be able to meet their need, we are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice. Let all who live in freedom won by the sacrifice of others, be untiring in the task begun, till every man on earth is free.

This and every Yom Kippur, may we be worthy of his words.

(Click here to sign a petition that urges the Justice Department to block discriminatory voter ID laws in our country.  Click here to contact your representative and demand Congress act now to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.)

Memorial for Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, UU Headquarters, Boston

Memorial for Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, UU Headquarters, Boston


Blowing the Whistle: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

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I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial.  It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.

While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time.  Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.

In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.”  It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.

Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files.  When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.

When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense.  Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision.  She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.

So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case.  Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.

For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would.  The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged.  She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners.   The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.

The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent.  Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling.  Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.

I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine.  In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.

Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:

People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it.  Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.

I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.

I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions.  On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency.  But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.

Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue.  And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year.  I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention.  Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.

I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry.  As John Adams famously wrote:

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so.  Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.

In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.”  On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute.  After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise.  But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security.  History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.

Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation.  Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world.  But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.

When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act.  It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.

It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost.  When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods.  They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered.  And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.

Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this.  That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles.  Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.

Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad.  When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.

I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner.  But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.

As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action.  An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.

McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations.  In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:

By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.

McCord then ended his letter with these words:

If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.

Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military.  After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.

As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video?  The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.

I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?

It’s well worth asking why?  Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?

And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?

I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets.  The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.

I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.

As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most.  In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror.  While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.

Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined.  His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right.  It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.

To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone,  “All governments lie.”   Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies.  He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.

That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.

I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these.  But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.

As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.”  Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.

After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.”  The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable.  We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.

I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well.  Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”

Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together.  This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence.  And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live?  Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?

Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.

Amen.


Why Be Jewish?: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5773

From my Yom Kippur sermon yesterday:

Let me leave you with this vision: the vision of a people who have over the centuries learned to build a nation without borders, a multi-ethnic nation suffused with the beauty of a myriad of cultures, a nation inspired by a religious tradition it constructs and reconstructs in every age and in every generation. At its heart, a nation committed to the struggle for meaning in our lives and justice in our world. And in the end, a nation that has nothing to fear and every opportunity to gain from the remarkable changes underway in the 21st century.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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Judaism Without Tribalism: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

From my Rosh Hashanah sermon last Monday:

However – I also wonder if Jewish tribalism is starting to come at a cost.  I especially wonder what it means for the Jewish community to be tribal in this day and age, when we are experiencing openness and freedom in historically unprecedented ways.  Given the global realities of our 21st century world, I wonder if there might be new models for Jewish identity – ones that value tribalism less than a deeper sense of engagement and kinship with the world outside.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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From Joy to Sorrow and Back Again

Thte first part of our day was spent at the WE-ACTx Nyaconga center outside Kigali. Among other things, this site is used for a new peer youth program called “Peer Parenting” in which older children work with the younger children of the area – almost all of the orphans and either infected or affected by HIV-AIDS.

Mary Fabri told me that before WE-ACTx started working with the kids of Nyaconga, the children were obviously listless and outwardly depressed. This description certainly did not square with our experience of them yesterday. We spent the better part of the morning with them playing organized group games led by two youth teens – amazingly charismatic and talented team leader “peer parents.” One of the games seemed to be a Rwandan version of “Duck, Duck Goose.” Another bore a striking resemblance to the Israeli folk dance “”Yesh Lanu Tayesh.”

By the end, we were fairly exhausted (the adults anyways) but thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. (See pic above).  I’ll never again underestimate the power of silly fun to bond people t0gether instantaneously. More importantly,  I think it was an important testimony to the power of medicine (in this case, life-saving ARVs) along with community/leadership development to realize a more holistic vision of healing.

Another unexpected treat of the visit: we got to see a lovely mosaic at the center created by girls who participated in a WE-ACTx exchange project that brought teenagers from Rwanda to Chicago and girls from Chicago Freedom School to Rwanda. This mosaic (see detail above) was one of their joint projects. Note the Chicago skyline on the bottom left corner!

After lunch we made a return visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (above), which serves as Rwanda’s national genocide museum and memorial. Like my last visit, I found it to be one of the most powerful museums of its kind. It doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles of more contemporary museums, but simply tells the story with straightforward simplicity, punctuated by video testimonies of survivors. I’ve always been moved and impressed that it contains one entire floor dedicated to other genocides throughout human history – a necessary statement that no one’s pain is disconnected from another.

The Centre is also the site of a mass grave of 250,000 who were slain during the genocide which, of course, makes it much more that a simple museum – it is truly sacred ground. It was the first real connection to the genocide for our group on the trip – needless to say, an enormously difficult – if important – part of our visit.

But as is often the case in Rwanda, we went from joy to sorrow, and back to joy again.  After the Centre visit, we decided to swing by the art studio of William, the young man who directed the mural project at the WE-ACTx offices yesterday. He had told us if we had time, he’d love to show us his work.

While we expected a modest one-man art studio, we were delighted, upon arrival, to discover that William was part of the Ivuka Arts Center – a collective of seventeen artists that provides a home for work and sponsors art and dance workshop for Rwandan youth in the community.

While we were at Ivuka, we had the opportunity to see several of the artists in action and viewed much of their work.  Coming here directly from the genocide center, I was particularly struck that none of the art directly evoked the pain of Rwanda’s recent history. Rather, there was an obvious pride and joy in Rwandan identity and culture. Given the high quality of the art, were particularly amazed to learn that these artists are largely self taught.  Clearly, this is much more than an artists collective. Quite by chance, we happened upon another inspiring Rwandan community development project!

