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.