Posted tagged ‘hope’

Standing On the Border of Tragedy and Hope

December 9, 2015

It was a remarkably beautiful day for December. The sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. I arrived at the Waterfront Convention Center at just about 7:30 in the morning, looking ahead with both anticipation and anxiety about the day which was yet to unfold. Our own LINDA GOLDEN, LISA KILLINGER of the Islamic community, and I had been spearheading an effort to encourage Quad Citians to join in assembling meal packs to be sent to Jordan to feed the Syrian refugees in camps there. The actual assembling of these meal packs would be taking place for much of the day, with teams of 10 working in 1-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. At any given time, we had set ups for up to 16 teams working at once. Going into the morning, we were thrilled by the numbers of Quad Citians who had already stepped forward to help in this humanitarian effort. We had slots for 1,600 people to assemble meal packs and we already had 1,550 people sign up to do so! As the day progressed many more volunteers walked through the door. We enlisted the organization, KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, to do their magic in setting up and administering the project. In the past, Linda, Lisa, and I had wonderful experiences working with them as they put on their program in our religious schools. We were fully confident that they would do a great job. However, they had never put together a program this large or complex. So, as confident as we were, we still prayed that it would all come together smoothly, and it did.

We publicized the event as an interfaith effort and it was shaping up to be true to that name. We had Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Jews and Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists, people of all sorts of religions and people of no religious affiliation, all having signed up to do their part to feed starving Syrian refugees. It was wondrous to see these various faith groups working side-by-side. At one point I had to chuckle for there was a group from the Jewish community that was awaiting the group ahead of them to finish working at their assigned table. The group that kept them waiting were the Buddhists. How often do you see something like that?

At the end of each hour, as the shift was ending, the energy level of the people finishing their shift was high for the very act of helping others increased their energy and lifted their souls. Sitting as I was at the donation table, each shift ended with people crowding the table, wanted to extend their good feelings by giving cash or writing checks to further help the cause. So many of them were so grateful for our having provided them with the opportunity to do this act if kindness. So many of them commented on how bereft they felt in the wake of the violence of the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino; how hopeless they felt coming into the Convention Center, but how filled with hope they felt as they left.

Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, ISIS, Syria, terrorist violence around the world, including the knife intifada in Israel, all have served to cast the dark shadows of tragedy and hopelessness over our little planet. Yet for that one Saturday, at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf, Iowa it seemed that a bright light had pierced through that darkness and filled our space and our lives with brilliant rays of hope. How could it be otherwise when people of such diverse backgrounds, theologies, and ideologies come together in order to serve a greater good; in order to further the wellbeing of total strangers, people they may even disagree with on political issues? In a world filled with hatred and violence, pettiness and strife, even if just for a moment, there were all these people who gathered to live up to the best of human potential and to create an oasis of caring, respect, and fundamental human decency. There is hope for our future!


Endangered Childen and Community Conscience

July 27, 2014

There has been great debate throughout our nation concerning what shall be done with the hundreds of unaccompanied children who have in recent weeks crossed our border, seeking a refuge from the chaos and violence to which they were subjected in the homes in Central America.  Their parents sent them on that dangerous trek to the United States because they knew that if their children did not flee, more than likely, their children would wind up the victims of brutality, rape, and murder.  Today our country is divided between those who wish to welcome and protect these children and those who see them an placing an unacceptable burden upon our country’s resources and wish to send them back to from whence they came.

About two weeks ago, Bill Gluba, the Mayor of Davenport, Iowa – my community – put forth a proposal to  bring some of these children to our city.  Not surprisingly, the response to that proposal was mixed, marking us as a microcosm of the national debate.  There were those who gathered to plan on how we could best welcome these children, while there were those, including some alderman of our city council, who expressed there determination to keep them out of our town.  One alderman, on national TV, proclaimed his intention to stand in the middle of the street, blocking any bus carrying such children from entering within our city limits.

As those who know me can well imagine, I stand on the side of welcoming the children.  To that end, I have joined with other community clergy who are planning an event meant to declare an interfaith message of support for opening our doors to these young refugees.

