Lots of people have been feeling down lately. Maybe their team lost a big game in a stunning upset, or the news coming out of DC has got them down. Instead of the regular blog post, this week I offer you a short video that I hope will make you smile and forget your troubles for a moment. I invite you to take a walk in the woods with my dog, Banjo. In his world, there is nothing better than a walk in the forest on a sunny day.
It was too late when I realized that the suit I’d chosen to wear had a hole in the bottom of the left pocket rendering the pocket useless. I only own 3 suits and they’re all several years old and coordinated with the pair of brown wing-tip dress shoes that constitute my only pair of dress shoes. I’d already discarded one dress shirt as being too threadbare which cost me time and I’d spent a lot of time trying to find the new tie I wanted to wear that suddenly went missing after being in my hand. I eventually located the new tie hiding out in my sock drawer with no idea how it got there. My wife was handing me a collection of things she wanted me to carry since she had no pockets at all. Her cell phone, a lipstick, her ID in a little plastic case, her keys,… it turned out to be a lot of stuff. I struggled to find places for all the items. My working pocket bulged and I feared that I would soon have no working pockets at all. I also wondered when my wife decided that my role in life was to be a pack mule?
We were headed to the Florida Supreme Court for a ceremony in which I was one of couple dozen lawyers who were being honored for our pro bono work. Thanks to a nomination by Legal Services of North Florida, I was to receive the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award for the Second Judicial Circuit. The entire Florida Supreme Court, less one Justice who was recovering from surgery, would be there along with the president of the Florida Bar. This was my first time inside the Florida Supreme Court and one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received. My close friend, James Cook, who is one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known, won the award last year, and the list of previous recipients included the names of several other friends and noted lawyers for whom I have great respect and admiration.
The award ceremony was very nice. It was dignified without being stale. The presentation of awards to deserving recipients was punctuated by heartfelt sincere speeches on the importance of pro bono work that held my attention without going on too long or becoming too preachy. I sat with the other award recipients on cushioned benches inside the well, the area between the railing that separates the spectators’ gallery and the bench where the Judges sit. When the time came for me to receive my award, they called my name and I walked to the podium where I was presented with a large certificate by the Florida Bar president. He said some nice words to me, and then shook my hand while a photographer took our photo. As I posed for the photographer I could see my wife, Barbara, camera in hand, directly behind him. As previously instructed by the organizers, I went and stood in front of the bench where the Supreme Court Justices were sitting and waited while they presented the other awards. I breathed a sigh of relief that I managed to get through the process without stumbling or forgetting to zip up my pants.
After the ceremony, there was a photo session with all the award recipients that made me feel a bit like a rock star. There were big complex looking cameras wielded by serious looking photographers. There was Barbara too, with my little Olympus, making sure she documented the experience for me. When everyone was done taking pictures, I joined the crowd of guests in the rotunda area where an incredible reception awaited. I was especially delighted to see that had those little spanakopita bites that are a favorite of mine. Barbara was waiting for me there and proudly introduced me to a gentleman from St. Petersburg, Florida as her award-winning husband.
Later that night, when the festivities were finished and the routine quiet of our lives had once again returned, I thought about the experience of winning this award. It occurred me that the pro bono cases for which I was honored weren’t only my sacrifice. In every single one of those cases, my wife Barbara, was by my side every single step of the way. She proofread pleadings, helped me strategize, attended Court hearings with me, encouraged me when I was discouraged. It’s important to note that although they give you awards for the cases you win, there were other pro bono cases we’ve done that we didn’t win, yet she was always there right by my side. Losing for me is devastating, but she helps me pick myself up every time. She could have objected to my pro bono work since it takes me away from the money-making cases that we depend upon and there have been many times when we’ve had to pinch pennies to get through. Contrary to what the insurance companies and their paid-for politicians tell you, the vast majority of trial lawyers are not millionaires. Most of us live precarious lives, investing our own money while taking on other people’s causes as our own, hoping for a fair judge or jury and the skill to navigate the procedural hurtles required to be allowed to tell our clients’ stories. Such a life wouldn’t be possible for me without the unwavering support of my wife, Barbara, who remains confident in me even when I start to doubt myself.
It occurred to me again on Saturday as I marched through the streets of Tallahassee for Women’s Rights in the rain, one person among a crowd of 14,000, how much I owe in my life to the women who have been part of it. My wife, mother, mother-in-law, step-mother, sister-in-law, nieces, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, nurses, doctors, classmates, clients who trust me to be their lawyer,…the list is endless. So much of my passion for justice on behalf of working-class families comes from growing up in a female-led single parent home. I’ve witnessed the struggles of the women in my life for equality and justice, and I know that while education and economic well-being provide some protection for women, the inequality never completely goes away. I also know that I wouldn’t be who I am today, or able to do the things I’m able to do today, without the many women who have given me their love and support throughout my life.
I didn’t get to give a speech at the award ceremony, which was probably a good thing. I don’t think that I could compete with the great words that were offered. However, I do want to say something, and that’s thank you to my wife and all the other women who have supported me, trusted me, and helped me to pursue my dreams. Words simply cannot express my respect and adoration for you all.
I have a problem that’s pulling my focus away from work and decreasing my enjoyment of life. It has led me into non-productive arguments on Facebook and is causing me to avoid people. This problem has me rethinking whether or not I want continue to live in the United States, whether or I want to continue to practice law, whether I want to leave the State of Florida, and whether or not I want to disown some of my relatives.
