For One Day, Let’s Just be Thankful

This has been a tough year.  It feels as though no matter whether your candidate won or lost, we’ve all lost a little bit of ourselves.  Many have lost friends, have become estranged from family, have felt threatened or intimidated, or have been overcome by anger and frustration.  American elections are supposed to bring out the best of our democracy.  This election brought out the worst.  It is in this divisive time that we must remember that Thanksgiving – in a sense our most apolitical and secular national holiday – was borne of division.  In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving for all Americans (I’ve posted the entire proclamation for your leisure):

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

This description of the United States would seem foreign to many Americans in 1864.  The Country was torn by violence, a million people would be dead by the end of the Civil War.  Millions more would be in mourning for the loss of their homes, their livelihoods, and their loved ones, and yet – Thanksgiving.

Yesterday morning on the radio, I heard people from all over this great nation – from Spokane to Houston or Oneida – talk about how they would not be going home for Thanksgiving for the first time in 15, 25, 45, or even 60 years.  Each of them cited political strife and disunity as the cause for their choice, yet none of these people sounded happy or proud to make this change.  Rather, they all sounded exhausted.  It is clear that all of us, no matter our politics, religion, or current predicament, need a respite from what seems like an unending political season.  Even here in Northern Virginia, it is not too much to suggest that we simply take a day off.  Stop checking the news, stop making underhanded remarks about some political figure or party.  Just take a moment to enjoy all of the good in the world.  For many, this may be something not done for decades.

So, I propose a simple rule for tomorrow.  No politics.  That’s all.  While this will be most helpful to those with political division at the dinner table, my wife and I will nevertheless be asking our guests to adhere by this rule, even though we believe that they all voted the same way earlier this month.

thanksgiving-turkey-gif-dfubmj-clipartLet’s have a day of Thanksgiving.  Let’s talk about football and theater, about our childhoods and our aspirations, about our favorite recipes and hopes for a white Christmas and a short winter.  Leaving our frustrations and divisions and, dare I say, strong opinions behind, if only for a few hours, may help bring us back together, allowing us to remember that we are all a collective people.  We are Americans.  We are free.  And, for that, we should be thankful.

 

Securing American Judaism for the Next Generation

Happy Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?) everyone!  It’s time to buy some gifts, make some latkes, light some candles, spin a dreidel, and commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (did you forget this part?).  After all, the story of Hanukkah is based on the Maccabee Rebellion, where the Maccabees, a band of gorilla warriors, launched an attack on the Hellenistic occupants of their homeland to retake the city.  When the Maccabees liberated the Second Temple, their first order of duty was to light the sacred lamps.  However, oil was in limited supply.  So limited that the victors thought that it was only enough for a single night.  When the oil burned for eight days, they took it to be a miracle and a demonstration of the commitment that G-d had for their cause.

While oil makes everything delicious, and while gifts – while a modern addition to the holiday – are a nice touch, perhaps there is a real opportunity in this holiday to reconsider the message of the celebration.  Rather than focusing on the longevity of the oil alone, perhaps the battles and victories are more important.  Despite the long odds, and the lack of faith that many in the community had in the Maccabees, their forces nonetheless succeeded in their mission.  They fought for religious freedom – which was horribly oppressed by the Roman invaders – and for the unique identity of their Jewish brothers and sisters.  They let neither their long odds, the unknowns, nor the perceived disinterest of many in the community detract from their mission.  As a reward, they were given longevity, both of the light and their religion.

So how can we take that message forward today?  Abandoning our safe havens may be the first step.   Too often, synagogues from the most liberal to the most orthodox ends of the spectrum become entrenched; thinking inwardly and acting inwardly.  I am not speaking of the need for more philanthropy, which is an important thing, but of the need for greater community-wide engagement and outreach.  The Maccabees could have gone off to an unsettled place and formed their own community, free of oppression, but they chose instead to engage their community and, in turn, save their oppressed friends and neighbors.  In this sense, greater cooperation and integration within Jewish communities throughout the country is crucial.  While there are many engaged, boots on the ground Jewish Federations that are doing fantastic work, there are those Federations that see their role as clearinghouses for donations and may need to change their perspective.

