Kindness Is Not Optional: Creating an Interfaith Covenental Community

vk dinner

Here is a text of my keynote speech at last night’s annual Vision Keepers dinner of Interfaith Action - a faith-based direct service organization that serves the hungry and homeless population of my hometown of Evanston:

I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by sharing you with one of my chronic pet peeves – and I’d like to apologize at the outset to my congregants and loved ones, who are probably getting very tired of hearing me complain about this:  I really, really don’t like the saying “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”

Now I say this with all due apology to any of you who might have this bumper sticker on your car – I mean you no disrespect.  And believe me: I am a huge fan of encouraging kindness and beauty. It’s just that personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.”  After all, if by kindness we mean simple human respect and dignity – qualities that are essential to the core of our basic humanity – I think we would all agree that there should be nothing random about it. Kindness shouldn’t be random – quite frankly, it should be mandatory.

In its way, I think this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise.  We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.

Biblical tradition provides us with a different model.  Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Kindness and compassion should not be relegated to random feeling – they should be cultivated as a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We have to teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.

In the Bible, kindness and compassion are complex and profound concepts. In fact, there are many different Hebrew words for compassion. The most well known word, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.”  This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.

And then there is  “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness.”  As I learned back in my Rabbinical school Biblical Hebrew class, “lovingkindness” is probably not the best definition for chesed.  It’s a little too general, a little too mushy.  Most contemporary Hebrew scholars suggest that a better definition of chesed is “covenantal loyalty.”  Indeed, if we look at the way this word is used in the Bible, it has less to do with a feeling of lovingkindess than a deep sense of responsibility that comes out of sacred relationship. God shows chesed for the Israelites – and the Israelites for God – when they remain loyal to the mutual covenant they established together at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.

In Jewish tradition, this abstract notion of chesed was applied by the ancient rabbis to the everyday life of the community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the prototypical communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty – “commanded compassion,” if you will.  At my congregation, as at yours, I’m sure, we have a committee of members helps members in need, usually due to illness or the loss of a loved one.  We call it, naturally, the Chesed Committee. And the members who participate in it will surely at attest that they don’t participate out of a desire to be randomly kind, but rather out of the sense of responsibility that comes through belonging to a community. Probably more often than not, the members of the Chesed Committee serve people they don’t even know personally – and that, of course, is precisely the point.

So in its way, chesed presents us with a compelling and important way of understanding collective compassion.  It is intimately connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability. When a people live in a covenantal context –with chesed – it is with the fundamental understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

By the same token, all of us in the room tonight – we are part of a covenantal community as well. All of us: the congregations that make up Interfaith Action understand on a deep, spiritually cellular level, that we have an abiding sense of covenant with the Evanston community. The Interfaith Action soup kitchens, the warming centers, the homeless hospitality centers, the Producemobile, are much, much more than mere direct service projects – they are expressions of our sacred sense of commitment to the city in which we live – and of the conviction that our compassion for every single member of this community must not be regarded as random or voluntary. On the contrary, we are compelled to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless out of a collective sense of sacred, covenantal imperative.

In this regard, I want to honor the work of our honorees tonight – and all who participate in Interfaith Action – for the sacred work you do.  I know you don’t do it just because it makes you feel good. I’m willing to bet there have been plenty of times you went over to soup kitchen when you were tired or just plain didn’t feel like going. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there may have been times that you went even while you were doubting that your actions even made a difference. But in the end, you did go – and you continue to go – and you are here tonight because you know that at the end of the day, kindness should not be optional.

I’d like to go a bit further now, however, and offer a few thoughts about what an even deeper covenantal obligation might look like for our community.  I’ve always believed that religion is at its best when it not only comforts the afflicted, but challenges the oppressive status quo that afflicts them. What does it mean when we literally feed the hungry, but fail to challenge a system that countenances hunger in its midst?  Is it enough to provide warming centers, or should we also see it as our religious obligation to ask whether or not our city is also doing everything in its power to provide something as essential to life as heating for all its citizens?  On an even deeper level, shouldn’t we be finding ways to challenge an infrastructural reality that makes “warming centers” even necessary in the first place?