My problem is a growing sense of anger and disgust with Donald Trump, the people who support him, and our current political situation. This is contrary to how I want to live my life. I believe in tolerance, civil discourse, giving people a chance, forgiveness, and diversity in the broadest sense of the word, but I’m failing to live up to my ideals as the anger and disgust I feel grows each time I see a news article about Donald Trump’s latest tweet or press conference. I feel like I’m living through a dystopian nightmare. I am constantly reminding myself that it’s not my job to judge other people, it’s not my job to tell anyone how to think, and that the only person in this world over whom I have any control over is me.
Donald Trump is merely the symbol of a democracy that I’m rapidly losing respect for and faith in. I understand that some people don’t care for Hillary Clinton, but there were several ethical and qualified Republican and Democratic candidates from whom we could have chosen. That a human being as ill-equipped, divisive, and offensive as Donald Trump would win the contest for the presidency, while losing the popular vote by millions, is appalling to me. As the evidence mounts of Russian interference, Trump’s possible collaboration with the
Putin government makes this seem even less like an election and more like a military coup orchestrated by a foreign government designed to destabilize my country. That Trump continues to refuse to disclose or divest himself from his business conflicts of interest while denouncing our own intelligence agencies and cozying up to Putin makes me even more suspicious that Trump is far less than loyal to our nation. Trump will likely ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives in defense of our country, and yet he is completely unwilling to undertake any personal sacrifice for the good of our nation. It’s simply appalling.
Under normal circumstances, Mr. Trump would be counter-balanced by the other branches of government, but that seems less likely these days. Statesmanship is lost in our current partisan system where the well-being of the nation is secondary to party loyalty. Gerrymandering to ensure party control and to remove the accountability of elected representatives to the voters has given us State and Federal governments that are increasingly Republican dominated. As voters, we ignore this and never question why, for instance, Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet our government is so Republican dominated that there is virtually no Democratic voice in our state government. We now see this happening at the Federal level as well.
I’m disgusted by the Republican refusal to honor the will of the voters on those increasingly rare occasions when a Democrat can win an election. Republicans in Congress did all they could to prevent President Obama from being able to make progress on the issues voters twice elected him to address. Republicans stood by and tacitly condoned and exploited what were too often racist and bigoted attacks on President Obama, even calling into question his birth and religion. Most egregiously, they refused to even consider his nominee for Supreme Court Justice, a moderate who was well qualified for the appointment.
Refusal to allow elected Democrats to govern is not limited to our Federal government. Compromise is gone. Obstructionism at all costs is now part of the Republican play book. The North Carolina legislature, a Republican dominated body, passed laws, signed by the outgoing defeated Republican governor, restricting the powers of the governor’s office upon the election of Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Fortunately, this effort was blocked by the Courts on constitutional grounds, but I doubt that the North Carolina legislature will slow down one bit in their efforts to make him as ineffective as possible. I don’t think we’re even close to seeing the end of this. The Republican mantra of the day seems to be “the will of the voters be dammed, party above all else”.
The costs of this partisan anger hardly seem to matter to anyone. We’re now seeing both Trump and Congress rushing full-speed into a repeal of the Affordable Care Act regardless of the consequences on vulnerable Americans or the healthcare institutions that serve our communities. We hear nothing substantive about what comes after the repeal other than one of Trump’s bullshit promises that it’ll be great and we’ll love it. Do I even need
to mention that mother-of-all government boondoggles, Trump’s promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which we are now being told we have to pay for out of our tax dollars that are too limited to pay for good schools, good infrastructure, or health care.
This is not to say that I give the Democrats a pass on our current situation. For too long Democrats have been nothing more than “Republican-light”. The DNC has ignored the strong populist support for candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while backing establishment candidates who offer little in the way of meaningful change. Hillary Clinton might have been a historic candidate by virtue of her gender, but her policy ideas rarely drifted far from the safe mainline script of business-as-usual. Locally, I would point to Bill Montford and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who were both elected as Democrats. Vasalinda, who left office in November, left the Democratic party and declared her support of Trump in the recent election. Perhaps her move is more honest than Montford, who promotes a good-ole-boy persona while accepting massive campaign donations from corporate special interest groups and is more of a closet Republican than a progressive Democrat. Montford has remained almost silent about the economic well-being of people in Florida while voting in support of anti-consumer measures such as legislation that carved out exemptions for dishonest car dealers and restricted the ability of injured individuals and families to sue dishonest dealerships under Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
This partisanship and vile political discourse are paralyzing our government and creating very hostile divisions among us. I recently had dinner with a relative whose eyes burned with fury as she parroted fake news stories to denigrate all Democrats, including me and friends of hers. Her anger seemed to obliterate all the good memories and acts of kindness in those relationships. Many of us seem to be falling prey to this anger and hostility. Several people on different ends of the political spectrum have told me that they are withdrawing from social groups to avoid dealing with the growing political anger. For the first time in 16 years, I’m contemplating not going to Sun-n-Fun because I simply don’t want to hear the political discussions and opinions that sometimes get shared there. I should be better than this, but it’s difficult. Facebook has become a loathsome place to visit due to the never-ending feed of people sharing angry political posts and fake news stories that do nothing other than feed the growing anger. I’m tired and worn out by all this, but I don’t see it ending. I see us going down the very dark road of fascism and it’s a journey that I really don’t want to take.
Last week my wife came in from a walk around the neighborhood. She was all excited and wanted me to come with her to look at a giant hole the city people had dug in the middle of the road in our development. Being the kind and thoughtful spouse that I am, while I also knowing that resistance is futile, I put on my coat and went with her.