Five days ago, I submitted an Opinion Page letter to the Quad City Times, expressing my particular perspective and feelings on the matter.  So far, my letter has not appeared in print or on their website.  They may yet publish it or they may never publish it.  I suspect that they have received many letters and cannot begin to publish them all.  Still, I want my voice to be heard, even if the audience is not nearly as large or as locally focused as it would be in our local paper.  Therefore, I have decided to share the text of this letter here in my blog.  While it speaks specifically to the question of whether or not the Quad Cities should open its doors and welcome these children, it also can be understood to address whether our nation itself should open its doors and welcome these children, declaring them “official” refugees from grave danger and persecution.  Here is what I wrote:

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, when the specter of the Holocaust loomed ever greater in Europe, and the borders of the free world were generally closed to Jews seeking to flee the coming destruction, there was one small ray of hope. That ray radiated out of England. While England, like the United States, would not open its doors to the endangered Jews, it did decide to open its doors to Jewish children. Boatload after boatload of Jewish children landed on British shores. With many tears and great anguish, their parents sent them away, knowing that they might never see them again, so that these children might not die at the hands of the Nazis. This valiant effort to save the children was called “Kindertransport” and it came to an abrupt end when England entered the war.

Holocaust analogies can easily be overplayed but sometimes they are truly appropriate. This is such an occasion. Today on our southern border there are amassed a large number of unaccompanied children from Central America who have been sent to our country by their parents, seeking asylum. Their parents, with broken hearts, sent them away because could not stand idly by while their children would have been beaten, raped, and killed. Like with the Kindertransport, these parents made an extremely hard choice in order to save their children’s lives.

Today, we in the Quad Cities are faced with a choice as well. Will we, like the people of England, open our doors and our hearts to these refugee children, or will we, like so many other nations back in the ‘30’s, choose to slam our doors shut on them and in so doing, condemn them to cruel suffering and death? In the years to come, which choice will we be better able to live with?

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

The Gift of Elul

August 15, 2010

I write this on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Now to far too many American Jews, that statement is practically meaningless.  And that is a source of great sadness for me.  For the month of Elul offers us Jews a very special gift; the gift of spiritual self examination and preparedness.  Yet too many of us are either unaware of the gift, choose to ignore it, or intentionally cast it aside.

Elul is the month which precedes our High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.  For we Jews, these holy days are supposed to be dedicated to profound introspection and personal redirection.  They are a time to consider our lives as we have lived them so far – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and to honestly challenge ourselves as to how we can choose to change for the better.  How can we make of ourselves better Jews, better parents, better children, better siblings, better relatives, better friends, better neighbors, better co-workers, better organization members, better citizens in our local communities, our states, our nation, and our world, better human beings in the eyes of our fellow human beings and God.

Such a serious task cannot begin to take place overnight, or even in the course of the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Putting aside the actualization of those necessary changes, even the task of serious self-examination requires more time than the holy days permit.  And this is where the month of Elul comes in.  For this entire month we should be honestly thinking about ourselves, the people we are and the people we aspire to become.  This is the month of introspection, so that when the Holy Days themselves arrive, we can focus our attention not so much on what changes are needed in our lives but rather how can we best go about successfully making those changes.

A long time ago someone correctly pointed out to me that while we think of ourselves as one, we are really three.  There is the person who we actually are, the person who others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be.  As long as those three are separate and apart from each other, we can never truly find happiness or satisfaction in our lives.  It is only when we successfully bring the three into alignment – so that the person we are and the person others perceive us to be, are identical to the person we aspire to be – that we can truly be happy with ourselves and satisfied with our lives.  It is this process which is the heart and soul of the true High Holy Day experience.  But in order to successfully achieve it, we cannot begin this quest on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  We must begin in the month of Elul, as early as possible.

Yet I am saddened by the fact that so many of my fellow Jews are so far removed from any of this.  They choose to ignore the gift of Elul, and many of them reject the meaning and purpose of the High Holy Days themselves.  So many of these Jews see the High Holy Days as little more than an annual gathering of the clan; as an annual Jewish check-in time.  They go to synagogue, they greet old friends and acquaintances, many of whom they may not have seen in a year, and they leave satisfied that they have fulfilled their Jewish duty for yet another year.  They have done their ethnic thing, for that is what Judaism has become to them; some sort of vague ethnic identity and nothing more.

