Truth Even Unto Its Innermost Parts...

This year, the last of my closest friends graduated from Brandeis. While preparing for all of the commencement excitement, I was tuned back into life on campus (beyond volleyball) and what I found, though not entirely surprising, made me wish for better things for the university’s future than what I found displayed in the words and actions of today’s students and administration.

A little over a month ago, the Brandeis administration made the decision to remove an art installation, featuring the works of Palestinian children, from the campus library (to read more about this see Democracy Now or Haaretz or The Boston Globe). The exhibit, brought to campus by an Israeli student, intended to force the university community to truly confront the complex issues surrounding life in Palestine. While I understand the university’s concerns over how the installation was created and administered, the choice to remove the installation entirely, rather than adjust the issues at question suggested to me that as a community, Brandeis is unwilling to truly engage the real questions of nationalism as they affect Jews, Israel, Palestine, and the future of our globalized world.

Flash forward to commencement. At the same university where the art works of Palestinian children were silenced, an honorary degree was conferred on Tony Kushner. This decision suggests the university administration might, in small doses, be willing to approve nuanced opinions about Israel and Jewish nationalism for mass consumption by the school community.

Of course, this honorary degree recipient was met by student protest (see The Boston Globe). Indoctrinated as children, even after four years of college, these young Zionists were unwilling to hear any critique of their ideology. These students challenged that at a school named for the great American Zionist Louis Brandeis, they shouldn’t have to give their university’s approval to a critic of Zionism. I would like to remind my now-fellow-alumni that Louis Brandeis was also a Supreme Court Justice, and a brilliant mind, and probably would have been just as thoughtful, self reflective, and keenly critical in his approach to Zionism today as he was nearly a century ago. Given today’s political climate, I believe Justice Brandeis would have had very different opinions about Jewish nationalism, and would have encouraged us to be open to thoughtful critiques so that we might grow as individuals, as a community, and as Zionistist (or Post-Zionists, or in relationship to Zionism in another way).

So what do we make of all of this? Some of what I knew to be true as an undergraduate still clearly holds true today. Brandeis can be a bubble. For some, that bubble is a continuation of the insular Jewish world in which they were reared. I would think that Brandeis as university would be committed to bursting that bubble, committed to college being a life altering experience, not only in terms of growth through emotional maturity and independence, but also an intellectual revolution. I believe that Brandeis has already been just that for many students, and could be that for all of its students, if it would commit itself to the task.

Being a Brandeis grad should mean something, but not just anything. It should mean that you were forced as a student to really challenge the beliefs and ideas that you brought with you to school, to think critically about the world around you, and to love deeply the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge, even when that is dangerous or subversive or has the potential to call into question all that you ever knew before.

As students and alumni, faculty members and supporters, we must challenge our school to live up to its motto. Truth even unto its innermost parts – even when it is difficult, even when it is controversial, even when it is painful.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence..” — Justice Louis D. Brandeis


If It's Spring...

...There must be OUTDOOR VOLLEYBALL!!!!

Over the last two weekends I've shirked all of my other responsibilities and headed for the green grass and sweet sun (for great weekend volleyball fun in the Philly area check out East Coast Volleyball). Between school, work, and preparations for a great summer at Camp JRF (www.campjrf.org ), life has been completely overwhelming over the last few weeks. But, over the last two weekends, I have been able to step out of my car, drink in the fresh air, and exhale all of the stress and anxiety that comes with the end of the semester.

Recently, davvening has been so unfulfilling, places and words that often provide release and comfort have felt stale, and I've been at a loss for what to do.

But then, then there was spring. Thank God for spring. Thank God that there is such a time each year when the portable fluorescent nets go up on the fields at Oaks and Horsham. Thank God for doubles and the weightiness of the outdoor leather ball. Thank God for games to 11 points, and tournaments that last from dawn to sunset. Thank God for coolers and Gatorade, for grass stains and mud cakes. Thank God for sunglasses and SPF 45. Thank God for all the volleyball from B through Open.

Sitting in class today, wearing my t-shirt from this weekend's tournament, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and had a vision of the sweet sun and the green grass. I saw the ball pop out of my hands and followed my body straight through the kill. I knew that I would keep davvening and find new meaning again in that practice. And I knew that until that day comes, I will always have the sensation of liberation that comes from a full day in the sun, heart soaring, body flying, friends laughing, and the ball bouncing and sailing all the while through.

Thank God for volleyball.


