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. 

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.