Now I must admit, what she showed me wasn’t exactly your ordinary run-of-the-mill hole in the road. This thing was pretty darn impressive. It was as wide as the two-lane road, and twice as long. However, its most impressive characteristic was its depth. I’ll bet it went down 25 feet. Let me tell you, looking down into a 25 foot deep muddy hole is pretty neat.
My wife then explained to me that the hole was dug in order to repair the broken sewer line. Apparently, she had interrogated one of the workers who was standing around looking into the hole. I concluded that the interrogation had been rather thorough since she knew when the hole was dug, who dug it, why they dug it, that they had severed the power line while digging the hole, who was down in the hole, and that they would have the hole filled in by morning.
As we were walking back to the house, discussing some of the big holes we’ve encountered in our lives, my wife commented that she’d like to see what I would write in my blog about the hole. I told her that I would think about it, but wasn’t sure what one can write about big temporary sewer holes.
Actually, as I thought about the issue I came to realize there’s a lot to say about sewer holes. Consider that, of all the issues of importance to society, sewage is quite possibly one of the least controversial. I mean, you never hear the conservatives complain about those darn liberals and their public sewer systems. Sewage crosses political boundaries and sewers are used equally by both Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and even Libertarians. You never hear of a government bureaucrat pledging to remove the fiscal waste of waste removal. Yes, we all like sewers, and my guess is that most of us would immediately petition the government if our sewers were to stop working.
When I was working as a nurse I got to see some really impressive technological advances in healthcare, but no modern invention has probably prevented more death and disease than the modern sewage system. Indeed, I would imagine the typical American city would be inhabitable without the big stinky pipes running under our streets. Yes, sewers are quite possible the strongest connectors we have in our modern society, they provide a hidden but indispensable connection between us all. So when it seems like it’s impossible to find common ground with someone, just remember, they probably share your interest in modern sewer system, so don’t hesitate to find a big hole to share with him or her.
“Don’t you miss Christmas?” people often ask me when they find out that I grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas. I can see in their eyes that opting out of Santa Claus, decorative lights, gift giving, Christmas trees, and egg nog is an unimaginable hardship in their minds. To not love Christmas is to be heartless and greedy. If you’re like me and try to sit out the holiday, people will tell you “Don’t be a Scrooge, get with the Christmas spirit!”
Being Jewish gives me an easy out of Christmas that allows some degree of forgiveness, even if the understanding of this eludes many people. However, my Jewish beliefs do not give me a complete pass on the holiday either. After all, I have many close family members and friends who celebrate the Christmas holiday. Soon after I became Jewish, I spoke with a Rabbi about what is an appropriate level of participation in the holiday and he reminded me that we are to honor our parents. We discussed this and concluded that I should do what I can not to diminish others’ joy in the holiday, while also setting some appropriate boundaries for myself.
Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought as to what those boundaries should be and why. Some boundaries are easy. For example, I don’t participate in the religious aspects of Christmas, no candle-light services or anything like that. My family is not really religious and few are church members, so this issue rarely arises.
The more difficult part of the Christmas holiday for me is the gift giving, which I find very burdensome and which I do my best to avoid. Trying to select an appropriate gift when facing all the holiday marketing and an endless repeat of Christmas tunes makes me want to crawl into a fetal ball underneath my bed. Understand, I love giving people gifts when I see something that I know will be valued. I give a lot of spontaneous gifts to people based upon inspiration i.e.: I saw this and thought you would really like it.
Christmas shopping though is nightmarish to me. I hate going shopping when the stores are crowded and it goes against my nature to buy items that I know are going to be severely discounted the day after Christmas. The blatant commercialism leaves me feeling very empty and uninspired.
This year I think I found a good solution. I knew my Mother needed new glasses, so I offered to purchase those for her. I think it was a win-win for both of us. She got the new glasses that she’s been needing, and I feel like I’ve done something that’s truly made her life better.
I really dislike the Santa Claus myth that good boys and girls are showered with presents. I see it as a cruel story for poor children who, like me, saw other more fortunate children, or the children of spend thrift parents, showered with presents. I wonder how many children who go without or with very little on Christmas and who are told the Santa Claus story wake up on Christmas morning and leave the tree wondering what sins they may have committed to make Santa pass them over and why the more affluent children are morally superior? As I got older I saw the pressure this put on parents to shower their children with gifts of toys and extravagances that would leave the family saddled with debts far longer than the momentary joy the child experienced when opening the gift. Even worse, was the guilt and loss of self-esteem I saw in the adults around me who couldn’t afford to shower their children, family members, and friends with gifts.
Beyond the financial hardship, Christmas gift giving so often seems to be equated to an expression of the love that exits between the giver and recipient. It seems to me that many gifts are given with great concern that the message of love will be lost if the gift is inexpensive or somehow falls short in the eyes of the recipient. Surely love that is real isn’t dependent upon trinkets or conspicuous consumption.
The world is what it is and I am who I am. Maybe I really am a modern derivation on the Scrooge character? I hope that, despite my own reluctance to participate in cultural rituals that don’t work for me, that in the past year I’ve been able to brighten your world a bit or inspire a thought or an idea that’s made your life better.
I’ve never forgotten one night, when I was 15 years old, and I crawled into bed. I put my feet under the covers, and then I felt a mouse run up the side of my body. It emerged from under the blankets and with lightning quickness it scampered onto the floor, and out of my room through a round hole in the floor. It left me with a massive dose of adrenaline preparing me to fight or flee, despite the fact that catching or fighting the mouse was hopeless and there was nowhere I could flee for safety.