I believe that religion is at its best when it manages to balance what I would call the “pastoral” with the “prophetic.”  In other words, when our Biblical tradition demands that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, this is a pastoral imperative. And when we are commanded to speak truth to powerful Pharaohs, to create societies of fairness and equity, to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof – this is a prophetic imperative.

And so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask those of us in this room – those of us who act on a deep and profound sense of pastoral commitment to the Evanston community: what would it look like for us to create a similar kind of covenantal coalition out of a prophetic commitment?  More to the point: do we believe that our city of Evanston is doing what it must to ensure that its citizens are not going to bed hungry, that they have roofs over their heads and heat in their homes?   And if the answer is no, then I believe we must ask ourselves: do we believe that holding our own city accountable is just as much a religious obligation as running soup kitchens and warming centers?

Now I know that there are a myriad of complicated policy discussions to be had on these kinds of issues, and I obviously don’t intend to parse them all right now. But I do think that too often we hide behind a mantra of “it’s complicated” to avoid dealing with some fairly simple truths. And just as often, I think, we shy away from policy debates because we feel as though we shouldn’t be mixing religion and politics.

But at the end of the day, however, it’s really not all that complicated.  There’s nothing complicated about food, shelter and heat – these are among our most human basic needs. And when it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ll repeat again: religion should not only about comforting the afflicted – it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. It’s about challenging the attitudes of those who view the world with a scarcity mentality that claims there is only so much to go around – and that it’s not our problem if there are those who will inevitably go without.

I hope that gatherings such as this will redouble our resolve to both the pastoral and the prophetic aspects of our faith traditions. I hope that as we go forward with this sacred work, we will find ways to open conversations about what a truly covenantal Evanston faith community might look like. And I hope that in doing so, we might provide a truly prophetic voice of conscience.

Thank you again for all you do. Congratulations to our honorees tonight. May all of our efforts continue to transform the lives of others – may they ultimately transform our world as well.

Amen.


American Civil Rights Leaders: End the Violence and Secure a Just Peace

Delegates on a tour led by Ruth Edmonds of the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolitions (photo: Allie Perry)

Received from my friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters.  An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters.  Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.

We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders.  We cannot and will not be silent.  We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”  As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.”  Enough!

We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel.  We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties.  This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.

United States military support to Israel is huge.  From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money.  During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.

During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.

In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest.   The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land.  This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week.  Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.

The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly.  Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza.  The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.

Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same.  Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948.   This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression.   This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land.  The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.

To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled.   Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States.  You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.

Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:

§  Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.

§  Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.

§  Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.

§  Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.

§  Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.

As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent.  Justice, peace and truth matter.  The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter.  We cannot be silent and neither can you.

Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:

(List in formation)

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Chicago Clergy to Dick Durbin: Don’t Deal Away Our Most Vulnerable!

Had the honor this morning to participate in an interfaith ceremony at Chicago’s Daley Plaza that called on Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to resist devastating cuts to Federal programs in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” budget talks.  It was quite a dramatic and inspiring gathering, organized by IIRON, Make Wall Street Street Pay – Illinois and other local organizing initiatives. Over 40 members of the Chicago clergy community marched to Daley Plaza, where we encountered two Golden Calves symbolizing the idolatrous motivations behind Wall St. greed and wealth disparity. After hearing from several speakers, one of the calves (a piñata, as it turned out) was smashed open, gold coins scattering in every direction.

We didn’t focus on Dick Durbin simply because he happens to our senator.  As the Majority Whip for the Democratic Party, Durbin is one of the most important players in Washington, officially charged with leading the Democrats who control the Senate. And thus far, there is ample reason for concern that his leadership bodes ill for the more vulnerable members of our society.

Since Congress has kicked the budgetary can down the road, critical social programs in this country stand to lose $600 billion dollars on January 1 unless they choose to act. Durbin has already indicated that he favors a “grand bargain” with Republicans that may entail cuts to Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Just as ominously, Durbin has still not signed an open letter written by Congressmen Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders (and signed by 29 senators) calling on the members of Congress not to cut Social Security.

