Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why Social Media is Good for Us All

Recently I have heard again how social media is bad for us.   Our language and the nature of communication itself is said to be breaking down.  I have heard this before, when telephones became ubiquitous, letter writing suffered, when email was universal but costly we saw more contractions than a maternity ward 9 months after a blackout, when texting became common, who even answers the phone?  Facebook, Instagram, Twitter all gives us not only a singular chance to connect with others but also with the formerly unreachable.  Movie and sports stars, media people and of course the celebrity class all interact with ordinary people via those media.  It allows us to influence others we normally would not reach and frankly is partly responsible for the bringing down of tyrannical governments.  Now like anything it can be used to organize hate too, so I am not Pollyanna about it. Hate groups have found a wider audience, terrorists have become wizards of using it to organize from far away and of course the cyberbullying and destruction of reputations is common place.  But that is part of human nature.  We will always have the good and bad with anything.

But there is something special about social media that links people who have a common connection but not necessarily a bond.  We can follow the lives of high school friends who have grown away from us, sometimes finding a way to mend relationships broken over stupidity of youth.  We have a wider audience to share joys and sorrows and people who understand.  The death of a parent or sibling, a new grandbaby, a 25th anniversary and a diagnosis of cancer have all crossed my screen in the last few weeks.  We are more open with people because we can avoid the fear of that instant shock that often comes with a life changing event.  The distance of cyberspace allows for reflection that doesn't happen face to face and our response can be more measured and helpful I believe.

But whats more it has opened discussions that were so taboo that they had led some to remain in terrible situations or feeling alone.  Women in abusive or unfulfilled relationships found a place in the early days of chat rooms to work out their situations and find allies to help them move on or get help.  While the media screamed about the internet causing a rise in divorce if we looked at the actual reason for many of them we found that the relationships were not in great shape before AOL sent discs to us 5 times a day.  Even more so asking questions about subjects not easily discussed in person come up all the time.  Questions of health, sexuality, and economics all can more easily be expressed talked about and answered through various forms of social media than in person.  Sometimes talking to people that you are seeking advice or support from causes them to move away from you in flesh and blood moments but for some reason people seem willing to be there for people through the screen.

Even what I am doing right now is healthy for me.  Even if no one reads it.  It is my diary, my note pad, and while on occasion I get paid to speak to groups,  (reasonable rates and variety of topics, call me if you need a speaker) no one wants to simply hear me rant about things.  So I can rant here, you can choose to read or not, I can feel I got it off my chest and the world is in balance.

Each time media has moved forward and found a new way to connect people we run into those that will find everything that is wrong with it.  That is normal.  But I think that if we remember there is a real person on the other side of the screen and in the social media world they have chosen to check in on your life there is value there and we will learn to use it better.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

We Can Still Learn From Our Children

The other day I sat in a room to discuss why Muslim and Jewish congregations are involved in the Global Interfaith Partnership, our program that provides food and education opportunities for orphans and vulnerable children in Kenya.  The reason for the question was to help our Duke interns understand why our religions compel us to help in this situation when those helped are predominately Christian.  The answer was not difficult.  Both are faiths have examples of people who worked to ameliorate the lives of people outside our traditions as well as scriptural commands to do so.  The question I would ask is why more of us don’t help the person we see as other?
That is not too difficult to answer in some cases, especially with minority religions.  As humans we are more likely to give something up, be it money, time, food, or our life for family first, tribe, country, faith, more so than for a stranger.  This is part of human nature and in fact it may be hardwired.  That is why I believe the great religions of the world emphasize the importance of helping the stranger, because it is not easy.  So when it happens people take note.  Nowhere did I more note of this in my own heart was with a group of Muslim youth known as SallamCorp, who worked to raise $10,000 a few years ago as part of our Kenya Carnival fund raising.  You see these youth focused their understanding of what was expected of them by their faith to help strangers.  Out of that experience I made good friends and found a form of solidarity with others, who like me, struggle with how to focus our attention to those in need. 
So yesterday brought some news that is hard for me to process.  As we were going to lunch one of my colleagues mentioned a story in the news about a plane crash with a father and son on an attempt to fly around the world.  The local boy was from Plainfield and part of a mosque we were familiar with through our multifaith activities.  Minutes later came the email from my friend, Shariq, who informed me who the boy was.   His name is Haris Suleman and he died when his plane crashed off the coast of American Samoa.  A 17 year old, about the age of Noah, who was attempting to fly round-the-world to raise funds for Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit organization that build schools in Pakistan. 
Haris was a member of that SalaamCorp and I remember his energy, though quieter than the girls in the group, when it came to the work for our Kenya Carnival.  He died doing what was close to his heart, helping others, and he will be missed not only for what he did, but for the loss of potential that our future will never see. 