At that moment, my sense of self changed. A new identity burned into me, one that’s never left and probably never will. I was poor. I came from a poor family, and any illusion to the contrary was forever shattered. I lived in a house in a bad neighborhood that lacked heating or air conditioning. A house where rodents roamed freely. What people today call “food insecurity” was a part of our daily lives, although I’d never heard the term and wouldn’t for nearly 20 years. For me, it meant eating a lot of spaghetti and when that was gone making due with popcorn for dinner, wondering if tomorrow there would even be popcorn.
My life hadn’t always been like that. Just a few years earlier I lived in a comfortable house in upstate New York that my great-grandfather had bought nearly 80 years earlier and balanced meals arrived on the table every night. Then, my grandfather died, and my grandmother began a five-year decline that led to her death, leaving behind massive hospital and medical bills. The house was sold and we left the small town where my family had lived for more than 150 years. We went south to Florida looking for a better future. The 1970’s hit upstate New York hard, factories closed, and my mother, burdened by taking care of her mother, missed a lot of days of work and became unemployed in a time and place where employment opportunities were close to nonexistent. Tired of cold weather, unable to find work, and desiring to flee the disappointments of her life, she packed my brother and me into her Ford Mustang, and like so many others, we left the rust belt for the sun belt.
Florida was not the promised land we hoped to find. The wages were low, we were completely on our own, and my mother became less functional as the burdens of raising two teenaged boys overwhelmed her coping skills. She used the remaining money we had from the sale of the New York house to buy a mobile home that was repossessed within a year. A friend she met in a bar offered to rent her the dilapidated home we lived in until I left school.
Growing up, I was taught that if you were honest and hardworking you would be rewarded with a comfortable life. This was the unquestioned promise of America that I had been hearing my entire life. To be poor was to be immoral and lazy, and with that realization came a profound sense of shame that left me wondering what had I done in my 15 years that had stripped me of my morality and industriousness?
It’s been 35 years since I’ve had a mouse in my bed. Once again, I live in a nice house, my diet is only limited by healthy eating, and I have all the trappings of at least a middle class, if not an upper middle class life. I’m one of the few who made it, and I do mean few. I was born intelligent and my early childhood gave me a stability and insight that, along with a lot of luck and assistance from others, would help me recover from my family’s misfortune.
My family, and many of our friends and neighbors, haven’t done as well. My mother is now retired, has no pension other than Social Security, and spends her days alone in her small apartment watching television and dreaming of her high school days. When I can coax her out for lunch or dinner, she often spends much of our time reminiscing about her childhood and talking to me about people whom she hasn’t seen in years and whom I’ve never met. My younger brother left my life several years ago, in a furious torrent of anger he’s carried for far too long, but that I don’t know how to help him with and that I fear will never leave him. As far as I know, my mother is the only relative with whom he has any contact.
To be poor in America is the live on the outside, to be judged as the cause of your own misery. The judgments are predictable and all are shaming: If only you didn’t: take so many sick days, waste your money, drink/smoke so much, have cable TV, drop out of school, have so many kids, eat so much sugar, etc. The problem is, all these behaviors that the poor get judged for are so often the product of being poor in America.
The consequences of being poor in America are life limiting if not outright deadly. Of my family of origin, I’m the only one who still has my own teeth. Dental care wasn’t something my relatives could afford. Have you ever wondered why inexpensive denture companies tend to be found in poorer neighborhoods? It’s often much cheaper to have your teeth pulled than to pay the cost of fixing long-neglected dental problems. One friend from High School, got lucky with his dental care. A woman hit him while he rode an old motorcycle to and from work and he used the insurance money to save his teeth, but most aren’t that fortunate. It’s not just dental care; my relatives struggle to obtain basic healthcare. Even when they have insurance, the costs of co-pays add up quickly when you must visit your primary just to get a referral to a specialist who then wants to run tests, all requiring co-pays. Continuity of care is often nonexistent as insurance panels change or my relatives change jobs or experience unemployment. This lack of continuity destroys the trust necessary for a good physician-patient relationship resulting in people simply ignoring medical advice. So many of the poor people I knew growing up have become morbidly obese, not because they’re lazy gluttons, but because the inexpensive food available in our grocery stores and fast food restaurants is profoundly unhealthy.
Even education, something that should be a pathway to freedom, is full of pitfalls for poor families. Public schools in poor neighborhoods fuel the school-to-for profit prison pipeline. Student loan debt incurred to pay for over-priced trade-schools or fly-by-night private college educations that don’t lead to higher paying jobs leaves many with a lifetime of government sponsored debt for having tried to improve themselves.
The worst thing though, is the shame carried by America’s poor. Father Greg Boyle in his book Tatoos on the Heart describes it well:
“The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down.”
I get this on so many levels because to some degree even all these years later I still live with elements of this shame and likely always will. When I see a poor person, I see my own image. I see the shame that wounds the spirit of my friends and family. What I can’t see is how to cure it. One reason why I practice consumer rights law is because it gives me opportunities to restore dignity to those who carry the shame of their poverty. The law doesn’t favor poor people and in so many ways I feel it’s rigged against them. However, sometimes I’m able to take up a cause that for a moment restores dignity to my clients and I hope gives them the strength to carry their burdens a little more lightly as they go forth in their lives. When that happens, both client and lawyer are restored.
