Lamentation for a New Diaspora

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photo credit: NateHallinan.com

I’ve just written a new poetic take on Lamentations, the Biblical book traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av). The context of Lamentations is fall of the 1st Temple and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; it is at once a funeral dirge for the fallen city, a lament over the communal fate of the people, a confession of the collective sins that led to their downfall and a plea to God to rescue them from their dismal fate.

When all five chapters of Lamentations are chanted on Tisha B’Av, its impact can feel shattering. Taken as a whole, it might be said that this epic lament has the raw power of a primal scream. As Biblical scholar Adele Berlin has described it:

The book’s language is highly poetic and extraordinarily moving. Even though often stereotypical, it effectively portrays the violence and suffering of the events. The experiences of warfare, siege, famine, and death are individualized, in a way that turns the natural into the unnatural or anti-natural—brave men are reduced to begging, mothers are unable to nourish their children and resort to cannibalism. The book’s outpouring is addressed to God, so that God may feel the suffering of his people, rescue them, and restore them to their country and to their former relationship with him. The entire book may be thought of as an appeal for God’s mercy. Yet God remains silent.

According to the Mishnah (an early rabbinic era legal text), Tisha B’v commemorates five historical calamities that befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, and the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Over the centuries many other historical cataclysms have been added to be to be mourned on this day as well (including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War I in 1914). Although Lamentations was originally written to address a historically specific context, it’s popularity over the centuries testifies to a uniquely timeless quality.

While Lamentations is an expression of Jewish communal loss, this new version places these themes in a universal 21st century context, set in a not-too-distant future that I fervently hope shall never come to pass. In this reimagining, it is less an elegy for what was lost than a spiritual/poetic warning about a cataclysm that may be yet to come if our world does not turn from the perilous path we are currently traveling.

May the grief of this Tisha B’Av give us all the strength to fight for the world that somehow still might be.

Click here for the pdf. Feel free to share.

The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s First Yom Kippur Service

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Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.

The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.

And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”

It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?

There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.

In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.

In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.

In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.

And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”

Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.

Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”

If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.

And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.

As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.

Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.

However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.

In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.

On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.

According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”

The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.

Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.

In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.

This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”

According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.

So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?

I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.

And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:

Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”

How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.

I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:

Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:

Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.

Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.

Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.

Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.

And let us say,

Amen.

People You Should Know About: Sister Pat Murphy and Sister JoAnn Persch

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This past Friday morning, members of my congregation and I participated in an interfaith vigil at the immigrant detention facility in Broadview, IL. We’ve come to this spot many times over the years and I’ve written about the vigil many times before. It was founded several years ago Sister JoAnn Persch (right) and Sister Pat Murphy (left) of the Sisters of Mercy – two of my spiritual heroes.

During the vigil, Sister Jo joyfully announced that the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality, a home that provides shelter, meals, transportation, and community support for people awaiting their immigration proceedings, was finally open. Sister Jo and Sister Pat have been indefatigably working to create this community-based alternative to detention of undocumented immigrants, who are typically treated as “inventory” during deportation hearings. Her announcement provided one small but profound ray of hope in an otherwise dark and dismal reality for those fighting for compassionate immigration reform.

In a recent article about the Marie Joseph House, Sister Pat and Sister Jo pointed out that this new facility will be able to provide these services for significantly less than the $122 to $164 per day ICE says it pays to hold someone in jail. The home will have 18 bedrooms and extra space for short-term residents. It’s a small capacity compared to the 33,400 people ICE typically detains each night, but as Sister Pat and Jo rightly note, it’s a start:

We are not alone in our efforts. A network of similar shelters is emerging across the country. The outpouring of financial, in-kind, and volunteer support we receive from communities of all backgrounds shows us the immense generosity Americans have when people are in need.

As Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus observed during a recent House Judiciary hearing, “It seems there is an overuse of detention.” John Morton said that “alternatives to detention” programs are promising. We agree. Outside detention, people have better access to lawyers, doctors, and other support. Congress should use new immigration legislation to allow ICE to invest in alternatives rather than prisons. To get it right, they need to consult with communities and groups like ours.

I’ve known and worked alongside Sister Pat and Sister Jo for many years now, and am consistently inspired by their example of deep faith, abiding compassion and dogged persistence. For the past 45 years they have worked together in Chicago to minister to immigrants, refugees, older persons, and homeless families – and to advocate for their basic rights. In 2008, they helped to spearhead an intense lobbying drive to pass historic legislation that allows all immigrant detainees held in Illinois jails the same access to clergy as those imprisoned for other crimes. As a result, many professional and lay ministers can now serve the pastoral needs of undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be locked away and forgotten by everyone but their families.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo’s work has not gone unnoticed in the wider world. They were profiled in the play Home/Land (produced by Chicago’s Albany Park Theater Project) and more recently in the documentary film, “Band of Sisters,” (below) which explores the social justice activism of American nuns throughout the country. Though this kind of attention is much deserved, Sister Pat and Sister Jo would be the first to say that they are simply living out their faith in the most basic of ways: to minister to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society and to demand that our system do the same.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo are truly my spiritual teachers and I am so grateful to know and work alongside them. I know of few others who model compassion and justice with such decency and grace.

 

Sukkot Activism: Young Jews Protest the Prawer Plan in Chicago


This past Wednesday there was a powerful action in front of the Israeli Consulate in Chicago: a Sukkot protest against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan, which is currently poised to evict up to 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes in the Negev desert.

As you can see from the clip above, this action was organized by a community of young Chicago Jews inspired by the Sukkot festival’s message of shelter and salvation to stand in solidarity with Bedouin who are on the verge of devastating displacement. An inspiring example of spiritual activism at its finest – bravo to Young, Jewish Proud/Jewish Voice for Peace for spearheading this action in Chicago (as well as a simultaneous event in Boston!)

As I wrote last June, the Prawer Plan has already passed its first reading in the Knesset – and there are already disturbing indications that the plan has already begun to be implemented. If you live in the Midwest, please join us this Monday, September 30, for a collective “Call in to Stop Prawer!” (Details here.) And if you haven’t yet, please sign this Avaaz petition that urges Knesset members to follow their conscience “support a solution coordinated in cooperation with local residents instead of this discriminative bill.”

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Sukkot Sacrilege: House Votes to Gut Food Stamp Program

It’s Sukkot – the Jewish harvest festival in which we acknowledge the fragility of our lives and invoke God’s sheltering presence. How sad and ironic, then, that the US House of Representatives voted on this very day to slash $40 billion from the federal food stamp program (known as SNAP). An act of sacrilege on any day but on this day in particular.

As I mentioned in my Yom Kippur sermon, the House Republicans know full well that these draconian cuts will never be passed by the Senate or signed by the President. But don’t be fooled – this is clearly a ploy to try and pressure the Senate into make even deeper cuts than the ones they have passed already.

Click here to read Feeding America’s extensive report, “Fact, Myths and Realities on the Food Stamp Program.”  Then please click here to sign a petition urging the House to “end its quest to stigmatize and traumatize poor people.”

I frankly can think of no more sacred gesture this Sukkot season.

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.)

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.