For our part, the interfaith community of Chicago has written a letter – to Senator Durbin:

Dear Senator Durbin:

Our message to you comes from Deuteronomy 30:15-19 & Joshua 24:15 as we ask you “to choose this day whom you will serve…!” We urge you to choose life and to reject “Simpson-Bowles” or any other “grand bargain” that cuts vital services to vulnerable Americans. We urge you to make absolutely to make absolutely no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Working Americans did not create this economic crisis or this false and manufactured “fiscal crisis”. Wall Street’s speculative bubble, made possible by Congressional deregulation crashed the global economy. As a result, the American people have suffered unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, and have lost their savings, retirements and wealth. Congress used working people’s taxes to bail out Wall Street banks instead of assisting underwater homeowners, creating jobs or rescuing state and local governments. The people have suffered enough. Doing further harm to working people is morally unconscionable.

It is immoral to make any further cuts to vital federal programs and services when wealthy individuals and big corporations are not paying their fair share to care for the broader community of whom they are part and on whom they rely. In this time of unparalleled income inequality and concentrated wealth, we will not accept any solution to the federal budget deficit other than raising revenue from those who have not done their share and can easily afford to do much more.

The kinds of cuts being discussed under Simpson-Bowles and other “deals” will literally result in sickness and death for many and will fall upon the poor and vulnerable in order to provide for the excess for the wealthy.  Senator Durbin, you now face a choice between serving the false gods of greed and excessive wealth or implementing policies that promote life and shared prosperity. It is important that as a key leader in the Senate you stand firmly on the side of those who stand to lose so much.  Therefore we bring to you four demands:

- Block any reductions in benefits for Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid

- Block any extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for people with taxable income above $250,000 per year

- Block the “sequestration” cuts to domestic programs set to occur in January 2013

- Support progressive sources of taxes including a robust estate tax, taxing capital gains at a rate equal or higher to wages and pass a strong Financial Transaction Tax (aka the Robin Hood Tax)


To Chicago residents: A myriad of local organizing initiatives is holding a rally on Friday, November 9 in Pritzker Park (State and Van Buren) at 3:00 pm. Together we will tell our elected officials: “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis!” and demand that the wealthy and big corporations must “Pay Their Fair Share”.


Rabbi Brian Walt: Christian Leaders Cannot be Cowed into Silence

Please read my friend Rabbi Brian Walt’s new piece in Ha’aretz. He has recently returned from a remarkable interfaith delegation to the West Bank; I will be posting more of his writings about his experiences in the near future.

In his recent Haaretz op-ed, “Heading toward an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants,” my colleague, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, sharply criticized the recent letter to Congress by leaders of Protestant churches that called for U.S. military aid to Israel to be contingent on Israeli compliance with American law. Nowhere in his article, however, did Yoffie mention the central concern of the Christian leaders’ letter: the overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Israeli military against Palestinians.

Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of leading an interfaith delegation including several leaders of the civil rights movement, younger civil and human rights leaders, Christian clergy, academics, and several Jews, on a two-week trip to the West Bank.

We were all shocked by the widespread human rights violations that we saw with our own eyes and that we heard about from both Palestinians and Israelis. Several black members of our group, including those who participated actively in the civil rights movement, remarked that what they saw on the West Bank was “frighteningly familiar” to their own experience, a systemic pattern of discrimination that privileged one group (in this case, Jews) and denigrated another (Palestinians).

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American Christians Dare to Speak Their Conscience on Israel/Palestine

My recent op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:

CHICAGO (JTA) — There has long been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.”

Over the past few weeks, we’ve painfully witnessed what can happen when Christians break this covenant by speaking their religious conscience.