Secondly, I think communities throughout the country can take a page out of the playbook of the Chabad movement and Evangelical Christianity.  While I am not suggesting proselytization, I am suggested that finding more unorthodox (pun intended) ways to engage with the local community is critical.  The synagogue – both the organization and the building – cannot be valued above the members of its Jewish community, both those who are members of the synagogue and those who are not.  Perhaps offsite programming, offsite alternative religious services, outreach to those who may not feel comfortable reaching out to the synagogue, and surveying that is less concerned with the needs of active members than of inactive members or nonmembers would allow membership to grow.

When a synagogue feels like an exclusive club, it cannot simultaneously be welcoming, open, and inclusive.  For those who are active members, I ask: where are your synagogue’s future leaders?  At the average Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative synagogue in this country, they’re not in shul – they don’t even belong.

So…where are they?  In most cities, the younger populations (under 40) are in urban neighborhoods.  Evangelical churches have developed a highly successful model of opening branch locations in growing neighborhoods.  These are generally not fanciful or expensive buildings, but are more or less a community center for Evangelical Christians in the area.  Think: basic campus Hillel.  There are very few examples of such places for Jewish urban young professionals, which gives many only a few options:

  1. Drive a long way to synagogue (that is, if you have a car or there’s a long public transit line that happens to get you to the synagogue);
  2. Live in the suburbs (which many Millennials do not want to do), or;
  3. Not engage with the Jewish community (the most common result).

Yet, significant resources are not being put in place to draw out these people who represent the future of our communities and the Jewish People.  For some, the response might seem obvious: if Millennials want these things, they should be the leaders in getting programming and religious services into cities.  To those people, I am curious as to how interested you really are in the future of our people.  Where those leaders do exist, they may not know who to call, what to ask, or what is possible.  Where there are potential congregants, they may not have the time, energy, or money to make this happen.  There is no reason to require young Jews to form an organic new community when a well-organized, well-funded community is so nearby.

The miracle of Hanukkah is intended to teach us all that taking risks and engaging in hard work to ensure a brighter future will be rewarded.  The real miracle of Hanukkah is not the oil or the light, but the future that the actions of the Maccabees helped to provide for the Jewish People.  We may not need guerrilla warfare to build stronger, lasting communities, but we can strategize, invest, and engage to ensure a Jewish future for our children and grandchildren.

So, what’s the legacy of your synagogue?  Of your community?  Will it slowly fade into obscurity as members pass away and move on?  Or will it contribute to the community by creating a meaningful future for the next generation?

 

We Can Be Free : My Undying Faith in the American Ideal

The Plot Against America begins with a charismatic Republican taking advantage of people’s fears, preying on their fears, and assuring Americans that the perceived threat, or the conspiratorial threat of the immigrant conspiracy, is the true danger, logic aside.  This novelization of alternative history is, today, beginning to sound more and more like fact.  Philip Roth’s story details how it could have happened that the Jews, rather than the Nazis, became the public’s indicted villains of World War II.  In the story, the United States government silenced and killed off critics to further the constructs of hatred and fear while propagandizing the supposed perfection of the Christian-American narrative.


We will always have hate and prejudice in society.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is arrogant.  Yet, American society has survived religious hatred, racial hatred, sexual hatred, political hatred, ethnic hatred, and class hatred.  We have absolved our nation of none of these deep-seated hatreds, but over time many have been repressed and routed away from the centers of public society.  Generally, we have witnessed fewer and fewer instances of outright endorsements of bigotry, mistreatment, or racism by leaders and officials.  This has been perhaps the greatest success of the last half-century.  For those who see this as oppression of speech, so be it, but it is difficult to believe that our nation has been made worse by greater acceptance of – and greater pressure to accept – the “other.”