Reflections on the April 30th Save Darfur Rally

It has been a while since I posted, but I thought I would begin my blogging efforts anew with some reflections on the Save Darfur Rally.

Will The Genocide End?

After three months of intense planning, the April 30th Save Darfur Rally has come and gone. Since then, new talks of cease fires and peace agreements seem to emerge weekly if not daily, suggesting that there might be some chance at peace in Darfur.

For more information about the situation on the ground in Darfur I recommend:
Africa Action
Save Darfur

Rally Reflections

The rally itself was an interesting and moving experience. It was amazing to see so many people gathered together to call our government to action. It was also a tremendous relief to know that after all of the hours of organizing we put 50 RRC community members were able to get to Washington DC and have our voices counted among those decrying the genocide in Darfur (see the pictures here: RRC Rally Photos).

Still, the rally left me with more questions than answers about Darfur, alliance formation, and the relationship of the Jewish community to this tragedy.

Before the rally I wrote a response paper for my Women's Studies class outlining some of my concerns, so I thought I would share an excerpt from there and then share my final reflections:

"When I initially became involved in organizing to end the genocide in Darfur my thinking about organizing was rather straight forward and uncomplicated. There is genocide. It must end. I live in a country whose government has the necessary political and economic capital to affect change, so I need to lobby that government to take appropriate action. As energy around the crisis in Darfur began to build I found myself involved in a variety of coalitions working to affect change in the Darfur region. As I looked around these (virtual) rooms I realized that it felt as if not all of us were there for the same reasons. At that time I couldn’t pin point my exact discomfort, but I knew that there was something complicating our work beyond logistics and political obstacles from the outside.

In Working Alliances, Janet Jakobsen describes women working to end slavery as “moral agents.” She explains,

“Each place women’s morality at the center of activity, but each locates this center differently. As centers of analysis and action shit, hierarchical relations and binary oppositions look different and thus, each actor works the binaries differently. By asserting a particular agency, activists not only constitute their own position, but work to reconfigure others (34).”

After reading Jakobsen I began to identify what it was that was causing this peculiar reaction to my experience organizing around Darfur. Most of the organizing work that I was heading was in specific relationship to the Jewish community. The American Jewish World Service had been instructed by the Save Darfur Coalition to manage the Jewish community’s organizing efforts, so as a seminary organizer I was linked primarily with other Jewish seminary organizers. My ill-ease in this experience came from the realization that while we were all working for the same change, just as the women in Jackobsen’s Abolition analogue, and we were all working from a point of Jewish moral agency, just as Jackobsen’s women situated themselves in terms of women’s moral agency, each group constructed this agency very differently.

Suddenly I was confronted by fear. I realized that while I constructed the center of my moral agency in Jewish teachings surrounding the sanctity of life, I quickly began to see others in the Jewish community constructing moral agency around the rhetoric of “chosenness,” the sense that Jews are separate, and different from others, compelled by God to act as a “light unto the nations.” What disturbed me about this construction of moral agency was not the “choseness” dogma itself, though it is not a tenet of Judaism that I affirm in my own life, but rather the racism that is bred from this principle. Around the organizing table racism began to surface as an implicit rational for organizing. The thought of Muslim – Muslim violence perpetrated by Arabs against non-Arabs was too sintelating for the right wing Zionist factions not to pick it up.

I didn’t know what to do, and I still really don’t. I can’t imagine not fighting to end genocide. But the lessons of the Abolitionist Movement Jackobsen describes are also well learned. How much of a victory has been achieved if genocide has ended and been replaced not by peace, but by re-colonization?

In the end, I’ll go to the rally on Sunday and I’ll have my voice counted among those who will no longer stand idly by. I will also go with my eyes open, and with my voice shouting loud, not just to end genocide, but also to think critically about why the Jewish community has gathered in such large numbers to address this crisis."

At the rally there were thousands of Jews. While I enjoyed seeing many friends and familiar faces, I wondered what kind of coalition had really been achieved, whose voices we were really hearing, and whether we had gathered together truly to help affect change in Darfur, or to let ourselves, as Jews, off the hook - as if to say "we stood up and shouted "Never Again," now we are absolved of our responsibility."

But what troubled me even more so was the under current of racism that I couldn't help but feel. Israeli flags being flown. A young boy, sitting on his father's shoulders, carrying a sign that read "Arabs in Khartoum, just because we don't believe in Mohammad does mean you can kill us!" So much racism embedded in our community, so much propaganda and misinformation. Standing there in Washington after hours and hours of work I felt so torn - as an individual I feel so powerless to affect change, and so I do the only thing I can do and shout. But when I shout among thousands I can't help but wonder if it is the voices decrying genocide the world hears, or the voices of racism and fear.