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More Fallout from the Protestant Leaders’ Letter on Aid to Israel

Two spot on responses to the recent NY Times article, “Church Appeal on Israel Angers Jewish Groups:”

The first comes from the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan:

It seems to me that aid of all kinds should have basic human rights strings attached to it. I would have suspended all aid to Israel when it refused to stop its settlement policy on the West Bank, but that’s a little like being in favor of an immediate space station on Mars, given the Greater Israel lobby’s grip on Congress.

So let me just reiterate something that has no chance of ever happening, but I might as well put on the record: we should treat Israel as any other recipient of US aid. If a country is occupying and settling land conquered through war, if it’s treating a minority population with inhumanity, the US should stand up for Western values. It should not single Israel out; but we have to stop treating Israel as the exception to every other US foreign policy rule.

Rev. Jim C. Wall (Contributing Editor of the “Christian Century”) in an unflinchingly honest blog post:

To begin with, the 15 church leaders are heavyweights, top officials for their denominations. They include the leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee. Two Catholic leaders also signed, not including the Catholic Council of Bishops.

These are not just leaders of a few religious groups, which a Protestant version of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs could corral into an interfaith dialogue meeting. These are the major-domos of American Protestantism, which raises the question of what exactly gives the JCPA and its scattered letter signers, these “outraged Jewish groups” as the Times calls them,  the right to claim religious standing in this conversation. Many of these Jewish groups are secular and function as part of the Israel Lobby, a collection of lobbying organizations that have Israel, not Judaism as their primary client…

The JCPA and its letter signers have no dogs in this hunt. They can be as outraged as they want.  This is still a free country. But the 15 church leaders have made the right religious, not political, move. They are speaking the language of “moral responsibility” in a letter directed to the U.S. Congress on the matter of U.S. funds used by Israel to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people.

Interfaith dialogue has always been nothing more than a device used by American Jewish groups to intimidate the American churches into keeping the ecumenical deal. By this intimidation, these groups have followed the example set by the government of Israel which has long used the so-called “peace process” to sustain its occupation and expand its borders, always to the detriment of the Palestinian people.

It is the right time for the leaders of the American churches to make their moral demand to the Congress. With their letter, they have done so, courageously, considering the political climate of our time. Interfaith dialogue can wait.

As things stand now, the Jewish groups have called for a “summit” for the top leaders of Christian churches to “discuss” the situation with them – and they are reportedly considering it. I hope the Christian leaders will stand firm.  It is not the role of these Jewish organizations to dictate how Christian religious leaders can live out their conscience or their values. These Jewish leaders have chosen to walk away from the table – they are in no position to demand the terms by which “dialogue” may resume.

We can only hope this sad turn of events will lead to a more honest interfaith conversation about Israel-Palestine – one based on honesty, respect and justice rather than emotional blackmail.


Rabbinical Support for the End of Unconditional Military Aid to Israel

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud:

The undersigned members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council stand with our American Christian colleagues in their recent call to “make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable US laws and policies.”

We are as troubled as our Christian colleagues by the human rights violations Israel commits against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons. It is altogether appropriate – and in fact essential – for Congress to ensure that Israel is not in violation of any US laws or policies that regulate the use of US supplied weapons.

The US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.”  The Christian leaders’ letter points out, in fact, that the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons such as tear gas.

It is certainly not unreasonable to insist that foreign assistance be contingent on compliance with US laws and policies. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out that during this current economic downturn, Congress has been scrutinizing all domestic assistance programs -– including Social Security and food stamps –- to ensure that they are being carried out legally in compliance with stated US policy.  Why should US military aid to Israel be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny?

While some might feel that requiring assistance to be contingent with compliance would compromise Israel’s security, we believe the exactly the opposite is true. As Israel’s primary ally, the US alone is in a place to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians –- and true security for all who live in the region.

As Jews we acknowledge that the signers of the letter, and the churches they represent, have ancient and continuing ties to the land of Israel just as we do, and that their concerns for the safety and dignity of Christians in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is as compelling as our concern for the safety and dignity of Jews there.

