Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fear: What If 9/11 Happened in 2017?

Within weeks of Pearl Harbor the Secretary of the Navy made news claiming that the Japanese inhabitants in Hawaii had colluded with the Japanese government in the bombing.  Months later this accusation was debunked as completely without merit.  Nevertheless the damage had been done, though how much this false claim served to incite fear of Japanese American citizens and others living in the U.S. is unknown.

I learned of this little-known episode just last week when I attended an exhibit documenting the shameful Japanese imprisonment on display this month at the Muslim Educational Trust.  I hope that we will bring this excellent, however troubling exhibit, to Neveh Shalom researched and organized by Neveh Shalom member Anne Galisky in the near future.

The exhibit opened at MET Monday evening on 9/11, a connection which was not lost on this largely Japanese and Muslim crowd.  It was the Secretary of the Navy's outrageous false accusation that made me think deeper about the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001.  We should all remember how President Bush responded domestically.  He went to great lengths to proclaim that despite the great loss of American life, despite the fact that the perpetrators were all Arabs, a majority from Saudi Arabia, that their "success" was celebrated by Osama bin Laden and his supporters, nevertheless Islam and its adherents must not be seen as the enemy. These terrorists were extremists, who must not be seen as representing the view of 1.3 billion believers. To make the point Bush very publicly visited a mosque in D.C.  Americans must not accuse our American Muslim citizens and residents for the slaughter.

Although 9/11 was followed by some reprehensible anti-Muslim incidents, given the shock of the nearly 3000 deaths and the destruction of the Twin Towers, the number of such incidents was thankfully relatively small.  By contrast there were those who reached out to reassure that community whose fear was palpable..  Some offered to accompany Muslims with their shopping.  Others opened new lines of communications that had not existed previously. The anti-Muslim incidents were condemned and the perpetrators prosecuted.

That led me to think about that Secretary of the Navy in 1941 and how all Japanese were considered suspect of being traitors and needing to be removed from their homes and businesses, men women and children to camps, where they could be under constant military surveillance.  The number who raised objection to the treatment of the Japanese was shamefully insignificant.

My thoughts then turned to our current day, with a president who does not hesitate to cast aspersions on Mexicans, gays, Muslims, African-Americans, protesters without evidence. When the American president finds it difficult to condemn Nazis and Ku Klux Klan without equivocation, I fear what would have happened in the American street in cities across this country had Trump been president in 2001 or if God forbid a similar atrocity were to take place today.  We have every reason to fear that violent response would have been given a nod.

Think about it and be concerned.

Monday, September 18, 2017

A Rabbinic Nightmare

My first High Holy Day pulpit was at Beale Air Force Base about an hour north of Sacramento.  (Beale had at one time been a Japanese internment camp.)  My rabbi, William Dalin, who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, was retired military.  He functioned as the chief Jewish chaplain of the western states.  As such it was his responsibility to make sure that someone was available to lead High Holy Day services wherever Jewish military personnel were stationed.  I was in college at the University of California, Berkeley, and Rabbi Dalin called to ask me to lead services at a base.  There was someone from the local lay community who would assist with davening and reading Torah, but I would have overall responsibility to prepare sermons and oversee the conduct of the service.  That was 1968.

I have led High Holy Day services every year thereafter until my retirement just over two years ago.  This will be my third Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where I will attend rather than lead services, be a congregant in the pews, rather than trying to infuse added meaning into these Days of Awe from the pulpit.  It's a very different feeling and a wonderful relief.

So what terrorizes a pulpit rabbi, or at least what annual nightmares plagued me year after year?  The prospect of arriving at Rosh Hashanah services without a sermon!  How would I stand before the congregation and excuse my lack of preparation? It's comparable to the universal nightmare of appearing in public stark naked.

Not only am I no longer plagued by such nightmares, but I have come to appreciate what August and September are like.  I can now do wonderful ordinary things during these extraordinary months of the year: enjoy a relaxing meal and conversation, read the paper and do the crossword, go bike riding with grandchildren visiting from San Diego, attend a theater production with my wife.  Such amazing joy.