I have to admit that as a rabbi I am stymied as to how I can help reawaken in such Jews a spiritual awareness, nevertheless a spiritual hunger.  The whole purpose of the Jewish religion, and especially the High Holy Days, is to strengthen our connections with God and with others.  What these people seem to be missing is the fact that the spiritual aspect of our lives is not mere mythology but concrete reality.  Spiritual health is just as essential to our well being as physical health.  One can maintain a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, and run marathons.  But even as their bodies are in excellent physical condition, if these individuals insist upon leaving the life of their souls untended, they will forever remain spiritual invalids.  True, they may not perceive of themselves as invalids, but they are like a person with a born physical or mental disability who, having known nothing else in their life, they have no appreciation for what they are missing.  Spiritually, they are like my son Joshua – a 27 year old man with autism – who has not got the foggiest idea of what it means to live an adult’s life with adult pleasures; who lives in his closed off world of children’s videos and the fulfillment of his basic physical needs.  Like Joshua, who is unaware of what it means to live an adult life, such people are unaware of what it means to live a true spiritual life.  While many of them claim that they believe in God, none of them have ever really let God into their lives.  They have no idea of what it means to live with God as a true companion; as a real presence in their life.  This is because the God they claim to believe in is an abstract rather than a reality.  We do not walk with abstracts.  We do not talk with abstracts.  And abstracts most certainly neither walk nor talk with us.

Now you may consider me a freak or a weirdo but I openly admit that I talk with God, and more importantly, God talks with me.  Indeed, without question, these are the most important and meaningful conversations that I hold in my life.  When God and I do not talk, that is when I am at my loneliest.

When do we talk the most?  During the month of Elul.  This is the greatest gift of Elul.  Conversing with God.  As I consider my life – my strengths and my weaknesses, my successes and my failures – God is my closest adviser, serving as both fan and critic.  It is God more than anyone else who helps me to grasp where I have gone wrong and where I can do better, as well as how I can preserve the best parts of who I am.  Now this is the same God who is available to each and every one of us for consultation.  As God helps me, God can help you.  All you need to do is believe – truly believe – and reach out; open the conversation.  God will talk with those who talk with God.

Once you permit yourself to connect with God in such a way, while you will find that there is still a pleasant ethnic aspect to the High Holy Days, it will be their spiritual aspect which will move you and shape you.  You will sense the hunger for personal change and you will understand that in sincerely seeking such change, you are never alone in the task.  You have a companion and co-worker, counselor and adviser, role model and friend; the truest of all.  The One who will never desert you.

Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Wrestling With Immigration Reform

May 14, 2010

With Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, recently signing into law a very restrictive and controversial bill addressing the issue of illegal immigration in that state, the opening shot has been fired on our next major political battlefield – immigration reform.

At first blush, it would appear that the issue of immigration reform is one of those topics around which Americans are united, with the overwhelming majority agreeing across party lines that massive federal immigration reform is both necessary and long overdue.  However, appearances can be deceiving, for such agreement ends right there; with the belief that immigration reform is sorely needed.  Beyond that point, our nation is truly fractured between those who feel that our immigration policies must be liberalized and those who feel that they must be made more severe and be more diligently enforce.  A recent New York Times / CBS News Poll on reactions to the Arizona law indicate that 51% of those polled feel that the law is about right, with 9% saying that it does not go far enough, while 36% feel that it has gone too far and 4% having no opinion.