From the Ivuka website:

Since its inception in 2007, Ivuka has become the face of Rwandan art to both the national and international communities alike. In the last 2 years Ivuka has become the most sought-after fine arts destination for expatriates and diplomats in Rwanda. Yet despite this incredible success, Ivuka Arts Founder and Director Collin Sekajugo still envisions the studio primarily as a place where art is used to change lives.

Through Ivuka’s mentoring program, artists who formerly struggled to make a living are honing their skills, finding platforms for exposure, and gaining name recognition. Children who formerly begged on the streets are finding hope and educational opportunities through RwaMakondera, Ivuka’s traditional dance troupe.

In a very real sense, Ivuka has become more than “The Rebirth of Contemporary Rwandan Art”.  It has become the start of a bright new life for each person it touches.

We spend a wonderful few hours at Ivuka, which also included significant art purchases and extended playing with Rwandan children who had been attending a workshop. Below is a picture  of our friend William (white shirt, fifth from right) and Emanuel (black shirt, left), who is a central leader of Ivuka and its programs.

Sometimes, the most remarkable experiences on your journey are the ones that aren’t on the itinerary…


Obama in 2012: Won’t Get Fooled Again

Just happened to glance at a blog post I wrote during the 2008 Presidential General Election campaign entitled “Go Rabbis for Obama!”

Man, what a difference four years makes. I think I can safely say it will be impossible for me to summon the kind of excitement I expressed in that giddy blog post just four short years ago.

Actually, if truth be told, it was just one year into his presidency when I concluded that Obama, from a foreign policy point of view at least, was essentially Bush 2.0.  Now as his first term comes to a close, I’m daring to consider the possibility that he might actually be worse.

I’ve already written a fair amount about my disillusionment on this score – most pointedly in my Yom Kippur serrmon from earlier this year:

For some Americans the most salient lesson of 9/11 was that the world is a dangerous place and we must use military power to mitigate the danger.  I include myself among those who learned a very different lesson: 9/11 taught us that when we intervene militarily abroad, we beget blowback here at home.

Many of us had hope that Obama truly believed this as well – that he would turn back the Bush doctrine and steer our nation’s foreign policy toward a saner course. But as it has turned out, the very opposite has happened. He has embroiled us in even more Mideast wars and has deployed even larger numbers of special operations forces to that region.  He has also transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons to these countries and has continued to build and expand US military bases at an ever-increasing rate.

He also promised to prosecute the so-called “War on Terror” with greater attention to civil liberties, but that hope has been fairly dashed as well.  During his campaign, note what he had to say about this subject:

“As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

Well, it’s over two years later and Guantanamo is still open. This past March, the Obama administration announced it would be resuming military tribunals there. And just last week, we learned that our President did something truly unprecedented – our President actually approved the extra-judicial assassination of an American citizen in Yemen.

And it’s gotten even worse since then. More recently, we’ve learned that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama has been personally been maintaining a drone “kill list” which, according to the NY Times:

counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. (Emphasis mine).

Even more recently, the NY Times has revealed that President Obama has been secretly overseeing a massive cyber-war initiative against Iran (known as “Olympic Games”) that, among other things, almost assuredly represents the official kickoff to a global cyber-weapons race. As the article correctly concludes, the blowback to our nation from Obama’s cyber-adventures could potentially be devastating:

(No) country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

But my disillusionment in the Obama administration is most profound when it comes to its handling Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  I’ve written about this issue over and over as well – but if you still need more convincing that this administration has utterly caved to the Israel lobby and has abdicated any semblance of “honest broker” status in this process, it was recently reported that Obama unabashedly assured a group of Jewish orthodox leaders that his administration is “decidedly more attentive to Israel than it is to the Palestinians.”

All this to say that I’m in a very different frame of mind as Obama now runs for reelection. The giddiness has been replaced with a dose of hard, cold realism about the role of the President in the 21st century national security regime:

Again, from my Yom Kippur sermon:

I’m focusing these observations exclusively on our Commander-in-Chief, but of course I realize that this issue is much, much larger than just one man.  I know it’s natural to look to our primarily to our President, but in truth what we call “Washington” is really a massive bureaucracy that includes a myriad of interests. It’s a far reaching power elite that includes not only the federal government but the national security state, as well as the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. It also includes big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, major corporations and any number of lawyers, lobbyists former officials, and retired military officers, all of whom hold enormous influence over our foreign policy.

So as we swing into summer and we listen to Obama and Romney trade salvos over foreign policy, don’t be fooled – at the end of the day there is less than an inch of daylight between the two.  Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller, in a Foreign Policy post entitled “Barack O’Romney” only half jokingly suggested that if reelected, Obama ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new Secretary of State.  Another respected analyst, MJ Rosenberg, has gone as far as to suggest that President Obama would actually be more likely to bomb Iran than a President Romney.

What should we do with all this hard political realism?  As for me, I’m taking my cue from the classical Jewish text, Pirke Avot:

Love work. Hate authority. Don’t get too friendly with the government. (1:10)

And for good measure:

Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress. (2:3)

The events of these last four years have provided a painful education for me.  I’ve learned more than ever that it is not politicians who create socio-political change – it is, rather, the people and the movements who make it impossible for them not to.

Yes, there are some important domestic issues at stake in this election (not least of which are potential Supreme Court appointments) but let’s not be fooled into thinking that the future of US foreign policy fundamentally depends on who we choose to be our Commander in Chief.

The real difference will depend on our readiness to hold him accountable once the election is over.


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