Although I was not always as productive on a day by day basis during these weeks as I would have liked to be; in fact I was often the opposite of productive.  Writing what one hopes will be profound thoughts is enormously difficult.  Nevertheless August and September were devoted to High Holy Day prep.  Certainly much else filled the agenda.  Weekly Bar/Bar Mitzvah celebrations, speaking every Friday evening and Saturday morning, funerals and hospital visits which proceed as always.  The school year and the calendar of synagogue events preparation: adult ed, High Holy Day honors, teen assignments for parts, etc. all need to be attended too and in fact dealing with those matters allowed me a welcome excuse to procrastinate.

Each year there invariably was a book or two whose subject matter intrigued me and I considered to
possibly contain thoughts for an appropriate Kol Nidre sermon.  And those times were devoted as well to searching for a sermon's opening story or anecdotes to share as the long service progressed.

All my High Holy Day angst certainly had its affect on my family, most particularly my wife, of course.  I focused all of my energy on the need to be prepared.  Those closest to me suffered.

People continue to wonder how I have adjusted to retirement.  Without doubt the biggest change is my ability to prepare for these Days of Awe as a private person.  It is difficult to describe what a relief it is.  I am looking forward to davening along with our new cantor and to listening to the thoughts about repentance from David Kosak, our rabbi.

Someday he too will experience how wonderful August and September can be.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

This Is Hunger!: Plan to Tour the Exhibit Sept 1-7 in the Neveh Shalom Parking Lot

Growing up my mother would tell me about food rationing she endured while growing up in the 1930s in Nazi Germany.  The family was entitled to one egg a week.  That went, she would say, to my grandmother, because she was sick.

Sent on a Kindertransport to England as a 15 year old, she was to be taken care of in a wealthy family that my grandparents knew.  Rather than treat her a a member of the family, she was treated as one of the household help.  There my mother was astonished that those who prepared meals would cut off the crusts of bread and throw them away.  After what she had experienced at home, she couldn't stand that perfectly good food was being thrown in the garbage.  When no one was looking she would rummage through the refuse and retrieve the bread crusts.

My mother spent her entire adult life considerably overweight.  Though she fought it with endless diets, nothing helped.  Certainly there are numerous reasons for problems with personal weight.  However I am convinced that it was my mother's early experience with hunger that made food a continuous issue as long as she lived.  No food was ever discarded.  Plates at every meal were emptied.  To this day I have a kind of revulsion when people take more than they are prepared to eat, when perfectly edible food is carelessly thrown in the trash.

Perhaps the obsession with food that I experienced growing up is why I have chosen to serve on the Oregon Food Bank board and have always seen hunger as the foremost need that must be met for the neediest. 

The big rig from Mazon emblazoned with This Is Hunger has arrived in our Neveh Shalom parking lot.  Everyone should make arrangements to tour the displays.  Both Oregon Senators Merkley and Wyden have reserved times when they will personally visit.  I am proud that both of our senators have long histories of championing support for government programs such as SNAP (food stamps) for food for the poor.  We need to be reminded and our consciences raised that members of our community, fellow Portlanders and Oregonians, not only need financial help to eat, but need enough support so that they can eat a nutritious diet including meat and fish, fruits and vegetables and dairy products

No one in our wealthy nation should go hungry.  We produce more food than we can possibly consume.  Yet 1 in 8 Americans experiences food insecurity.  In Oregon the percentage is tragically even higher.  A family that is food insecure is not starving as people experience in a famine, but they may not always know where their next meal will be coming from, or a food insecure child may not know if there will be anything to eat for dinner that night.  

In this country it certainly is not that we do not have sufficient quantities of food.  Clearly our grocery stores are always full.  It is much more a distribution problem and an economic problem.  In many areas of the country and in Oregon as well we have what are known as food deserts.  A food desert is often a remote area where there are no super markets where it doesn't pay for an Albertsons or a Safeway to keep a small grocer stocked with fresh produce.  Certainly it is possible to sustain the body on large quantities of carbohydrates, but it is not healthy.  In addition national food subsidies go largely to the producers of grain products, making them more affordable than more nutritious foods.

In addition though food is not expensive compared with many other countries, often a good diet is still out of the reach of many.  They must choose between paying rent, medications, gas for the car needed to get to work and food.  These are impossible choices.