The new Arizona law obviously is a manifestation of the point of view of those who wish to see more restrictive immigration laws.  No sooner did Governor Brewer sign it into law than we started hearing from several political hopefuls across the land, seeking to gain mileage for their own campaigns by calling for their states to follow Arizona’s example.  Here in Iowa, two of the three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination immediately jumped on that bandwagon.  The third – former governor, Terry Branstad – was not far behind, supporting the concept of sterner immigration laws but cautioning that since we are not a “border” state, we should not try to duplicate the Arizona law but rather tailor one to better meet our state’s particular needs.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that regarding immigration reform, I fall on the liberal side of this issue.  However, what may come as a surprise to all is that as liberal as I am on this topic, I am not nearly as liberal as many of my fellow liberal allies would like me to be.  I find myself standing in an uncomfortable no man’s land; too liberal for the conservatives among us, and too conservative for the liberals.

So where do I stand?

First of all, I am distressed by the new Arizona law.  I, like all of its critics, fear that in spite of whatever assurances Governor Brewer may offer, still fundamentally, it is a racist law.  No matter how well trained the Arizona police may be, they still will not be able to avoid falling into the trap of racial profiling.  Indeed, the only way that they could avoid such profiling is by stopping and checking everyone’s citizenship credentials – and we all know that is never going to happen.  At the end of the day, the only individuals who they will stop and request documentation from will be Latinos.  That, in and of itself, is a litmus test to the law’s racial bias.  After all, here we see the underlying assumption that the only illegal aliens in our midst are Hispanic.  Could it not be possible that there might also be illegal aliens from Norway or Denmark or England or Italy, or dare I say, that threatening national entity on our northern border – Canada?  Of course there could be!  If there are people from those nations, and others like them, living in our country, it is only logical to assume that some of those people are living here illegally.  Yet to focus these stop-&-searches exclusively on Latinos is just as unjust and racially prejudice as when our nation, during World War II, chose to intern as enemy aliens only those of Japanese descent, and never even considered doing likewise to those of German or Italian descent.

“Absurd!” you may think.  But I turn your attention to a recent movie; “The Proposal.”  Of course this was a romantic comedy, but it did carry a sharp edged message, that message being that not all illegal immigrants need to come from south of the border.  Some can even come from Canada.  Yet when we identify the problems associated with illegal immigration as being solely Latino problems, whether we like to admit it or not, that is racism, pure and simple.

When I consider our current immigration laws, I cannot help but be troubled by how restrictive they are.  Somehow, we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants.  All those people who flocked to our shores in the 17th, 18th, 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, who settled this land, founded this nation, and built it to be the world power it is today, were all immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.  The Puritans at Plymouth Rock were immigrants.  The English in Jamestown and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were all immigrants.  Most Americans today do not have to search far on our family trees to find our immigrant ancestors.  My grandparents came to this country from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  I expect that most of the readers of this blog can claim similar immigrant roots, going back to their great grandparents if not their grandparents.  Today, each and every one of us enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of living in America because at one time, this country opened its doors to our immigrant ancestors.  In those days, it truly was the land of opportunity; what my Jewish ancestors referred to as Die Goldene Medina, “The Golden Land.”  They came here with nothing or next to nothing, started at the bottom of the social ladder and worked their way up.  It was hard going, but they did it.  They did it, primarily because they were permitted to do it.

But all that changed in the 1920’s.  Many forces coalesced to re-frame American immigration policies and attitudes.  Following World War I there was a renewed interest in isolationism; the desire to cut off America from involvement with the outside world.  As a result, in spite of the fact that President Woodrow Wilson was the primary architect of the League of Nations, our nation chose not to join it.  Then there was the Communist scare.  After the Russian Revolution, there was great fear in this country that the overthrow of America was next on the Communists’ agenda.  That fear was translated into a fear of immigrants being potential Communist agents.  There was even the growing popularity of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics.  In 1916, a man by the name of Madison Grant published a book entitled THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE which became  a very popular read in our nation.  This book went through many printings and by 1937 had sold over 1,600,000 copies in our country.  This book espoused the  eugenics racial hygiene theory, as it  proclaimed the superiority of the Northern European races, and warned of the racial threat posed by the admission to our country of people of inferior races.  Then, of course, there was the eternal concern about immigrant workers competing for jobs against “real Americans.”  As a result of these factors and others, in 1921, Congress passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, the goal of which was to maintain the racial balance of our country.  It intended to achieve this by limiting future immigration to a quota of a nation-by-nation maximum of 3% of the number of people from that nation who were living in this country in 1890.  This law was superseded by the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the quota to 2% and also prohibited the immigration of East Asians.  In 1952, while the Immigration and Nationality Act did abolish the racial restrictions applying to immigration from East Asia, it did affirm the quota system in its 1924 form.  It should be noted that President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, speaking in his veto message of “the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of the 1924 bill.”  He further went on to say, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”  As a Jew, it does not go unnoticed that Truman’s objections to this bill were in good part based upon the understanding that its retention of the quota system was in fact an intentional continued refusal to open America’s doors to so many Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, Truman’s veto was overridden by a vote of  278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.