We are troubled that several Jewish organizations have cynically attacked this faithful and sensitive call – and we are deeply dismayed that the Anti-Defamation League has gone so far as to pull out of a scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue in protest.  We believe that actions such as these run directly counter to the spirit and mission of interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs not simply on the areas where both parties find agreement, but in precisely those places where there is disagreement and divergence of opinion. We call on all of our Jewish colleagues to remain at the table and engage our Christian colleagues on this painful issue that is of such deep concern to both our communities.

We express our full support for the spirit and content of this statement and likewise call upon US citizens to urge their representatives to end unconditional military aid to Israel.

Signed (list in formation):

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Lynn Gottleib
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Jessica Rosenberg, Rabbinical Student
Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbinical Student


Rabbi Rebecca Lillian on the Malmö JCC Attack

Photo: AFP (via Tablet)

Please read this blog post by my dear friend Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, who currently lives in Malmö, Sweden. You may know that Malmö has experienced its share of anti-Semitism of late and that some members of the Jewish community have left the city as a result.

Sadly, the Malmö Jewish Community Center was damaged last week by an explosive device and rocks that were thrown through the Center’s windows.  Rebecca, who happens to live in the JCC, wrote powerfully about her experience of the attack – as well as the subsequent show of solidarity by Malmö’s Network for Faith and Understanding (which includes local churches and mosques.)

In her post, she also has some choice words to say about how the Jewish press and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in particular has been egregiously misrepresenting the situation in Malmö for political purposes:

The real jolt came after Shabbat, as I read the Jewish press. That ubiquitous hyperbolic headline about the blast “rocking” our building irritated me, but the articles were essentially accurate. I was disappointed that nobody had followed up with a story about the multi-faceted vigil. Readers all over the world who have been following the story of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Malmö should also learn about our concerned neighbors who literally rushed to our side. What made me explode, though, was that the Jewish Journal of LA had the chutspa to publish a Reuters photo of the vigil next to an indefensible rant by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper.

Rabbi Cooper has already declared Malmö an unsafe travel destination for Jews. Now he suggests that those of us who live here might soon need to flee for Israel or elsewhere. “Ayn Soamchin Al Haness” — we cannot rely on miracles to secure the safety of Jewish children. “Clearly time is running out for Malmö,” he writes, along with other overstated claims.

Rabbi Cooper must know that it is dry season in the Jewish blogosphere. Pamela Geller, she of the Isalmophobic ads on New York City buses, borrowed from Cooper’s screed to come to the offensive conclusion that “Malmo has become as bad for Jews as Berlin at the height of the WWII. With its very large Muslim population, Islamic attacks against the Jews are part of the social fabric in Malmo. It’s pure hell.”  Such mendacity desecrates the memory of those Jews who died in Berlin and dishonors those who survived. She cynically uses their name to buttress her anti-Muslim fabrications, which have zero to do with the Jewish community of Malmö.

Time has not run out for us. On the contrary, while the bursts of hate are anonymous and cowardly, the eloquent expressions of support are said aloud by well-known community leaders and residents from all over the region. It is time for Cooper and Geller and the countless Jewish bloggers who quote them to stop crying wolf.


Standing Down Rep. Joe Walsh’s Islamophobic Bigotry

Shortly after a gunman killed six worshipers in a Wisconsin Sikh temple and a Joplin Missouri mosque was burned to the ground, Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh felt perfectly comfortable uttering incendiary anti-Muslim comments at a town hall meeting last Wednesday, warning that “there is a radical strain of Islam in this country…trying to kill Americans every week.”  Offering no evidence or backup for his allegations, he continued: “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here.”

Then he poured it on:

I’m looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness.  Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about.

Shortly after Walsh’s town meeting remarks, pellet rifle shots were fired at a mosque in Morton Grove, IL.

I don’t know about a domestic “radical Islamic plot” but by now it should be abundantly clear that there is a deadly strain of Islamophobia in our country. In such a climate, I’d say it is the height of irresponsibility for public servants to issue remarks such as these.