Carol and I took Governor Kulangoski's challenge several years ago: live for a week on a food stamp budget.  That was eat for $3/day/person.  We made it, but it wasn't easy and it was thankfully just a week.  First of all we drove for our experiment to Winco.  But then we thought, how do poor people get to Winco?  If they take the bus, how much can they possibly carry?  We avoided all the expensive items.  No meat or fish.  No cheese.  No fancy bread.  No fresh fruits and vegetables. Friday morning I said to Carol that I would get the Hallah.  "Where do you think you can take the $5.99 for a Hallah?" my wife challenged me.  Think of it, a Hallah would take up an entire days food budget for two!  What we learned was that yes, it could be done, but not easily, and that on such a tight budget, one thinks about food all the time.  What can I eat and how much does it cost?  And we are adults.  How do you live this way with needy young children?

"This Is Hunger" is an extensive experiential program created by Mazon: a Jewish Response to Hunger.  Mazon was born in the early 1980's out of a debate in Moment Magazine.  The magazine's founder and editor Leibl Fine challenged the readers with the following question: As Jews we have a responsibility to take care of the Ethiopian Jews newly arrived in Israel.  As Jews we also have an obligation to concern ourselves with those starving in East Africa.  How do I choose between priorities?  In if I have $100 to spend, do I divide it half and half between my particularist Jewish obligations and my universalist humanitarian obligations or 60-40 or 70-30 and if so which receives the 70% and which the 30%?

Though the debate had no clear answers one outcome was the creation of Mazon, a Hebrew word that means food.  Mazon would distribute the funds that it raised to  deal with both Jewish and non-Jewish hunger,  here and abroad.  Their appeal was a fascinating one.  In Eastern Europe it was customary to include the indigent in the community to celebratory events like weddings by adding tables for uninvited guests. Since that is impractical today, Mazon suggested that anyone planning a wedding, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a 70th birthday add 3% to the catering/food bill and send that amount to Mazon as a donation.   They would then distribute the money to food banks.  The Oregon Food Bank has long been one of Mazon's recipients.

So, as we live with full refrigerators and the ability to go to restaurants, we must not forget that too many in our society and even a greater percentage of the world's population do not have those privileges.  We must support government programs and organizations whose purpose is to feed the neediest.  Soon the government will face budgeting challenges.  The most significant is a proposal to cut SNAP by 20%!.  Such cuts are both mean spirited and basically immoral.  Millions of Americans and over half a million Oregonians rely on this most impactful government program to feed the hungry.  Such drastic cuts must be fought.

We will support Senators Wyden and Merkley as they fight for these programs.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Texas Flood Disaster

A year's worth of rain in three days!  So often warnings of potential crises turn out to be false alarms.  This one wasn't.  In fact the warnings probably understated the disaster to come.  In addition to news on TV and radio, I am receiving two other types of reports: a. statements from Jewish sources on how the Jewish community, Federations, synagogues and agencies are faring and how they are contributing to the general welfare and b. reports through the Oregon Food Bank concerning the food banks throughout the affected area.  Some were flooded themselves and totally out of commission, opening as soon as possible to supply the enormous needs of an entire swath of the country shut down; the need to feed tens of thousands of people in shelters, even pet food.  Babies needing formula and many on restricted diets.  The national food bank community through Feeding America stands ready to help however possible.  I have put myself on a list of people prepared to travel to the storm area to help if and when called upon.

Neveh Shalom has opened a channel to directly support one of the smaller synagogues in Houston.  The Jewish Federation of Portland created a vehicle for direct donations and the MJCC joined a national Jewish Community Center effort to transfer money vouchers to mainline stores providing for general needs.  This will be a long haul.  Texas will be recuperating for months if not years.

A year after Katrina I traveled to Biloxi in an effort by Conservative synagogues to help.  We drove along the coast and seemingly for miles I saw slab after slab upon which a house once stood.  And what did I do for three days?  I removed sheet rock that volunteers had placed on homes after Katrina that had to be removed because in their haste they never bothered to remove the residue of mold!  Yes, I was removing what others in their good intentions had put up to save a house that no one could live in.