I suspect that rarely has there been a time in our nation’s history when immigrant groups did not have to confront some sort of prejudice when coming to, or trying to come to our country.  There seems always to have been those Americans who have treated newcomers with fear and hatred.  It is  ironic that of all people, it was the Native Americans who served as a major exception to this rule. for they graciously welcomed the Pilgrim immigrants to their shores and aided them in their time of need.  Probably no groups in our society know of this hostility to newcomers to America better than the Jews and the Catholics.  It was home grown antisemitism which kept the immigration doors locked to all those European Jews who unsuccessfully sought an American refuge from Nazi persecution.  And as for the Catholics, starting in the 1850’s they suffered at the hands of the members of the Know Nothing Party, whose goal it was to put an end to immigration, particularly targeting Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigration.  Such opposition to immigration and hatred of immigrants is nothing new in our country.  It is a challenge which we faced in the past, just as we must face it now.

Yet in spite of our nation’s disturbing history of resistance to newly arrived immigrant groups, I do not believe that such hostility is an accurate reflection of the American spirit.  Rather, I believe that while there have been those among us who have actively rejected and discriminated against the immigrants of their day, still the American ideal remained, and I pray still remains, that our land should be a safe haven and a land of opportunity for all newcomers.  As a Jew, I am profoundly proud of the fact that emblazoned on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are words of welcome, penned by a fellow Jew, the poetess Emma Lazarus.  I choose to believe that the words of her poem – “The New Colossus” – still remain America’s ultimate values statement on immigration to our shores:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”   It was in this spirit that my grandparents were welcomed to this land.  This was and should remain truly one of the most important of American values, fundamental to American life ever since the very first settlers crossed the Atlantic and set foot on our shores.  But somewhere along the way, there are those Americans  who seem to have forgotten this.  If the poll on the public response to the Arizona immigration law is correct, then somewhere along the way, not only has the flame on that famous lamp gone out, but the arm which proudly raised that lamp has been lowered and the lamp itself has been dropped.  Perhaps nothing has brought this sad fact into sharper relief for me than an experience I had while on the way to Postville, Iowa, to participate in a rally in support of the immigrant workers who were caught up in that now famous raid.  My wife, a friend, and I were just outside of Postville when we stopped at a gas station convenience store for a break.  Parked next to us were a carload of Chicagoans, one of whom was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, complete with body makeup.  Seeing the “Statue” we assumed both that they were heading toward the rally and were coming as supporters.  However, as we approached them and engaged in conversation, while we learned that they indeed were heading to Postville, their purpose was to participate in a counter-rally.  It would seem that for them, the Statue of Liberty had somehow been transformed from its original symbol of welcome to immigrants to one which was intended to guard our shores against the invasion of immigrants.  When we Americans choose to forget our own immigrant roots and how we are the direct beneficiaries of our nation’s earlier open immigration policy, xenophobia – fear of strangers – becomes the order of the day.  While there are those today who try to crown it as a virtue, I cannot help but reflect upon the fact that in the Reform Jewish prayerbook for the High Holy Days, xenophobia is mentioned as one of the sins for which we are instructed to communally confess.

All of this particularly disturbs me as a Jew.  For Jewish tradition is very clear on this matter.  The Torah repeatedly charges us to treat the “stranger” in our midst as the “home-born”, with dignity, compassion, and justice.  It repeatedly reminds us to recall “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  As we once suffered under the mistreatment of the Egyptians because we were strangers, we need to resolve to be better than that when we deal with the strangers in our midst.  There is no quota system in the Torah, nor is there a call for racial profiling to be found there.