It was my honor to stand, together with interfaith colleagues, with my good friends at CAIR – Chicago to express our outrage at Walsh’s sick bigotry (clip above). If you stand with us, please, please let Rep. Walsh know how you feel.


Update from Uganda: A Guest Post by Rich Katz

Left to Right: Peace Kawomera founder JJ Kekei, Rich Katz, JB Birenge

The following post was written by JRC member and current trip participant Rich Katz, who also participated in JRC’s Uganda/Rwanda delegation four years ago. Before joining us in Rwanda on our current trip, he returned to Uganda to visit many of the people and NGO’s with whom we’ve been partnering. Below, he offers thoughts on his experience visiting our good friends at the Peace Kawomera interfaith coffee cooperative.

Visiting East Africa for the first time with JRC  in 2008 was a remarkable experience.  We made many new friends and we were able to work with and support several grass-roots organizations in Rwanda that provide direct service to alleviate conditions of poverty, HIV-AIDS, and the plight of widows and orphans in a country scarred by genocide. We also visited eastern Uganda to learn more about how the Peace Kawomera Cooperative Society is working to improve the lives of coffee farmers in the region.  I returned there for a week before flying to Rwanda.  The changes I witnessed were astonishing.

Four years ago, the co-op numbered about 500 farmers who were producing and shipping one container of high quality Arabica coffee to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, CA, where it was roasted, packaged and distributed.  They had just  received a significant grant from USAID to purchase and install a central “washing station”, which is used by the co-op’s farmers to remove the outer pulp of the ripe coffee “cherry”.  The money was also used to begin the construction of a warehouse & office building on the same site (below).  Importantly , agronomist Johnbosco “JB” Birenge had been hired to train the farmers in more productive methods of growing coffee.

The Peace Kawomera Warehouse/Office under construction, 2008

Today, I’m happy to report that the PK membership has grown to nearly 3,000 farmers, and they now ship four containers of organic, fair-trade certified coffee to Thanksgiving Coffee.  The warehouse/office building (below)  is functioning—although the office space is not quite finished—and the farmers have expanded their crops to include vanilla, cocoa and cardamom.  The staff now includes a credit union manager, an entomologist and a seed development specialist.

The PK Warehouse/Office, 2012

However, not all is as rosy as it appears.  The co-op is facing some unanticipated problems that require  innovative solutions.  First, the region is experiencing dramatic climate change that has pushed the harvest forward into July rather than late August, forcing changes in their other farming activities.  Also, many farmers are increasing the land planted in cash crops by cutting down the shade trees necessary to grow good coffee and using them for firewood, charcoal and to fire bricks.  Fortunately, JB, who is now PK’s managing director, was successful in securing a grant from the Stichting Progreso Foundation, a Netherlands-based organization that supports small holder producer organizations.  The money is being used to purchase and raise seedlings (see below) that will be distributed to farmers for reforesting their land. In combination, the climate change and the loss of trees have meant that the annual rains are washing away the topsoil at an alarming rate.

The PK Seedling Project

On the bright side, PK has obtained a letter of agreement with Natural Flavors (Newark, NJ) to buy all of their vanilla and cardamon once the growing and drying processes have been perfected.  A  second USAID grant application has been submitted to purchase a washing station large enough to handle the increased volume of coffee that is being brought in by the farmers.  Among other things, the grant will also be used to establish a small “cupping laboratory” in the office building so that farmers can actually taste the coffee that they grow and learn how their farming practices affect the quality; increase the number of women-led producer organizations in PK from 15 to 20; hire six field facilitators, who will visit the famers more frequently for purposes of training and problem-solving; and establish a nursery to test different variety of coffee trees for quality and yield, resistance to pests, etc.

All in all, the future looks bright for our friends at Peace Kawomera.  Incomes are steadily rising, women are being given greater independence and authority, democratic institutions are being strengthened, products are expanding, and the quality of their coffee is outstanding.  If you live  in the Chicago area, head over to JRC and buy a bag of delicious Mirembe Kawomera coffee. You can also support their efforts by buying their coffee at the Thanksgiving Coffee online store.


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