I’m going to tell you the secret to a happy life. It’s not the secret to an easy life or a prosperous life, only a happy life. The secret isn’t going to make you better looking, it won’t cure disease, and it won’t make you younger. The only thing it will do is help you find happiness.
Maybe it’s not a secret at all, but something that a lot of people already know. Some people appear to be born knowing it. Others of us, probably a majority, take years to figure it out. I suspect that a significant number never figure it out, which is a shame. Life is a short one-way journey.
Happiness requires nothing more than a sheet of paper, a pencil, and willingness to commit five minutes per day. The secret to happiness is the product of the work of psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. What he proposes is that every day you take a few minutes and write down three new things that you’re grateful for. Do this for 21 days, and he claims your happiness will increase.
A few years ago I saw a TED Talk with Shawn Achor on Youtube. I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and I thought what he proposed sound interesting, so I decided to try it. At the time, I was going through a lot of changes and my life seemed to have turned into a series of frustrating challenges that were getting less fun every day. I figured this couldn’t hurt, so I got a journal and every night before bed I wrote down three things that I was grateful for that happened during my day. The first couple days were challenging and I had a hard time coming up with things. After a few days, I started looking for and making note of good things that were happening so I could have something to write down when it came time to make my list for the day. This is really where the important change happened. I started paying attention to the good things and not just to the problems that demanded my attention. Nothing else in my life changed. I had as many problems and challenges as I did before, but they didn’t seem as all encompassing. The good things I was taking the time to notice were becoming bigger than the headaches and imperfections that are an inevitable part of our lives. My happiness increased.
I often think about this little experiment in my life and the lessons that I learned. First, gratitude is the foundation of happiness. No gratitude means no happiness. Also, we find what we expect in the world. If you expect misery, there is much to be found. On the other hand, if you seek good things, they’re there too, even in the most difficult of situations. It’s all about what we pay attention to and we can chose where we focus our attention.
On election night I posted a statement on facebook that said “I now know what January 30, 1933 was like.” This was a reference to the date when Adolf Hitler first came to power in Germany. Some people questioned my reasons for making the statement. This blog post gives more of the reasoning behind my concerns and feelings.
Are the implications of the recent election as bad as many are saying? I think the answer is that the implications are worse than most Americans have ever imagined. We are facing a social, political, and economic perfect storm that I truly believe has the potential to bring genocide to the United States.
While Donald Trump has certainly fanned and exploited the flames of discontent among rural white voters, he is hardly the cause of their distress. For more than a generation the American middle class, especially those who worked in manufacturing and are not college educated, have been losing ground and in the process losing hope and purpose. Meanwhile, there has also arisen a fetishistic gun culture that no longer sees firearms as hunting tools, but as symbols of power and security with a special focus on near military grade weaponry. This gun fetish has been reinforced and made more dangerous by those who claim a nonexistent constitutional right to resist governmental authority through armed rebellion shrouded in claims of patriotism.
This false idea of a right to armed resistance against our own government has permeated conservative culture and given rise to militia groups who are actively training for war against their fellow Americans. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Since 2008 antigovernment militias have grown rapidly in the United States and now number nearly 1,000 different groups that are armed, actively training, and just waiting for an excuse to start shooting people. It is only a matter of time until these groups find their cause for violence. Just days before the election we saw the jury trial and acquittal of armed members of the Bundy miliita who occupied federal lands at gun-point, and who had previously engaged in an armed show-down with federal agents who were trying to execute a judicial order. Thus, it appears that armed resistance to the rule of law in the United States has become acceptable.
For decades, the conservative call has been that America cannot reach it’s true potential due to liberals, democrats, immigrants and those who refuse to work, but want to rely upon government handouts. This message has morphed into an increasingly intolerant message of bigotry, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that captures all but the conservative white Christian community.
It was these emotions, insecurities, and prejudices that Donald Trump tapped into during a campaign that resembled more of a reality television show than a competition of ideas envisioned by the founding fathers. By insulting and humiliating the established politicians, by ignoring truth for the sake of maintaining a narrative, he mobilized the forgotten and angry in our nation.
To understand the full implications of this election, it is important to look beyond the presidency (Executive branch) and it impact upon the legislative and judicial branches. It is my impression that people often view the president as all powerful, while ignoring the greater power and authority given to the legislative branch. After all, it is the legislative branch that passes laws, determines the budget, raises and lowers taxes. The current election has delivered a government where the Presidency and the legislative branch (House and Senate) are Republican controlled. There is no Democratic majority anywhere in government to force compromise. Furthermore, with one vacant Supreme Court seat, and more expected, there is an expectation that the Supreme Court will be packed with young highly conservative Judges who will impact American jurisprudence for decades to come.
This is where the danger lies. No political party can deliver nirvana no matter how unrestrained it can operate. This is one reason dictatorships so easily slide into genocide, they need a scapegoat. Additionally, Donald Trump cannot possibly remedy the distress of the disappearing middle class and make good on his promise to return jobs to America. Granted, he might persuade some manufacturing operations to return to the United States, especially if he removes environmental protections and gives them a free tax ride, but that’s not going to create jobs because manufacturing, which is increasingly robotized, no longer creates many jobs.
This gets to the actual crisis that we’re facing and why things can go so badly. The threat to the American middle class is not foreign labor, it’s technology which is automating jobs out of existence at an ever-accelerating rate. We can see this in just about every industry: the website airline check-in that displaces the airline counter employee; the self-checkout at the store that
displaces the cashier; the device on the restaurant table that lets you order food that displaces wait staff; intelligent farm equipment that displaces agricultural workers; the ATM and bank websites that displace bank employees; and e-readers that displace printers and bookstores. The future for employment looks even more bleak as we watch the development of self-driving vehicles which will displace truck and taxi drivers. Technology is even being developed that will eventually lead to robotic surgery.