Considering all these factors, I firmly believe that we need to pry open our nation’s  doors to immigration.  We need to return to a time when we were welcoming of newcomers and willing to share the American dream and hope with those so desperately in need of both.

Obviously, today is not the 19th century nor the very beginnings of the 20th.  Times have changed and situations have changed, and therefore, so must our approach to immigration.  We cannot simply re-open Ellis Island and hang out a generic welcome sign.  This, being the 21st century, we need to establish a 21st century response to our immigration challenges.

Of course, the first challenge we face today is the presence of so many illegal immigrants/undocumented workers residing within our borders.  The approach taken by the state of Arizona basically has been to round them all up and ship them all out.

I would take another approach.  I would like to see our nation offer each and every one of these illegal aliens an amnesty.  I say amnesty rather than citizenship because I believe that American citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and therefore should neither be treated lightly or merely given away in the manner of a supermarket promotional.  While I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it, still that citizenship should be earned.  Ergo, I would offer amnesty, not citizenship.

I envision such amnesty as an opening of the path to citizenship.  While the amnesty would be open to all, yet if one accepts the amnesty, then they also must accept the responsibility to enter into the established process of naturalization.  Like all other immigrants, they must take the classes which teach about what it means to be an American, they must take and pass the tests, and of course, if they are successful in the process, they must take the oath of loyal citizenship to our nation.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it.”  By making that possibility available, I am not just talking about offering classes.  I am also talking about offering whatever social supports are necessary to enable these individuals to be able to maintain their lives and their families while they are going through the naturalization process.  We need to do whatever is necessary to make this opportunity for these people a realistic opportunity and not just a symbolic one.

If there are those who refuse the amnesty, or who accept the amnesty but refuse to go through the naturalization process, then these individuals are truly illegal aliens, for they have been given the opportunity to become American citizens but have actively chosen to reject it.  It would appear to be their desire to reside in our nation, to take advantage of all the benefits offered by our nation, but not to become at one with our nation.  This is simply unacceptable.  If a person wants to enjoy the benefits of America, then that person has to accept the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being an American.  If they are unwilling to accept those responsibilities then they have no place in America.  While the opportunity to become an American should be open to as many as possible, still one must be an American, or an aspiring American, in order to enjoy the benefits of our country and reside within our midst.  For those who choose otherwise, then the door swings both ways.  Not only are they welcomed to leave but it is appropriate to usher them out.

Addressing the issue of the illegal aliens in our midst is only one of our challenges.  For there are plenty more potential illegal aliens where they came from; there are plenty of others who are and will be seeking entry into our country but who at this time still reside outside of our borders.   They are the potential illegal aliens of the future.  Well, the future begins now.  As we address the issue of dealing with the illegal aliens in our midst, we also have to address the issue of how to we prevent massive illegal immigration into our country in the future.

My response is not by building higher walls to keep them out but rather by establishing a better and more open and just system to responsibly welcome them in.  The first thing that must go is the quota system.  America should not be about trying to maintain some sort of ethnic balance from the past.  We should be about making America available to all those who desire and deserve to be Americans.

We need to develop a system which effectively screens potential immigrants.  It needs to be an accessible system so that it is very clear that legal immigration to America is indeed a very real possibility.  Yet at the same time it needs to be a system which does protect America.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who may pose a threat to our people, such as convicted felons (as defined by American law and not the perversion of law promulgated by some dictatorships) and those who carry contagious diseases.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who are unwilling to invest themselves in the process of obtaining American citizenship.   Such screening is not discrimination.  It is wisdom.  For while welcoming as many aspiring Americans as possible is the right thing to do to,  still it is the wise thing to try to assure that those whom we welcome will add to the strength and the character of our nation, and not detract from it.