In the world today many people are dying over hate.  Throw a dart on the map of the land masses of the world and you will strike within 100 miles of someone who will die today because of hate.  Those are the stories that define this summer.  Gun violence in American cities like my own Indianapolis, Chicago, LA, or the continued fights in the Middle East, terror in Africa and violent protests in Europe.  We have become almost numb to mass shootings where instead of stopping to take note the political voices run to microphones to scream platitudes.  So as Shabbat draws near, as the closing days of July usher in the move toward a new school year and as we think about the growing unrest that dominates our evening news shows and the radio and TV screamers, let’s stop and think about the Haris Suleman’s of the world.  A young, Midwestern, Muslim boy, an American teenager (who we are told are selfish and introverted every day in the media) who lost his life trying to help those who can offer him nothing.  Except maybe the chance to make strangers friends.  Perhaps that is what we should all strive for in our lives.  Perhaps we should all try to be a little more like Haris, and perhaps that is the answer we can give people when they ask why Jews and Muslims would join a group designed to help almost exclusively Christians.  Because, the bottom line is, that is what you do when you are fully human.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We Lost of Piece of our Soul

A few years ago while traveling in Kenya, our interfaith group was asked to preach at various churches in the region where we do our work.  On Sunday morning we got dropped off at various places and after lunch we gathered on the bus to head to our afternoon meeting.  As the only Jew, I was happy to see my friend Shariq, who is Muslim and the only other non-Christian traveling with us.  I asked him how it was for him to speak at the church and he told me he preached, if you will, about the Muslim ideal that if you save a single life you save the entire world.  My response was "I love that line, especially in the original Hebrew".  The joke was taken for what it was, the clear connection between the ethical teaching of Judaism that fed the early writings of Islam and drove much of Mohammed's understanding of the world.  So when I think of the animosity today that is driven by Islam when it comes to Israel and even to all Jews I weep.

I wept even more yesterday.  Three young men had their lives taken as the latest result of the "Had Gadya Machine" as it is called by the great Yehuda HaLevi.  Three Jewish teens were killed after being held by Hamas on the West Bank.  This act of cowardly terrorism had unified most of Israel and world Jewry at first wishing for the safe return of the boys and now mourning their loss.  I wonder how a tradition that borrowed so much from the pillars that hold up Judaism can so easily ignore them for the sake of killing Jews.  I wonder just want that means in the grand scheme of things.  

The first thing I read about it was a Facebook post from a teacher and friend Amichai Lau-Levi.  He wrote from Israel:  

  אנא אל תיקום דמם. ה׳ אמת.ברוך דיין    Please God do not revenge their blood.   

It was a powerful statement, because in the moment I read it I found myself struggling with a growing anger.  An anger that I can't find a way to fully wrap my head around.  As a member of the Jewish community who sits comfortable in the MidWest of the US, I can't begin to understand what life is like for those who have to sleep at times in bomb shelters, who have lived with the idea of pizza shops blowing up and now have buried three teens, simply because they want to live in the land of Israel with their families.  Later in the day I read more from Lau-Levi, a man who has been helping us see our ancient tradition with modern eyes but focusing on the message of love that we inherited through the ages.  He wrote:  

I personally see no point in vengeance, in endless circles of retribution. There is no justice to be gained, even when decisive measures will and must be made to bring the murderers to trial and to stop such future actions. More blood will not bring the boys back. This is just one person’s opinion. A former soldier, so tired of recycled rage.  There must be another way.