Understand, when jobs go the impact is much greater than loss of a paycheck. For working-class Americans jobs are identity, they give meaning and purpose to our lives. Employment provides opportunities for social engagement and create a sense of being valued. We often hear the phrase that we should be “a contributing member of society”, which means, securing employment. The identity of middle class American is that of a worker.
So, what happens when Trump is unable to deliver the nirvana that he has repeatedly promised in his campaign rhetoric? What happens when not only doesn’t he deliver, but things continue to get worse for the middle class? What then?
I think we saw the answer in the campaign, Trump will find a scapegoat to vilify. There will be a group, or number of groups who will be blamed for the unsolved problems. There will be no “the buck stops here”, instead it will be tried and true conservative refrain of “Everything will be great except for those people”, and the vilification will begin. We saw Trump go to this time and time again during the campaign as he vilified groups such as calling Mexicans rapists, denouncing a respected Federal Judge of Mexican heritage, he spoke of banning Muslim immigration, he mocked the disabled, he bragged about sexually assaulting women, and he ended his campaign with a profoundly antisemitic advertisement. Short of a Willie Horton ad, he left no stone of bigotry unturned. I have no reason to believe that he won’t repeat his xenophobic scapegoating when the going gets tough during his presidency, which will inevitably happen.
The increasing economic inequality, along with the vilification of whatever group is chosen by Trump and other Republican leaders, the proliferation of militias and military style weaponry, and the decline in the rule of law are setting the stage for a genocide that could be both massive in size and scope while also destroying the fabric and integrity of the nation for generations to come. It is only a matter of time before hateful rhetoric, anger, ineffective government, and access to weapons designed for killing people results in mass violence and social chaos. Moreover, there will be little government incentive to stop it because the excess population of displaced workers will have no economic value to the nation and the victims are likely to be political opponents of the oligarchy power structure.
I’m sure there are those who read this who will write me off as simply a disgruntled liberal. Maybe history will prove them right. I hope so. However, I would remind you that so many who died during the Holocaust did so believing such a thing was impossible in Germany, a nation with a strong history of rule of law, education, and philosophy. Like the United States today, Germany was faced with massive economic disruption and an ineffective government that was defined by strife rather than action. The German middle class was disappearing and the people chose a political outsider who appealed to prejudice and nationalistic patriotism. In the United States today, the stage has been set for a repeat of history and we can only hope it takes a different course. Of course, the future remains unwritten, but there are storm clouds brewing in our nation and the problem is, if we follow the path of history, there may not be time and opportunity to find a safe haven.
A reporter called me after I returned home from the final service on Rosh Hashanah. He asked me, as synagogue president, to comment on the plea agreement entered into by one of the suspects in the murder of Dan Markel. I was speechless. I knew nothing of the plea agreement or of the most recent developments in Tallahassee’s highest profile murder case. I’d spent the past two days inside the synagogue where Dan Markel used to bring his two young sons for Saturday morning services, so I missed the news. Gathering my wits, I told the reporter that I wasn’t aware of the plea agreement, so he told me about the plea and asked me to comment. “I didn’t really know Dan” I explained, which was true. Despite seeing him at synagogue services with his two sons on a regular basis we never connected, and the few times I tried to have conversations with him were utter failures. The phone call ended in what I’m sure was disappointment for the reporter. There wasn’t anything that I could add to the news story.
When I hung up the phone I was struck by the irony of this happening on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Although I barely knew him, it was apparent to me that Judaism was very important to Dan Markel. I remembered a time when Dan and Wendy came to the synagogue together with their two baby boys and how they appeared to be an ideal couple. I wondered what happened to bring such tragedy into their lives.
Although we never became close friends, I did know his ex-wife, Wendy Adelson, better than I knew Dan Markel. Wendy invited me to talk to her class at the law school about a case I worked on a few years ago regarding women’s rights to make medical decisions during their pregnancies. I found her to be quite gracious and not at all the elitist princess she’s been made out to be in the press. Whenever our paths crossed, as they inevitably do in a small town like Tallahassee, she would always greet me warmly, never once mentioning the divorce or troubles in her life.
I’ve become very ambivalent about reading the news stories revealing the latest developments in the case or finding out what happened. What is a sensational crime story to most of the world feels rather personal to me. The awfulness of the murder and the investigation into the most intimate details of the lives and actions of the suspects and people who were a part of my community is disturbing to me.
I wonder how many other struggles and dramas are happening to people in my world of which I’m not aware. If you look at the surface of my community things look pretty good for most families. You don’t see old broken down cars in our synagogue parking lot, people are dressed nicely, I don’t see suspicious bruises or wounds on people, and I’ve not seen any signs that people are going hungry. On Facebook, my friends post pictures of happy families, incredible meals, and awesome vacations. The illusion of perfect lives can be difficult to see past. Also, we must respect boundaries. People often go to great lengths to conceal the imperfections in their lives and would suffer great shame if their secrets became public.
I’ve been a nurse and an attorney too long to believe that what we see on the surface reflects the reality of people’s lives. I often say that the problems of the world are found sitting in the pews of every synagogue and church in the nation. Being part of a community doesn’t make one magically immune to making terrible mistakes, the difficulties of life, or the dangers of the world, but community can provide us with a place where we can find strength and share those challenges. Nor do we become immune to the problems of marital discord, addiction, mental illness, or any of the multitude of different forms of human dysfunction because we may come from a privileged background or have been blessed by exceptional talent or a brilliant intellect. Indeed, privilege can be a trap for some who come to believe that they cannot survive without it.