Intimately tied to the issue of immigration has been the struggle over language.  For years now, “English Only” laws have been a center of much debate in our nation.  There are those who hold that such laws protect the very fabric of American culture, and there are those who hold that such laws are the essence of racism.  Personally, I have been torn by this debate.  I see both sides and stand uncomfortably in the middle.  English is our national language.  As such, I firmly believe that all those who aspire to American citizenship must learn to speak the language.  It is probably the most important key that opens the door to the fullness of American life.  To make believe that it is unnecessary for our aspiring immigrants to learn our language is pure folly.  Indeed, to minimize or deny our immigrants’ need of English skills is to condemn them to remaining on the lowest rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder.  Now that is discrimination!  I find it ironic that those who would work hardest to protect our immigrant population would at the same time promote an anti-English ideology which would in the end only hurt those they wish to protect.

That being said, I am not completely in favor of English Only laws.  I do suspect that those who promote them are doing so for less than idealistic reasons; that there is an underlying prejudice embedded within them.  While I do believe, for example, that an electoral ballot should only be published in English, for English skills should be a prerequisite for American citizenship, while voting is a privilege of citizenship, I do not believe that such things as exams for a drivers license should be only published in English.  These people are going to drive on our streets, and they are not necessarily going to wait until they pass their citizenship exam to do so.  Indeed, if they are living in a community like mine, they need to drive to survive, for in such communities one cannot depend upon public transportation.  Simply as a matter of public safety, I would prefer that they be permitted to take their driving exams in whatever language they speak so that they can become licensed drivers, and hopefully safe drivers.  The same would go for access to medical care.  Regardless of language, people get sick.  Everyone deserves to be able to communicate what ails them to medical professionals.  Therefore, when it comes to the question of English and immigration, while we need to be assertive about the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of our national language, we should not be absolute.  We need to seek out the appropriate middle ground; something the advocates on both sides of this issue have refused to do.

No presentation on immigration would be complete if it did not address the issue of employment.  For almost as long as immigrants have flocked to America, there have been those Americans who have opposed immigration on the grounds that the new immigrants would be taking away their jobs.  Yet when we look at the history of American immigration, and when we look at the immigrant situation in our nation today, we can clearly see that such a charge is patently false.  It is rare indeed when new immigrants enter our society and find themselves somewhere in the middle or top of the employment food chain.  Far more often than not, they are on the bottom of that chain, doing work that other Americans prefer not to do.  So it is today.  Our immigrant, and particularly our illegal immigrant population are deeply involved in what might be called menial labor.  They are janitors.  They are dishwashers.  They are maids.  They work in such difficult industries as meat packing.  Theirs are jobs that the overwhelming majority of Americans would never consider doing unless their situation was absolutely desperate.  Rather than “stealing” jobs in our society, they are filling a very real need.  This has been the way with all American immigrants.  The first generation does whatever needs to be done in order to keep their family fed.  They send their children to school and it is that next generation that starts to take their group up the socioeconomic ladder.

In successfully addressing the issue of immigration reform, when it comes to jobs, we also address another serious flaw in our current system.  That flaw is the abuse of illegal immigrants by unscrupulous employers.  There are those who enjoy the financial benefits of maintaining a significant population of illegal immigrants in our nation.  These illegal immigrants are nothing more than the victims of such employers.  These employers pay them substandard wages and provide them with little or no benefits.  Worse yet, they hold them captive, enslaving them with the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities.  As the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa revealed, this system subjects these illegal immigrants to all sorts of collateral abuses, including sexual abuse and the flagrant violation of child labor laws.  All this would be brought to a grinding halt if these people were not forced to live under the radar in our country.  If they could be granted official status and with that, official protection.  Indeed, such an elimination of an illegal immigration work force would force such employers to offer legitimate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  It would create a more open and competitive jobs market.  Yes, prices would go up, but is it not about time that the money we Americans save due to lower prices stop being blood money?

Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty poetess, is one of my American Jewish heroes.  Part of me is happy that she is not around today to see what our country has done to its immigrants.  It would break her heart!  Yet another part of me wishes that she was among us still for she would not be one to stand idly by on this issue.  She would be a strong voice reminding us of our immigrant heritage and of our responsibility to offer to others today the blessing which our ancestors received when they arrived on these shores.

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!