But not everyone understands the urgency and immediacy of the need.  I found today's New York Times editorial about the reactions of Rev. Osteen who only reluctantly opened his 16,000-seat mega church to flood victims and that of President Trump.troubling indeed. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/opinion/trump-osteen-harvey-church.html?ref=opinion. 

When human beings are in desperate straights, it is incumbent upon us all to reach out to do whatever we can.

And at the same time that our attention is focused on Texas, we must be aware of similar if not even more severe flooding in Mumbai, India.  There tens of thousands of innocents are suffering too from the monsoon rains more severe this year than ever before.

And then of course we must address the serious issue of climate change that if not addressed immediately will only bring ever greater calamities.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rabbis Shun President Trump Appropriately

I am a card carrying member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis.  With relatively few exceptions the Rabbinical Assembly constitutes the alumni of the rabbinical schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Ziegler School of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.  There are some additional members who graduated from other recognized rabbinical schools whose educations meet Rabbinical Assembly requirements, whose outlook and practice conforms with Conservative minimum standards and who serve Conservative congregations.

Although there have been a few occasions in which I have taken issue with the direction and decisions of the Rabbinical Assembly, I am otherwise quite proud of my membership.  I pay dues.  The RA controls my pension.  My placement at Neveh Shalom came about through the RA placement service.

Today I was especially proud to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, featured as it was on the front page of the New York Times along with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.  Today they collectively announced that these organizations of rabbis were unwilling to participate in a High Holiday conference call with President Trump.

Begun by President Bush (Jr.), the High Holiday call to hundreds of rabbis has become an annual event.  President Obama seemed to enjoy continuing the tradition.  I participated in several of these calls, each time feeling enormously honored to be addressed by the president of the United States prior to Rosh Hashanah.  In these hour long calls the president would speak about the sustained American relationship with Israel and American international relations with trouble spots such as Iran, concerns about anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, the agenda for the poor, the disadvantaged, the most vulnerable.  The president also responded to questions from rabbis.

Charlottesville became the turning point.  Unable to denounce without reservation neo-Nazis and racists, the leaders of the rabbinical organizations determined that we could not act as if all was normal.  Clearly there have been other times in which President Trump has entertained racist and anti-Semitic sentiments and hesitated to distance himself from them.  As rabbis to hear from the president after Charlottesville would have been hypocritical.

By contrast coincidentally on the same day the president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches Jim Winkler called evangelical preachers to task for their continued deafening silence especially after Charlottesville.  Where is their voice of conscience?  Can his views on appointing Supreme Court justices, abortion, same sex marriage justify their refusing to speak out on so many troubling issues, such as the environment, the poor, immigrants, Muslims, etc.????  The contrast with the position of the rabbinical organizations was striking.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville, August 2017

Shame on you, 35!
Shame on you, Donald Trump

When evil slaps you in the face, condemn it.
Clearly and Unequivocally, without Reservation.

Over 70 years ago we fought a war to defeat fascism: against racism, anti-Semitism, homophobism and on and on.  How can we as Americans see Nazi-style violence in our streets and not condemn it and its perpetrators without hesitation?

Though Charlottesville may feel like a one-off, unusual event, Hitler began with street riots that Germans dismissed as acts by a bunch of hooligans.  Of course what we watched there is not the resurrection of German-style Nazism in America.  Nevertheless the president's equivocation, condemning hatred and violence on both sides, is shameful.

Those 1930's hoodlums created sufficient chaos that the Hindenberg government thought the best way of bringing them under control was to bring them into the government.  Mistake! The Holocaust and World War II were the result.

I am not unbiased on  this issue.

One night in 1938 a local cop that my grandparents knew, knocked on their door to inform them that my grandfather was on the list for arrest the next day.  As a manufacturer's rep, my grandfather had a current passport and left town that night.

My grandmother put my mother and my uncle on a train with other children to be kept safe in a Kindertransport to England, unsure whether they would ever meet again.  For many children this was the last time they saw their parents.

These people are not to be tolerated though their right to freedom of speech must not be curtailed.  They are dangerous physically.  They are dangerous to the country's emotional and psychological well being.