There must be something more we can do.  But today I still feel the anger.  In part because there are so many of our  people throughout the history of the modern state of Israel  who have sought real peace.  Who are voices trying to rise above the din of hate who take up the cause of the Palestinian people, and every time we seem to feel that we can move forward we are punched in the face by a heinous act like this.  

Tonight I am angry, for the lives of the boys, for my friend who just kissed her daughter good-bye as she joins the ranks of many young Americans who make Aliyah, for the people I met on the West Bank and in Jerusalem who have been struggling for peace.  But most of all I am angry because it is stories like this that make me want to feel less compassion, who make me want to throw my hands up and say "they win"  if they want a fight let's bring it to them.  I don't want to be that guy.  I don't want to feel that negativity, I don't want to hate. 

In a few minutes I will join my local Jewish community for a service of remembrance.  Perhaps that will help me find the way to give up the angry feelings.  Maybe it will pass as I read more from people who want to truly seek a solution and not just turn the crank on HaLevi's machine.  Perhaps I need to find a way to think around this.  But I will indulge myself a few moment of the anger and then seek hope.  Help me find it.   





Saturday, June 21, 2014

We Really Need this Decided.

Two men who live in Texas fell in love.  They wanted to marry there but couldn't as the law prohibited it.  So they traveled to Washington DC and married, returning home to celebrate with family and friends.  They are legally married and have the documents and all to prove it.  So, like many young married couples they wanted to have a family.  So they used modern science and the help of a surrogate to have two babies.  The process sounds more complicated than it is.  Each of these men contributed sperm, using donor eggs two zygotes were formed, one from each male contributor.  They were then implanted in a surrogate who carried the babies to term.  The surrogate, from my understanding, is not the genetic parent of either child.  So the babies are born and while it is common for married couples to have both their names on the birth certificate and be able to simply adopt a spouses biological child that was blocked by a judge in their home state of Texas.  The birth mother's name is on the birth certificate and the two men have their children but no legal documentation of it.  Simply because they are gay.

What happened during the time the two babies were bring brought into this world, the federal court deemed the Texas law banning gay marriage as unconstitutional.  An immediate stay means Texas still doesn't perform gay marriages nor recognizes them from other states until this winds its way through the courts.  Right wing judges, like in this case, are trying to avoid setting an precedent in the hopes that Texas can remain free of gay marriage.  So two men, married legally and their two children suffer.

What is wrong here?  It is clear that marriage will not be limited to a man and woman in the near future.  Both societal pressure and legal rulings will make it certain that gay couples will be able to be married and recognized for it throughout the union.  While marriage is a state issue, state laws can't trump the US Constitution and there are many federal judges who are seeing that these laws are in violation of rights there in.

I understand there will be objections.  First from religious people who deem homosexuality a sin.  While various interpretations of the scriptures used have modified the absolutist position of the holy texts used, there is certainly an argument that it is a sin and those religions should be allowed to have and even share those beliefs.  But not to the point where they force those beliefs on others.  No one should or is suggesting that the government should force churches to marry and bless unions of any kind that they don't approve of in doctrine.  I personally would fight for any faith tradition that is being attacked by the government.  But those religious doctrine should not stop the government or even other faiths from blessing marriages between two people of the same sex.  A good analogy is that for my people pork is considered forbidden.  It violates Biblical laws of Kashrut.  It is not ambiguous in the Bible (I would argue that prohibition of homosexuality is in the Hebrew Bible but that is a different post). But Jews aren't running around trying to close BBQ places and Butcher Shops.  In fact there is a clear distinction that these rules of eating apply to us, not someone not of the faith or culture.  That is true of many religious laws that Jews follow.  Why should a minority of people who find homosexuality a sin be allowed to use the government to enforce them on others.