While public discussion of people’s hatreds may have departed from the public realm for a while, these seem to be returning to the public conversation, often in the form of charged diatribes.  For the purposes of comprehensive analysis, it may be rightly assumed that this new era of “freedom” began just over seven years ago, with the election of a non-White President.  For context in this conversation, I believe that it was not Barack Obama being Black that caused this groundswell of anger, but more generally the fact that he is not White/European-American.  Somehow, it seems unlikely that an Hispanic or Asian-American president would have suffered fewer indignities and insults related to race and religion.  These include racially-charged theories on comment boards, as well as those promoted by opposition media and political leaders.

When this groundswell of opposition resulted in the success of the Tea Party Patriots candidates in the 2010 midterm election, the anger was legitimized.  Tea Party officials placed full blame on the President for everything, even if he had never been part of the decision, or he did not have the power to make such a decision, or if such a decision had ever existed.  They appealed to the lowest common denominator, convincing their supporters that individual rights and freedoms were under attack.  Despite decades of relatively conservative governments (by United States standards), a socialist conspiracy was supposedly underway to take away guns, make people ultra-dependent on the government, delegitimize our military might, and to destroy the American spirit.

This campaign worked well, despite the lack of evidence to support these claims, until the economic conditions of Americans started improving again.  With a nation no longer wallowing under the forces of high unemployment, low morale, lack of opportunity, and anxiety about the future, the Tea Party has begun to lose their power.  Further, despite continued anti-Obama propaganda, the President – who has only a year left in office – has not acted to take away guns, ban free speech, steal people’s property, or force people into breeding colonies.

(Okay, that last one might be made-up).

So what does a hate-monger do when his propagandizing fails to come to fruition?   Go back to his roots, of course.  If hating one brown person didn’t work, how about hating a whole nation of them?  This reincarnation has been provided thanks to GOP Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson whose eccentric and odd campaigns have become hate-fests, with everything from absurd and unfounded claims about thousands of Muslim-Americans celebrating in Jersey City as the World Trade Centers fell, to religious litmus-tests for everything from immigration to the Presidency.  Of course, intertwined with this concept is a complete misrepresentation of the dynamics and sects of Islam at play in Syria.**

**(For example, the Alawites are a rather liberal branch of Shia and the Druze are not Muslim at all.  ISIS, meanwhile, is made of an extremist, fundamentalist ideology of Sunni Muslims.  Shia and Sunni do not get along particularly well, so to label Shia Muslims as potential members of ISIS makes little sense.  Even most Sunnis do not subscribe to the extreme ISIS/Al-Qaeda/Terrorist-Radical-Extremist ideology.  It would be akin to assuming all Christians adhere to the teachings of the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church missions of hatred and terror.)

Regardless, the hateful rhetoric is increasing.  As this occurs, a buffer is provided to those who want to engage in hateful speech and actions against their neighbors.  This mob mentality is anti-American, as can be seen through early American documents, such as the Thomas Jefferson-authored Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.  More recent purveyors of this American ideology include Martin Luther King, who spoke often of equality in a diverse nation, and even George W. Bush, who despite many failings in the Oval Office, fought tirelessly to ensure that Muslim-Americans, many of whom had fled their homelands to escape extremists, and Muslim societies throughout the world, did not become scapegoats for the actions of a few terrorists on September 11th, 2001 who happened to adhere to an extremist and radial branch of Islam.

As Mr. Trump ramps up his suggestions that we register adherents to Islam, place government monitoring on all Mosques, or shutter them entirely, and as Dr. Carson calls for surveillance of “radicalizing” communities, we must be vigilant of the fact that these actions would symbolize an end to American religious freedom.  One of the proudest aspects of American history is our strong resolve never to endorse one religion over another and never to place undue restrictions on a specific religion.  This culture of inclusiveness has provided Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, and countless other minority religions with a free and uninhibited place to practice their religions for well over two centuries.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, it may also be worth considering that Americans are still far more likely to be killed or assaulted by American-born Americans; that your mother, father, spouse, or child is far more likely to be killed by a legally-produced and legally-purchased weapon in the United States than by any homemade device built by a Muslim terrorist.  If we, as a diverse-yet-inclusive melting pot of a nation, can survive the most deadly and painful terrorist attack in our history without losing sight of the American ideals of peace and freedom, then we can find it in our hearts to be compassionate people and save those who are living in fear for their lives and their family’s lives due to attacks from ISIS terrorists.