Condemn them, Mr. President, unequivocally.  Prosecute their violent and illegal acts to the fullest extent of the law.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Stolpersteine/ Stumbling Stones

German artist Gunter Demnig initiated an amazing personal art project in 1992.  He proposed creating cobble-stone sized concrete cubes bearing brass plates that would be inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination and persecution.  These plaques would be placed in front of homes which were families' last residences.  He ingeniously named these memorials Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones.  As of January 31, 2017, Mr. Demnig had laid 56,000(!) Stolpersteine in 22 European countries, making the stolpersteine project the world's largest decentralized memorial. Though the stones commemorate mostly Jews, they also commemorate Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Blacks, Freemasons, Communists, the physically and mentally disabled, military deserters and political resisters.

The name Stolpersteine can refer to something one stumbles over as a constant reminder of what happened, who lived or worked here, but it can also have the meaning of stumbling across, discovered by chance, a curiosity.  To be noted as well, in Nazi Germany, when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone, an anti-Semitic saying was, "A Jew must be buried here!" In addition when Nazis destroyed Jewish cemeteries often tombstones were re-purposed as sidewalk paving stones.  Though the clear intent was thereby to desecrate the memory of the dead, the Stolpersteine function as both reminder and a means of honoring the memories of those who lived normal lives there, raised children, contributed to society, fought in defense of their country.

Although my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles were refugees from Nazi Germany, I peculiarly never thought of myself or my family as "Holocaust survivors".  My immediate family were never deported to concentration camps, never engaged in forced labor, never the subjects of medical experimentation, never lived in ghettos.  So, until recently I did not even think of requesting a Stolperstein be prepared in front of either the homes where my mother and father lived before fleeing Germany.

I am a first generation American.  Both of my parents were born in Germany, my mother in Berlin and my father in Asschaffenburg, a small town in Northern Bavaria.

Hitler interrupted the normal growing up and educations of my parents.  Neither of them finished high school.  My father departed for Palestine at 17 in 1937.  My mother accompanied her brother in 1938 on a Kindertransport to England.  She soon became a companion to a handicapped child.  The family took the child to Switzerland and included my mother.  As a terribly shy 16 year old my mother unaccompanied made her way through Spain to Portugal where she caught a boat to America.  My father remained in Palestine until 1947, having served during the war in the Royal Air Force in North Africa.  He came to San Francisco, where his mother, sister and brother had settled.  Living in Chicago, my mother came to San Francisco to visit a friend.  There she met my father, newly arrived from Palestine, the friend's brother-in-law.  Thus the friend and her husband became my aunt and uncle.

My maternal grandfather was a war hero, having served on the front lines in the German army in World War I, a recipient of the German Iron Cross.  Those grandparents lived comfortable middle class lives.  My mother recalled seeing Hitler pass their apartment building on his way to the 1936 Olympics.  My paternal grandfather was a tailor, living a more modest existence.  He died of natural causes and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Asschaffenburg.

Growing up the only Holocaust casualty I was aware of was my maternal greatgrandmother who it appears was gassed in a train on the way to Auschwitz.  My other maternal greatgrandmother survived the "model concentration camp" in Theresienstadt and lived to 106 in the Jewish Old Age Home in San Francisco.  Only after marrying when Carol sought to collect a family medical history did I come to realize that many members of my extended family had not gotten out of Germany.

So now I decided it was time to pursue Stolpersteine for my own family.  The website said that the first step in the process was to acquire permission from the relevant city.  I sent an email to the Berlin City Hall.  They responded immediately directing me to the respective authority, who referred my to the particular district where my mother had lived.  The notice I then received was that the backlog was so great that the quota for 2017 and 2018 were already filled and that I would be added to the list for 2019.  It had been my hope to plan a trip for cousins, children and grandchildren.  That will alas have to be put on hold.

I have not yet made contact with Asschaffenburg.  I fear that like Munich they may not allow the Stolpersteine.  In refusing Munich has claimed it is seeking for an alternative means of commemoration.  I will continue to pursue the effort.

Nevertheless I am grateful for Mr. Demnig and his privately conceived project.  The Nazis destroyed so much, first of all the millions of lives that were snuffed out, but additionally they interrupted normal growing up, educations, careers, possibilities, based on nothing but pure hate.  It is important that this horror be a constant reminder to the descendants of the people who perpetrated it.