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.   

A Tale of Two Scandals

While anyone who knows me knows I feel the Republican party has many problems and it is in fact ready to die a painful death at the hands o...