Peace and Serenity Found In Opting Out of Christmas

“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.

I’m easily overwhelmed by the Holidays

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.

Trump and Putin – A Grave Constitutional Crisis

What could be the gravest political and constitutional crisis faced by the United States since the Civil War is emerging with the news that the Russian government tampered with the recent U.S. Presidential election for the purpose of aiding the Trump campaign.

The question in my mind is, what happens if evidence is discovered that strongly suggests that Donald Trump was the knowing beneficiary of Russian interference?  What if that evidence shows a coordinated effort between Putin and Trump to engage in criminal activity of email hacking in order to rig or influence the election in favor of Trump? The outcome of such a revelation, and the ensuing conflict, is almost unimaginable to me.  I am not certain that the United States as we know it today would survive such a scenario.

What's next on the chalk boardSadly, Trump does not seem to be at all concerned about the appearance of impropriety in his ascendency to the presidency.  He brushes that entire matter off as ridiculous and instead denigrates the intelligence community as being completely incompetent.  His responses raise my level of suspicion and concern even higher.

It is interesting to note that the founding fathers were concerned about other nations meddling in the elections and the political life of the United States.  This is one of the reasons the electoral college was created.  Consider the writings of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers 68 where he discusses the need for the electoral college as a protection against a hostile entity orchestrating the election of an incompetent person to the presidency.

“These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

Many states have neutered the independence of the electors by passing laws requiring that they vote in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote in the state.  My cursory review of the limited case law on these statutes leaves me with the impression that the Supreme Court hasn’t seen this as cause for concern.  After all, the electoral college in this day and time is regarded largely as a bizarre artifact whose design and purpose is a mystery to most of us.  Never, in our 240-year history, have we needed the electors to examine the soundness of the voters’ choice. However, we are now facing a situation where it is possible that the electors may need to act to prevent the very harm that concerned Hamilton i.e.: a foreign power controlling the American President.

Of course, there is an incentive for many Republicans to wait until after the electors cast their ballots to deal with this crisis.  Once Trump is in office the remedy changes to impeachment, such as what happened to Richard Nixon during Watergate (note the interesting parallels of criminal election activity in both the current crisis and the Watergate scandal).  Impeachment would remove Trump, but would put Pence into the White House and continue Republican control of the presidency.

The problem is finding a solution that preserves the integrity and confidence in the American presidency.  I believe that the electors should refuse to cast their votes until this matter is resolved, and if the evidence continues to show Russian interference with Trump being more than an innocent beneficiary, then they should refuse to cast their votes for him.

This crisis is bigger than political parties, it’s bigger than policy differences, bigger than the differences that have so recently caused a deep divide between so many Americans.  All eyes are going to be on us as we try to sort out this mess, separating truth from fiction, and determining a pathway forward.  Without great leadership and deep integrity, I fear that the loss of faith in our government will not be survivable for the nation.  Let us all hope that I am incorrect in my analysis.

The Unending Shame of Being Poor

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.

Our cupboards often looked like this.
Our cupboards often looked like this.

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.

America's poor routinely go without dental care.
America’s poor routinely go without dental care.

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.”

Father Gregory Boyle and me.
Father Gregory Boyle and me.

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.

 

 

A Lawyer’s Secret To A Happy Life

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.

Key to HappinessMaybe 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.Happy people's portraits

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.

United States Supreme Court – A Court Diminished

David Abrams in front of the US Supreme Court
David Abrams in front of the US Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court, once the most prestigious court in the world, has been reduced to a politically gerrymandered court by the Republican Senators’ refusal to even review President Obama’s nominee and Donald Trump’s pledge to pack the Court with political ideologues, guaranteeing rulings he sees as politically beneficial. Trump will have little difficulty keeping his promise given the Republican majority in the Senate.  I do not expect the Court will recover from this harm within the remainder of my legal career or lifetime.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned a Court that would be as insulted as possible from the political process. The first and most famous case ever decided by the Court, Marbury vs. Madison, was rooted in the idea that the Court is immune from political restructuring. The Court rejected an expansion of its jurisdiction by Congress through the political process and held that jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court is established by the Constitution.  The Court’s authority, like the Court itself, is beyond the political process.  Judges do not serve at the pleasure of the President or Congress; they have lifetime appointments.  This principle of law has been incredibly important in American jurisprudence.  Neither Congress nor the President can remove or expand the Court’s jurisdiction in response to the political winds of the time, nor can they retaliate against a Judge or the Court for rendering a politically unfavorable decision.