I wish that I could bring this blog post to some kind of wise conclusion where all this makes sense, but my thoughts aren’t there yet. Instead, I’m left with feelings of dismay and bewilderment, and a sense that this is a situation that no amount of punishment can repair. Maybe it doesn’t matter to me what the police and the Courts do to those involved in the murder. Nothing they do will restore life to Dan Markel. Nothing they do will bring back the father his two liitle boys lost, or the son his parent’s lost, or the brother his siblings lost. Contemplating this I recall a teaching in the Jewish religious tradition that says: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.”
Please note that what is written here is offered as a statement of my thoughts as a private citizen and not on behalf of the Tallahassee Jewish community or any entity other than myself.
Life has been busy lately and I’ve gotten behind on my blog posting. I’m currently working on a couple of posts that I’m sure you will enjoy. However, until I am able to finish those pieces, my friend, Howard, asked me to post a copy of my Kol Nidre talk at the synagogue where I am currently serving a term as president. I hope you enjoy it. Understand, this was written as a speech, not an essay, so there may be typos or grammatical errors in the text.
How would you respond if someone asked you the question “Why would you chose to be Jewish?”. It’s probably not a question you’ve been asked before, but it happens to me occasionally. See, my Mother is a Methodist and my Father is a long lapsed Baptist, which means that about 25 years I made a decision to be Jewish, something that can surprise people. Interestingly, people generally respond with one of two questions depending upon their background.
If I’m talking with a Christian, they always ask me. What about Christmas or what about bacon? That’s understandable, both Christmas and bacon can be pretty good.
However, if I’m speaking with another Jew, then the question is different. What do you think Jews ask? The answer is that they always as “Why would you want to be Jewish?”.
That we as Jews would ask each other “Why be Jewish?” is very interesting to me. I’m pretty confident that my Methodist relatives don’t ask newcomers to their Church why be Methodist. In their world, it just makes sense.
As puzzling as the question may be, it’s equally puzzling to me that that I never have felt like I’ve been able to articulate a truly honest answer either.
I usually respond by saying something like “I read some of the writings of the Rabbis and I was so moved that I wanted to learn more”, but let’s be honest, you don’t have to become Jewish to read or learn from the writings of the Rabbis. You can order all the books you want off Amazon and study to your hearts content.
I could say that, truthfully, that Judaism helps bring balance to my life, but it’s not necessary to be Jewish to live a balanced life. Indeed, sometimes my Jewish life feels pretty unbalanced. Besides, I think the Buddhists are really the experts when it comes to balanced living.
I could say what I was looking for community and found it in the Jewish people, but there are times when I’m pretty isolative and there are lots of communities out there to be part of, most of which don’t require you to go through a ritual circumcision to join.
So, why be Jewish? It’s not just my question. It’s the question that faces every one of us whether we are Jewish through birth or conversion. Indeed, in an age of declining synagogue membership, Why be Jewish may be the most important questions we can ask ourselves?
I often find guidance in the wisdom of the writings of Abraham Joshuah Heschel, so I went looking to see what Heschel has to say about why be Jewish? After all, Heschel knew something about the struggle to be Jewish. He barely escaped the Nazis, lost his mother and two sisters to the holocaust, and another sister to German bombs. Although ordained as an Orthodox Rabi he found himself at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary where he became a legendary scholar and theologian. Active in the civil rights movement, he marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma march.
Heschel wrote: “Never in my life did I ask G-d for success, or wisdom, or power, or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” Of religion he wrote: ““The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.” (God in Search of Man, p. 162) He sees wonder as an absolute necessity when he writes: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” Heschel’s writings on wonder also refer to it as “radical amazement” which he sees as a prerequisite of authentic awareness.
I wonder if people would accept the answer that the reason to be Jewish is the opportunity to live a life of awe and wonder? Thinking about my Jewish life, reflecting back on my experiences, I can say that Heschel might be onto something, provided I pay attention.
When I was a law student I lived in New York City. Every Saturday I would take the train to the upper west side, then walk a couple blocks to Congregation Ansche Chesed, then climb the stairs up 5 stories to a classroom to daven with a group of 20-30 people who made-up the West Side Minyan. The folks who attended this minyan were a diverse group, we ranged from students like to software developers, to several ordained Rabbis and faculty members at Jewish Theological Seminary. The leaders of the minyan were a group of women who who made sure the davening was top notch and that all who attended were welcome. Before I knew it they had me laining Torah and when Barbara visited she was invited to read the Haftarah which mention because it’s the only place where I’ve ever seen my wife intimidated by the davening level.
One day as we were finishing service and going through the announcements a woman in a very modest turquois dress with a scarf on her head stood and asked to speak. I didn’t really know her, but I was used to seeing her every week as she came in which her son and daughter. As I turned to look at her I could see an ashen look to her skin color, her muscles looked weak, as she didn’t seem to have any hair underneath the scarf on her head.
In a determined voice she addressed us all: “I saw my doctor this week and he says that my cancer treatment isn’t working. He doesn’t give me much time and I’m concerned because my daughter has her Bat Mitzvah coming up next year. My husband doesn’t care about this stuff and I’m worried that if I’m not here, she won’t become a Bat Mitzvah. I’m asking if you can please make sure she has a Bat Mitzvah if I’m not here.”