In the 1930’s, our nation; my nation, chose not to save European Jews from genocide.  Whether this was due to antisemitism or to some sort of fear that these persecuted peoples were instead Nazi secret agents, we will never know.  In the 1970’s, we chose to ignore the slaughters in Cambodia and Bangladesh.  In the 1990’s, we chose not to save the Tutsi population in Rwanda.  At the beginning of this century, we chose to ignore the genocides in the Darfur region of Sudan.  As we time and again have failed to learn from history, we seem forever doomed to repeat our failures.  We again must choose, as we did in the 1930’s, between changing course and embodying our ideology of inclusiveness, or embracing underlying feelings of hate and distrust.  I hope we are able to make the truly American decision and open our hearts and our borders for those suffering.  This response will show our naysayers and detractors who we really are, and will help us to prevent ISIS from claiming even more innocent victims.

When the last child cries for a crust of bread
When the last man dies for just words that he said
When there’s shelter over the poorest head
We shall be free

When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
When the skies and the oceans are clean again
Then we shall be free

When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free

And when money talks for the very last time
And nobody walks a step behind
When there’s only one race and that’s mankind
Then we shall be free

– Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis, 1992

Aiming for Fairness in an Unfair World

Watching terrorism engulf the streets of Paris over the past few days has been devastating.  Three men, in two premeditated attacks and with a convoluted and extremist ideology executed well over a dozen people before being killed by police.

Somehow, a mix of commentators see some level of justification in these attacks.  David Brooks, a moderate-conservative for the New York Times says that those at Charlie Hebdo weren’t really “adult” journalists and therefore, by appealing to the lowest common denominator may have deserved their fate.  Liberal commentator Ezra Klein’s analysis at Vox may have an even more confusing and strange response: that the attack was not about free speech but about crazy murders who didn’t like…free speech.

Let’s be clear about two things:

1)  No matter how offensive and hateful rhetoric might be (and Charlie Hebdo is certainly no high-brow publication), no one deserves to die because of their words or drawings, no matter how brutish or childish.

2)  This is absolutely about free speech.  This wasn’t three people on a whim who didn’t like a magazine they saw at the news stand (not that that would be any better).  This was an orchestrated attack with (likely) foreign-obtained weapons, strategic timing, and possibly financed through international terrorist organizations.

If #2 is indeed the case, these murderers may not even be the masterminds behind the attack, just the mercenaries.  If this is the case, these attacks were definitely not about crazy people.  They were about executing perceived enemies, which seem to include people who draw things, people who write things on paper, and Jewish mothers and fathers who buy food.  That is one threatening bunch.

Nevertheless, there are those who will say, didn’t these people know the risk?  Didn’t these people think before writing such incendiary things?  Perhaps, but since when do we hold a murder victim responsible for their own victim-hood?  Ezra Klein suggests that blaming this on speech is like blaming victims of rape for their outfits.  I agree, but he misses the broader point.  As we ought to blame rapists for not having self-control and committing a crime, no matter what their victim might be wearing, here too we ought to blame terrorists and extremists who cannot respond to insult with insult, but instead must commit heinous murders.  A person’s rhetoric, be it antisemitic, racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, or xenophobic, must never be met with violence.  Free speech is a universal right, often suppressed, but never extinguished.  We may not chose to celebrate their work or their message, but so long as we believe that speech should never be silenced, we are all Charlie Hebdo.

Gentrification, or the Liberal Aversion to Change

NIMBY: Not-In-My-Back-Yard.  

NIMBYism: Localized advocacy against change, despite any ideologically held perspectives related to how communities or neighborhoods should develop.

Gentrification: Generally, the process of reinvestment and new residents into a neighborhood, leading to higher real estate values, leading to a change in the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood and a population shift. 

Displacement: The situation of people who have to move under economic pressures due to raising rents, real estate taxes, or general affordability.