Now some argue that with the opening of society to gay marriage they will be forced to participate if they are in a wedding related business and of course they cite examples of bakers who discriminated against a gay couple and others.  But here is the thing.  Your faith does not allow you to trump local and federal laws.  Time and again laws have been put in place that protect the rights of the minority.  If you are in a business that your personal beliefs might be violated by anti-discrimination laws then you can choose to not be open to the public or find another business.  This is true if your beliefs don't allow to be comfortable with gay people marrying each other or races mixing or people who carry guns.  Local laws may require any business open to the public to serve all people within reason.  If you choose to have a business that is open to the public you should figure you are going to serve people who violate your faith's tenets.  People like the bakers often cited didn't seem to have a problem with supplying cakes for second marriages and marriages of people who lived together first.  This seemed to be a specific attack on a gay couple.  That is morally wrong and where they lived it was legally wrong. Though let's be clear it was not criminal.  Damages had to be sought in a civil court system.  Recently there was a bit of thing here in Indy were a popular summer spot was hosting a party and a security guard told a person wanting to join the there were too many black people inside so he was stopping more from entering.  This was seen as universally wrong by people who commented on this story to me.  Why should that same feeling not extend to gay couples who want a cake or other service?

Now the other major factor when it comes to gay marriage is the so-called "ick" factor.  This is where people don't want their government to condone it because they don't like the thought of it, often citing their own children.  Some how a gay couple walking hand-in-hand in public or getting married forces some people to talk about sex to their two-year old but a straight couple not so much.  That seems to be the argument because if government endorses gay marriage then kids will see more gay people openly. I don't understand this argument at all.  Plenty of people think tattoos on women are a sign of lower class.  There is an "ick" factor for them.  You can just check out comments on some Twitter or Facebook feeds.  I have two lovely friends who are sharing their summer bodies on Facebook, and well their ink is not normally as on display in their walking around world.  Some have commented that they think it looks trashy.  (I find it as an amazing form of art).  But in no way is there a movement to outlaw women getting tattoos.  Why?  Because it would be seen as mind-numbingly stupid.  Women have the right to get said tattoos even if you don't like it.  And yes you may have to explain to your child at the beach why that women has writing on her side going into her bathing suit or what that large eagle is doing on another's thigh.  But that is part of parenting.  The world will always be a dynamic place and you should face up to it and be prepared for it.  Two married gay people or tattooed women can't be harder to explain than why someone would kidnap 300 girls in Africa, 3 teens in Israel, or fly planes into large buildings.  I think this is a useless argument and one that should be ridiculed often.

Gay people, like straight people, like Bi people like Asexual people love.  Sometimes they fall in love and sometimes they want to build a life together.  The government shouldn't stand in the way of that.  That Texas judge is not supporting a position that makes sense and will likely be laughed at by the next generation.  I think it is time to no longer be silent.  I think we should force the hand of our representatives and others to do what is right.  Let's have a nation wide dedicated effort to allow those who want to build a family together not be barred from it by the sex of their partner.  This is real for many people and it is something that is just about what is right.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day and Memories

Memorial Day will always be the day we buried my father.  In 1978, when the parade was going through town, we stood at the end of the city, along the lonely highway, and watched as his casket was lowered into the ground.  A man, too young to be dead, had lived a life of dense experiences.  His childhood was marked by the Great Depression and when the United States called he joined the ranks of those who fought, first Europe,  then was on a ship to invade Japan, and later served in Korea, where he was injured and spent a while as a guest of the North Koreans and Chinese as a POW.  Decorated and a career man he stayed in the service of his country until after I was born, being discharged in 1966.  But what was important to me was the little things, teaching me about baseball and playing with us as much as he could.  Teaching me to fish and showing me how to gut and fillet our catch.   He also showed me what is right and wrong, not always in the most enlightened way, but my dad saw a clear line between right and wrong and made sure we knew it.  What I have of my father is the stories.  Some he told me, some I learned from family and some from my own research into his life.  It was last year I learned he had ancestors who were French Canadian who lived in Upper Canada.  I learned from my mom that my dad was on someone who wasn't the perfect soldier as I discovered his rank bounced around a little in his military records.  I learned from finding my own hoarded papers how much he cared about my education growing up as he wrote a note on my old elementary school report cards.  Those story bounce around my head and I tell them to Noah.  It helps him influence the grandson he never met.