Watching the response of the women who led that minyan I knew that I was witnessing something very special and very sacred, maybe more sacred than the prayers and rituals we’d just finished performing, something that transcended even our own mortality. It might sound strange, but I felt honored to witness that moment. There was no doubt in my mind that her daughter would have the Bat Mitzvah. I knew, and I think she did too, that her community would keep its promise. And it did. I would love to tell you she was there for her daughter’s bat mitzvah, but the doctor’s prognosis was correct, she died a few months earlier, but I think Heschel was correct too. Watching that community make a dying mother’s dream come true will always be an experience of awe, wonder, and amazement to me.
I would add that on those rare occasions when I have had the opportunity to visit New York and make to Saturday morning services at West Side Minyan, I always see the daughter, now a young woman davening the prayers her mother passed on to her. In my eyes, that is wonder.
When I look around Congregation Shomrei Torah, I see wonder, awe, and radical amazement. I feel a sense of awe when I see people who, every month, not only go and feed the homeless, but they take time to see them and talk with them in a way that reaffirms their humanity. I am radically amazed as I see our members who I know have funded Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for children whose parents couldn’t afford it. I experience awe as I see people who provided Jewish burial for an indigent man without family and who regularly sit up late at night so that our dead are not left alone before burial. I am constantly amazed by our volunteer Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutors, not just for children, but for anyone who wants to learn. I am amazed by our community that made a decision that no child should ever be denied a Jewish education so they made their religion school free. I feel a sense of wonder when I remember how a couple years ago you stepped up and supported Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug treatment center, that helped a member of community who remains sober and employed to this day. I am in awe of the many small acts of kindness and chesed such as the member who came to my house in the middle in the night after I called him for help when I came in the door and unexpectedly found my 115-pound dog dead on the floor, or the see the faces of the parade of visitors I encountered when I went to visit a member who was in the hospital waiting for surgery just a few weeks ago. So many moments of wonder and awe.
But here’s the deal, to experience those moments of wonder and awe I had to something. I had to show-up and engage. Signing on facebook, sending an email, or even reading a book isn’t sufficient. I had to show up and engage despite that the fact that it wasn’t always easy, that people in synagogues aren’t always perfect and sometimes they gossip, sometimes they’re cliquish, and sometimes the services don’t inspire me, or I don’t agree with the sermon. To experience the moments of awe and wonder, I had to show up and engage.
It’s tradition that on Kol Nidre the synagogue President talks gives a talk encouraging monetary donations to the synagogue. Money is always needed and your donation are incredibly important to us, but we more than money, we need your engagement. We’re a small lay-led synagogue, nothing happens here that you guys don’t make happen, and the truth is, we’re running short on volunteers. So many of you have enjoyed the wonderful Shabbat dinners that come out of our kitchen, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to recruit people to help prepare those meals. A large number of our board members have served 3,4,5, or more terms and are planning to step down at the end of their terms, but they have no successors in place. I became your President, not because I came up through the ranks of the board, but because there was no one else who was willing to take the job. To secure our survival we need the next generation of leaders to step-up.
I want to clarify the relationship at Shomrei Torah between volunteer engagement and our finances. We are able to keep our dues low and to offer free religion school because of our volunteers. Fewer volunteers mean we either have to do less, or we have to hire people to make things happen, which means increasing our dues.
We have the benefit of a board that has done very well in providing a full service synagogue while keeping member dues among the lowest in the United States. Earlier this year I attended a training for synagogue Presidents run by United Synagogues and the other synagogue presidents were all amazed by what we are able to accomplish on a very small budget and no professional staff.
I’m not going to mislead you, we’re doing a lot of great things here at Shomrei Torah, and we have the potential to grow and be here for many years to come, but we also face some very real and imminent threats that we need your help to address.
We are very proud of our free religion school, but we recently had to increase our teacher salaries to ensure we paid our teachers fairly. This created a $7,000 deficit in our budget that we’ve temporarily offset with the funds from the office administrator position which is currently vacant. I am hoping that you will help us restore those funds by giving direct donations to the religion school so we can continue to pay our teachers and help the next generation see the awe, wonder, and radical amazement of a Jewish life.
In the past week so many of you have come to me and told me how much you enjoyed having Rabbi Shapiro with for Rosh Hashanah, so much so that we invited him back to be with us tonight and tomorrow. Although we’re a lay-led synagogue, we’re very proud of our Scholar in Residence weekends where we bring-in excellent Rabbis from all over the country for weekends of study and learning. If you’ve enjoyed Rabbi Shapiro, or any of our other Rabbis, please remember that these weekends take a lot of work from a lot volunteers and they are expensive. Not only do we have to pay the Rabbis an honorarium, we have to provide travel expenses, housing, food has to be purchased, meals have to be arranged and prepared, someone has to carry them from their hotel to the synagogue, the event has to advertised.
The list goes on, but I know that your attention isn’t limitless. I want you to know that what happens here at Congregation Shomrei Torah is important. We do more than just pass on tradition, we change lives and we create community. No other synagogue in our area offers the opportunities you will find in this building and in this community. We may not have the biggest building or the professional staff you will find in other places, but we can provide the warmest welcome, a more intimate community, and more opportunities to participate than any other synagogue that I know of.
Why be Jewish? I may not be able to articulate the answer perfectly, but if you show-up and engage, keep your eyes open, I know you’ll experience wonder, awe, and radical amazement and then you’ll know that your time and your financial investment in a Jewish life returns, as Heschel says, “A life worth living”.