The role of the Court in protecting the freedoms of and ensuring justice for the American people cannot understated.  Removing bigotry, prejudice, and injustice from American law has rarely been achievable through the ballot.  Desegregation, repeal of miscegenation laws, removal of literacy tests for voting, privacy rights, the right of counsel for people accused of crimes, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, the right of married couples to use birth control, and the right for same sex marriage were all achieved at the Supreme Court and would have all failed if put to a vote.  Strict textualists, such as former Justice Scalia and those whom I expect Trump will nominate, insist that rights which are not explicitly stated in the Constitution do not exist.  They disagree with the perspective of Justice Douglas who wrote that the “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance” Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484 (June 7, 1965). In simpler language, there are rights that are not explicitly stated, but are implied in the text, such as the right for a parent to raise and educate a child, including sending a child to a religious school rather than a public secular school.

American flag, US constitution and a judge's gavel symbolizing the American justice system or the Judicial Branch of government ( Judiciary )That the Constitution and the Supreme Court allow rights to develop in response to our collective experience rather than through the nearly impossible political process of Constitutional amendment is one of the great strengths in our legal system and has allowed our nation to remain a leader in human rights. As Alan Dershowitz postulates in his book “Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights”, human rights do not come from G-d, or nature, or even from logic.  Instead, they come “from human experience, particularly experience with injustice.  We learn from the mistakes of history that a rights-based system and certain fundamental rights…are essential to avoid repetition of the grievous injustices of the past.”  In other words, rights come from wrongs and are recognition of those wrongs. A great example of this is found in the Constitution itself where the framers included a right contained in the Third Amendment prohibiting the government from forcing people to quarter troops in their homes during peacetime.  This is not a right most of us would consider putting into the Constitution if we were writing it today.  Indeed, there has never been a Third Amendment case brought to the Supreme Court.  This Amendment exists as a relic of the experience of the framers and their fears based upon that experience.

Sadly, I greatly fear that the era of the Court standing between the people and the government as a neutral arbiter of the rights secured by the Constitution is over.  For the first time in our history we may see the United States Supreme Court moving in reverse where, rather than finding emerging rights, the Court will remove existing rights from the people.  More importantly perhaps, I fear that, due to the political games that have been played by the Republicans in the appointment process, the United States Supreme Court has lost the moral authority and diversity of thought it once possessed.  The Constitutional vision has been undermined and unfortunately the Court, and likely the American people, will suffer.

President Donald Trump….A Tempest Released?

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.  

For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?
For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?

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.

Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today
Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today

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.

The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government
The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government

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

Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.
Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.

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.

Domestic ViolenceThe 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.

The Murder of Dan Markel: A World Destoryed

FSU Law Professor Dan Markel
FSU Law Professor Dan Markel

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.

Crime sceneI’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.

Police tape backgroundI 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. 

Kol Nidre Talk – Wonder, Awe, and Radical Amazement

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.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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.

A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement
A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement

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.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro

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”.

Finding Home In Tallahassee

I didn’t intend to live my life in Tallahassee.  I’m not sure exactly where I expected to spend my days, but I know it wasn’t in a small Southern city that’s about 200 miles off the beaten path to anywhere.  I’ve moved away several times, but keep finding myself back in this somewhat sleepy town.  At this point in my life, it’s where I’ve lived longer than anyplace else.  For better or worse, it’s become home to me.

When I came to Tallahassee in January 1988, I was 23 years old and I told people I was moving to attend Florida State University.  In reality, I was seeking to escape the social conservativism and the lack of opportunity of Pensacola.  I came with almost no money, no place to live, and no job.  I had a friend here, so I slept on his floor for a few weeks while I got a job and found a place to live.  I registered for classes at FSU, but could only take two because that’s all I could afford.

Our dining room table has hosted many wonderful dinners.
Our dining room table has hosted many wonderful dinners.

Those were great days.  I met interesting people from all over the world at FSU, many who remain valued friends. I explored the campus and Tallahassee. I  found places like the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, treated myself to whatever books they recommended at Rubyfruit Books, ate dinner at Morrison’s Cafeteria whenever I could afford it, and expanded my culinary tastes at the Pocket Sandwich Emporium where I got my first taste of humus.  Through the campus I was exposed to the arts, ranging from the depressing films of French Cinema to raucous musical theatre performances, to poetry readings at the Warehouse on Gaines Street, when it was still an undeveloped warehouse district.

My life in Tallahassee has blossomed beyond my wildest expectations.  A few years after landing here, I met a woman at the synagogue whom I would marry 10 years later.  We just celebrated our 15th anniversary.  Our home is not just where we live, but a vessel of artifacts from the life we’ve lived together.  Pieces of pottery and art are collected from trips we’ve taken.  Photographs are scattered throughout the house of the people we love, such as childhood pictures of nieces and nephews who are now grown adults.  Looking at our dining room table, I recall the memories of the many dinners shared there with friends and family and hear the echoes of the stories and jokes we shared.  Beyond the walls of our house, I have decades-long friendships with many people in the local community.  I have been a member of my synagogue for more than 20 years, and I have been entrusted to be the current president.  I have my friends from the Rotary club, the legal community, and even some old friends from my days flying airplanes.