For years we have decried the lack of wealth in our cities, despaired at the lack of advanced education among residence, and bemoaned the often-accurate reputation of cities as crime-ridden and dangerous.  But the last twenty years has seen a seismic shift for many cities, from places where few sought to live in urban centers and even fewer took public transportation by choice.  Today, an influx of money and desirability has befallen urban areas in every part of the county.  And yet, despite how some Jacobian urbanites (see: Jane Jacobs) might view such a shift, there was no great realization and re-commitment to cities en masse.   Instead, this shift was strategic through a serious of investments in key locations since the 1960s.  DCs Southwest Waterfront, Chicago’s Dearborn Park, New York City’s Lincoln Center all brought people who had fled to the suburbs back to urban areas, even if in small numbers.  Demand grew and grew and, along with unsustainable and unmanageable suburban sprawl, brought people who could choose to live anywhere back to the urban centers for the first time in decades.  Today, neighborhoods that many people would have formerly avoided are seeing massive demand.  This should be an urbanist’s dream, right?

For some of us it is, for others, the word gentrification is used to describe the shifting economic realities of urban life.  But I have to ask my fellow planners, what did you think would happen?  I mean, did you really think that you could increase the property values in neighborhoods by 3000% and the existing population would not be affected?  We can lay into social injustices, but this is the result of an injustice, not an injustice in itself.  Not all, or most, white people can live in these neighborhoods either.  They become popular, rents skyrocket, the old guard is shown the exit.  The fact is that when that upscale grocery store decided to open, it was precisely because they saw an influx of high-income residents who would buy fancy cheeses.  Gentrification doesn’t necessitate anything.  If it can’t happen in one place, it will happen somewhere else.

Now, don’t mistake my words, everyone should have access to grocery stores and pharmacies and basic amenities nearby.  But wealth is necessary for economic development in the free market.  When neighborhoods don’t gentrify, they don’t reap the benefits of gentrification.  But there is a distinct sense of fairness that pervades this shift.  Unfortunately no one is guaranteed a permanent place to live.  It depends on a lot of variables.

But this all begs the question: why do liberals take to such NIMBYism when gentrification is happening?  In short, because it is the liberal version of a personal income tax cut.  On the microeconomic level, it makes a lot of sense.  It is reasonable difficult to accept the negative impacts of development.  When speaking to the individual who could use a little more money every month, a tax cut is not only reasonable but compassionate, just as helping the little old lady who can no longer afford her tax bill stay in her home is both reasonable and compassionate.  And yet, on the macro scale, these don’t mesh with reality.  A few dollars in tax cuts translates to millions lost from the government budget for schools and infrastructure.  Meanwhile, the fight for long-term neighborhood residents usually only delays their displacement.

The reality is that neither a neighborhood nor a house, as much as we might cherish it, is permanent and binding.  Historically, almost every neighborhood goes through fluctuations, low-income areas gain wealth while once-exclusive neighborhoods sink into poverty.  For an individual neighborhood this cycle is not always but is most often unavoidable.  So what are we to do?   Perhaps move beyond the structures.

In the end, a neighborhood is a confined geographic area, but within that area are people.  Cities can do some things to provide mixed-income housing, but realistically this may not be a sustainable solution.  Even if older residents can afford their housing, they may no longer have easy access to services and retail that meet their needs.  Generally, lower-income individuals cannot afford to do all of their shopping at a posh Whole Foods, and coffee shops are nice but do little to replace free clinics and social service agencies.  People with lower incomes have services that provide to their needs, just like neighborhoods filled with high-wealth young professional have services that provide to their needs.

Perhaps the goal should be less about keeping people in a specific place and more about helping people remain in comparable housing with a high level of services nearby.   If real market conditions and opportunities are considered, we cannot stop gentrification without harming our cities, but we can use the influx on wealth and funds to ensure that long-term neighborhood residents are not simply lost in the abyss.  If done right, embracing gentrification can help us to improve the function and opportunity for everyone in our cities, no matter income, background, or age.