A WEEK IN EL SALVADOR: First Reflections

Even after two orientations, I had only a vague idea of what my eight-day trip to El Salvador was going to be like. Every time someone would ask why I was going to El Salvador or what I would be doing there, the only answer I could manage was that I was participating in a delegation of rabbinical students sponsored by the American Jewish World Service, and that we would be doing some sort of work and talking about justice.

Eight days later, I returned from a trip that was, in many ways, life changing.

For eight days I encountered the poverty and promise of the Global South (“developing world”) first hand. I met Salvadorians who risked their lives for the values they believe in, and learned about religious leaders who were martyred when they joined their battle. I saw the power of grassroots organizing first hand. I was moved to tears by the amazing strength and inspiring work of people who may never live with the kind of economic and political privilege afforded to me as an American. I learned about Liberation Theology and the impact of the Church in El Salvador, and was reminded of the obligation to defeat injustice that I will inherit as a member of the clergy. I questioned power structures, even as I was aware, sometimes painfully, of the challenging power dynamics my very presence imposed on my experience.

For eight days I lived among a diverse community of impassioned Jewish leaders and was surprised that after 4 years of working in Jewish pluralism, and living at Brandeis, I was only just beginning to realize the true power and beauty of bringing yourself fully to a pluralistic community. I was inspired by daring teachers and challenging colleagues. I was filled with an immense sense of awe at the possibilities for the Jewish communities future, even as the group challenged me to think critically about my own Jewish future.

For eight days my world was turned upside down, and for that I am most grateful. Back in the United States, I am only now really able to begin processing this intense experience. Over the next few days and weeks, as I process the insights gleaned from this short trip, I will continue to blog and write my reflections – stay tuned.


The Game...Or High School Football as Civil Religion

It wasn’t going to be much of a contest. Our Mounties had already won the right to play at Giant Stadium for the State Championship, and Bloomfield’s season was already long gone. But there we were, parking on Broad Street and heading for Bengal Stadium. When we arrived at the field we learned that the visitor’s stands that had been our home in past years had been dismantled and we, clad in our Mountie blue, were forced to join the red and white Bengal fans in their home stand.

We climbed the concrete edifice to American culture and found a place to stand, learning that by arriving fifteen minutes late we had already missed the first chorus of “The Mountie Song” marking the first of several Montclair touchdowns. With our team ahead by seven, we settled ourselves among friends and took it all in – screaming fans, blaring bands, cheerleaders, mascots and gridiron heroes. This is the ritual of high school football.

For the last ten years, at 10:30am on Thanksgiving morning the Montclair-Bloomfield high school football showdown has been my home. When I was in high school I was dressed in my blue and white marching band uniform, piccolo in hand, I played “The Mountie Song” hundreds of times each year, there to support my school, and my friends, players whose football legacy would begin and end in Montclair, and players who would go on and make their marks in the college and pro games. Now, six years into the alumni experience, I arrive at the game in jeans, pea-coat and baseball cap. While I still burst with Mountie pride, I go now mostly to renew friendships and anchor myself in what I believe to be the capstone ritual of my hometown.

This high school football ritual is one that many people don’t understand, and for me, one that is both one of the easiest and most difficult kinds of things to explain. I love it because it connects me to time, to place, to home, and to community. It reminds me of why I find Montclair so special, and why I still choose to call it home even after I’ve long since moved away. There's also something particular about the high school athletic tradition that makes me feel like the kids out there are playing not only for themselves, or their school, but for the values that I learned growing up in Montclair, the values that I want to see triumph in this great nation. On a more basic level though, I think I go because it is viscerally appealing. It's tradition, it's familiar, it's comfortable – it's blissful, hot chocolate filled ritual....

“I’m Mountie born and Mountie bread
When I die I’ll be Mountie dead
Ra, Ra Go Montclair, Montclair
Ra, Ra Go Montclair, Montclair
Ra, Ra G Montclair, Ra!”

This year, I only stayed through half time. Just enough time to see my friend’s younger brother perform as band drum major, and say hi to a few old high school friends and teachers. It was enough, our hands were freezing, our team winning, it was time for turkey. So I said my goodbye’s, hopped in the car and headed to the other half of my American civil religion celebration.

Congrats to the Mountie's on their 14-13 win, good luck in the Championship!