For years home was a small town in upstate New York
For years home was a small town in upstate New York

What makes us call a place home? Is it simply time spent in a location, property ownership, or the fact that our possessions are collected there?  For much of my life, I identified home as a small town in upstate New York.  My family had deep roots in the local community, having lived there for more than 100 years. With a large town square shaded by massive elm trees, it was an almost idyllic place to be a child.   It’s the kind of place that doesn’t change much.   I’ve gone back to visit many times, but I don’t know if I’m going to do that again.  Our old homestead is still there, as are many of the people whom I knew growing up, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. The reality is that blight killed the elm trees, the old homestead has been somebody else’s house for more than 35 years, and while old friends will give me a polite “Hello”, there’s nobody there who longs to see me anymore.

I suppose that if someone forced me to define what makes a place home I would say it’s the place where we find connection. It’s where people look for our presence as part of their definition of the place.  It’s a place where we can see our lives and our worth reflected back to us.

Is Segregation Returning to Campus?

Atlantic Monthly reports that the University of Connecticut has opened a dorm specifically for black men. At a community college outside Chicago courses are being offered that are limited to only black students.  In California, at Pitzer College, conflict has erupted over the issue of black students advertising for roommates stating that only people of color were welcome to apply.  Are these efforts evidence of colleges and universities doing what is necessary to meet the needs of black students, or are they a new form of segregation?  The answer depends upon who you ask.  Supporters of the separate courses and living accommodations say that they’re necessary to create a safe environment and supportive environment for black students.  Critics say that, regardless of the motives, separate classes and accommodations are a step backwards and a revival of the segregation that it took our nation so long to outlaw.

Legally, these programs raise what I see to be interesting and challenging questions.  Courts view classification based upon race as suspect and subject to strict scrutiny review. Generally, you have to have a compelling interest and a narrowly tailored intervention when making any kind of a race based classification where any form of state action or commerce is involved.  I suspect that a single race dorm may not pass constitutional muster with the Courts regardless of the justification.  However, specialized programs designed to promote academic success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be an easier sell.

Is the idea of a non-white dorm for the purpose of creating a safe space for students of color completely ridiculous?  As a white male it is very tempting for me to say “absolutely”. Honestly, I find the idea that someone might want a safe space away from me to be somewhat offensive. Additionally, I am certain that an attempt to create a white’s only dorm would be universally condemned, a condemnation that I would fully support.  But when you think about it, maybe it’s not so ridiculous. Certainly, we have a long tradition of single gender dorms.  Sober dorms are becoming popular on campuses as more young people find themselves struggling with substance abuse problems.  Some campuses have kosher dorms or kosher dining halls.  We have entire institutions that cater to a single gender, or students from a specific religious background.

One issue that comes up for me as I think about these issues is the difference between programs that are directed towards the needs of students coming from diverse backgrounds, and those that exclude or limit participation in those programs based upon definitions of race or ethnicity.  For instance, a university can have a kosher dining hall that is open to all.  A school can offer classes in Latino history or issues that are open to all. A school can have a program to promote success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which can include white students from economically deprived communities.  A dormitory for a specific race, while I understand that desire for a “safe space”, seems to me to be a step backward and leaves me questioning whether or not the needs of students of color can be met in a way that doesn’t take us back to the era of segregation.

Our nation had a century-long unsuccessful experience with separate but equal.  Time and time again our Courts and other branches of our government tried to make segregation work based upon the premise that somehow you can make separate equal if you just tweak right.  It was only after failing time and time again that our Courts gave up and declared that separate could never be equal.  Of course, there is another possibility that may exist.  While it may be true that separate can never be equal, if proponents of segregated housing and classes are correct, then integration may not be equal either.

Lastly, one has to recall that one of the fundamental purposes and values of a college education is exposure to the larger world and a challenging of one’s beliefs and perspectives on the world.  Is this purpose and value lost when we deliberately create an environment that allows students to avoid people and ideas that make them uncomfortable? Perhaps, more importantly, do safe spaces become places where students reinforce each other’s prejudices.  Consider the report in the Washington Post where a Jewish student of color attended one campus conference that purported to be a “safe space” and found herself confronted with holocaust denial and anti-Semitism that sent her running from the event in tears.

Frankly, I can’t see how creating segregated spaces promotes tolerance and acceptance among students. Instead, I can see it working reinforce the divisions that separate individuals and groups.  If this is the case, I have serious doubt that the students will emerge from these schools with the skills needed to survive in the increasingly pluralistic world they will soon graduate into.