Memorial Day is a holiday that is dedicated to those who died fighting for our country.  When my dad died it was more than 10 years since he was in active duty.  But I have always believed that his military career contributed to his early death so it was fitting that on the day we honor those that gave their all, we said our last goodbye.

I, and a few of my friends, grew up without fathers.  I am not sure how different we would be if they had lived and frankly I am not sure it worth a lot of energy thinking about it.  But what I do know is that I have taken from him a good bit that is part of me and for that I am thankful.  So this weekend I will remember him, more than a fallen soldier and perhaps that is how we should remember that for all those we remember today.  They are more than their service to the country and someone is missing them today.  Perhaps we should ask for them to tell their stories.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Tortured Concept of Free Speech


Recent events have reinvigorated the calls that our free speech is being destroyed.  Clivin Bundy, the rancher who has been refusing to pay grazing fees, was caught on tape in a rant with racist language.  Then came Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers and his infamous recorded phone call where he tells his girlfriend she can have all kinds of relationships with minorities just not to publicly display them.  It was quite a week but what do really mean when we say free speech? 

There is a natural right to believe what you want and to let people know.  That is clearly something that predates the various legal protections of that right like the Bill of Rights in England and of course the 1st amendment.  But freedom to say something is not the same as freedom of consequences.  There seems to be a strange thing however, people seem to want the ability to exercise their right but not have anyone comment on it or cause consequences. 

I am a strong advocate of the 1st amendment that protects us from legal consequences for stating our ideas.  I can say anything publicly that is opinion and no law can make that illegal.  (technically there are some cases where laws violate the 1st in my opinion)  This concept is difficult for me some times, for example, it is not a crime for the God Hates Fag Church to stand outside my building and protest.  We might want to have them arrested but that just makes it harder for us to voice our opinions if the government can pick who can speak.  We don’t always agree with the government.  But their protest does not need to go unchallenged. 

Protesters of every stripe all have the right to say what they say, and I would like to see everywhere in the world that they are protected from government intervention and arrest.  Saying something bad about the king, president, government or produce shouldn't be a crime.  (BTW free speech advocates should be really upset about certain states having laws where you can't disparage certain food items). 

When it comes to the results of recent events, people have been screaming about thought police.  There are no thought police in this country.   No one I know has advocated that either Bundy or Sterling be arrested for their words.  But let's take Bundy.  He was a classic example of a person that drew on the liberal/Conservative divide.  For some he was standing up to the tyranny of government over-reach (even though it was Ronald Reagan that was the over-reacher by executive order about grazing fees).  The right rallied around him and the left thought the right rallying was insane.  Which it really was, this was not a worthy expression of their anxiety.  When the racist diatribe was released, it poured gasoline on the fire of the debate but what happened, many on the right that totally stood with him abandoned him immediately.  Why?  Because his words were so offensive that they didn't want to be splashed with the filth that was being spewed.  (Though some on the right stood by him and tried to explain how what he said wasn't racist).  Those abandoning him did not diminish his right to say what he said.  It just means he will have fewer champions. 

Now Sterling is more complicated as he is a more complicated man.  He is both a champion of minorities and someone who has been fined for discrimination in housing.  He is someone who has befriended African-Americans in some significant relationships, including a lover, and yet said foul things about individuals on his team and of course the recorded phone call.  He was known as a horrible person for years, you can find articles dating back 10 years about his racist views and yet it was not as cut and dried as now.  The NBA decided to go nuclear on him, fine him the maximum, suspend him from the NBA for life and convene a meeting of owners to force him to sell the team. NBA has the right to say he can't play in their sandbox and that is not a violation of his free speech.  Yet again we hear the cries of suppression of free speech and of course also attacking his girl friend as a criminal for taping him. 

Speech comes with consequences.  Be it businessmen, elected officials, clergy or the guy or sweeps the school.  A CEO with an opinion about gays that flies in the face of most of their customers will be fired, an elected official who calls for the death of a fellow member of Congress could be sanctioned and in a perfect world lose in the next election, a clergy person who openly defies a tenet of their faith could be let go by their congregation or in some cases defrocked by the hierarchy and the janitor in a school who used school emails to promote a position on legalizing drugs can be fired.   All of those people are exercising the freedom of thought and speech and all suffer natural consequences for it.   That is not to say that we can’t call any and all of those things wrong.  That would include Sterling’s punishment.  But what is not correct is that some how we are destroying a freedom. 

There will always be consequences for speech in a free society because the same freedom that allows you to say something is the one that allows others to react to it.  It isn't thought police, it is society setting a public standard. 

If Sterling or Bundy who I both find offensive were to be arrested for their words I would fight hard to make sure they are released.  But until then they have the right to think and say what they will, and we all have the right to hold them accountable.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

And the Youth Shall See Visions

It is 4:30pm on Sunday and I am sitting in my office waiting for the start of a special program.  Tonight kids from around the city will be coming to Beth-El Zedeck for an awards night.  Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and those of no faith will celebrate the work they did over the last several months to put on and promote the Kenya Carnival.  The Kenya Carnival is a fundraiser and awareness raiser for the orphans and vulnerable children in Western Kenya and part of the Global Interfaith Partnership.  Students here in Indiana attempt to raise money to help students get the tuition they need for secondary schools education which is only partly funded by the government in Kenya.  Their efforts help fund education which is the greatest gift we can give the children of Kenya to help build their communities ravaged by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and colonial destruction.  It is also meant to create an understand of the plight of these young children, many without any parents, who struggle day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour to get basic necessities that we all take for granted.  It is a remarkable undertaking and one that I think could easily be seen as highly valuable in and of itself.

But what I find remarkable is the ancillary benefit for the youth here in Indiana.  I know I have harped on this before but one of the values we hold so dear is the multi-faith  aspect of what we do.  So often these kinds of things that we do are a great deal of lip service.  We struggle to find the time to truly invest in learning about the other.  We sometimes go to a lecture, a program, a celebration.  But more often than not we are merely tourists observing someone else, often a stranger, in their own situation.  Like going to Israel and standing in the back of a church during a mass, or getting yelled at by the nuns at the Church of the Nativity for not being serious enough.  Even worse is the zoo model, where we watch others in their faith practices as if we want to see them in their "natural habitat". But these kids who work side-by-side for a good cause have made a great deal of effort to get to know the stranger in their midst.  They have learned to pray together as one group, not leaving others out.  They have balanced the notion of sacred time and sacred space, understand we don't all operate on the same clock.  They have found a way to deepen their own faith while learning from their friends of another faith.  Never explicitly teaching faith but living it and by doing so allowing others to learn about it.

Interfaith work, what I tend to call multi-faith, is a valuable effort in our ever more diverse society where faith is becoming more personal and faith traditions and religions seem to sprout more and more branches each year.  But too often we strive to learn about the faith and not the people of faith.  The Global Interfaith Partnership and the Kenya Carnival is about people.  People learning about people who motivated by faith strive to make a small corner of Kenya a better place for the youth who live there.  And in doing so get to expand their own vision of the universe that gets a little bigger with every new friend we make.

If you get a chance to help with this by visiting http://www.globalinterfaithpartnership.org/ and making a donation, reading our story or getting on the mailing list know that you are supporting a powerful life changing program.  Not only for the people who are benefiting for the food and education we provide, but those who here in the United States get to meet someone they may never normally meet, and learning that there is more to the world than they thought.  And isn't that the greatest gift you can give.