The Rewards of Friendship

A few days ago I received a letter from the President of the Florida Bar. The letter informed me that although I’d been nominated for a pro bono service award, another lawyer was selected to receive the award. When I read the name of the recipient, I smiled and felt a deep sense of pride and contentment. The lawyer selected is one of my closest friends, James Cook, a man whose influence upon me, and my development as a lawyer, can’t be overstated.

This got me thinking about friendship and its impact upon our lives. I’ve never seen myself as one of the “popular kids” and superficial conversation is often quite difficult for me. I’m quite content to be alone reading a book, playing my guitar, or working on my computer. However, I’m nowhere near a complete hermit. I love small dinner parties with close friends where we share stories and great food. I’m very fortunate to have small group of close friends who I have known for many years and with who I feel that I have deeply meaningful relationships.

We all meet many people, probably tens of thousands, in our lifetimes. Yet, most of us have only a few close friends. What distinguishes those who become acquaintances from those who enter our inner circle of friendship? Aristotle wrote that a friend is a single soul living in two bodies and I suspect there is truth to that statement. When I think about my friend, James Cook, an image of our shared passion for justice and life-long scholarship comes to mind. I know that James “gets” the things that are important to me.

However, one might argue that shared passions could just as easily result in competition and rivalry. Consider two young baseball players, both talented and passionate about the game. While it’s true that they might find connection through their shared passion and experience, it’s also likely that they could end-up as competitive rivals.

Science many offer an explanation for why some become friends, others acquaintances, and others our competitors. According to an article published by Psychology Today friendships are established by self-disclosure and reciprocity. Research also shows that once established the friendship is maintained by acceptance, unconditional support, loyalty, and trust. However, the single most important factor in determining who becomes our best friend is more surprising:

“We become best friends with people who boost our self-esteem by affirming our identities as members of certain groups…”

That is, we find validation for our identity from our best friend. This makes sense to me. When I think about my friend James Cook, I think about the kind of person he is and my admiration for both his skill as a lawyer and his dedication to justice and scholarship. These are qualities I seek to cultivate and aspire to in myself. When approached from this perspective, our best friends are those who provide us with a double reward. Like all friends, they provide us with the connection that comes from the friendship itself, but they also provide us with connection to our own identity.

In some ways, this is a little depressing. I like to think that the joy I derive from my friend receiving the award is rooted in some altruistic characteristic within myself. However, if the science is correct, then my joy might be rooted in a sense of self-validation that lawyers like James and me are worthy of award and recognition. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing though. After all, finding within one’s self a connection to the common well being of our fellow human beings, even when it validates our own identity, is hardly a moral failing of epic proportion. Indeed, isn’t this the foundation from which all brotherhoods arise?

Regardless of the underlying psychology, I can’t help but feel fortunate to have James, and my other friends, to share this experience we call life.  Maybe it’s true that we’re all alone in the end, but having a fellow traveler around to share the journey sure makes the whole experience much more meaningful.

 

 

Vulnerability In An Age of Fear

The story of the terror attacks in Paris dominates the news here in the United States. Not only are we told of the horror of the attacks that have already occurred, but we are also warned of threats of future attacks directed against American public places. There exists a great sense of urgency to these news stories that unless we embrace the calls for fear and alarm and pay close attention to the continuing news feed we are somehow putting ourselves at risk. It’s not clear to me exactly what it is we’re supposed to do other than become alarmed and soak up every bit of detailed information we can from the news media. I know some state governors have answered the calls for action by declaring that they will not allow Syrian refugees to find a safe haven in their states. I’m not sure where the Constitutional authority for such a decision comes from, but I am confident that many tax dollars will be spent finding out. Fear is the business of terrorists and politicians.

I’m reminded of another blog post that I wrote on my law practice website almost exactly a year ago when a gunman entered Strozier library at Florida State. I’ve decided to resurrect that post to share with you now in hopes that it might provide you some peace of mind as we endure the media blitz:

This morning, like the rest of Tallahassee, I awoke to the news of the shootings at the Strozier Library on the Florida State University Campus. I thought about this, and other recent events of violence this morning as I walked along Monroe Street through the middle of downtown Tallahassee. It’s a beautiful crisp fall day in Tallahassee. The sunlight being reflected off the buildings in downtown absolutely shimmers. People are friendly with me as I pass them on the street and the cold fall air is invigorating to me as I walk along.  Observing my surroundings I was reminded that, despite all the problems, there remains great beauty in the world if we take time to notice it.

I thought about Stozier and the many other libraries where I’ve so many hours of my life. For me, libraries were so much more than just a place of knowledge; there were places of refuge. In high school the library was a place where I could find escape the hoodlums and social nonsense that are part of a public school education. In the books and periodicals I found glimpses of a future I wanted to build for myself. I still remember the book with the red cover that I found and used to teach myself to play guitar. Libraries are places of escape where I can put together my dreams.

However, it occurs to me that this week my other places of refuge have also been violated by gun violence. The synagogue attack in Jerusalem resonates in my mind as being yet another senseless act of indiscriminate violence in a place where I have often looked to find refuge from the world and direction in life.

As I was walking I thought about how does one go forward from these types of events? For me the answer is that I’m going forward with a willingness to be vulnerable. I am not going to arm myself or live in fear. I don’t think the solution is reprisal, increased security, or more guns. Besides, I don’t really have the power to control any of those things. I’m not politically powerful, so I know others will shape that public policy along their own interests. Other people decide security issues. I don’t own or intend to purchase a handgun. However, I can go out into the world and work to bring light and justice into the lives of others. I can do my best to help others find their dignity and self-worth such that they won’t feel compelled to turn to guns or violence to feel respected. I can remember that all lives matter and no human being is disposable. I can do my best, as Father Greg Boyle reminds us, to create a circle of compassion where nobody stands outside the circle and the margins that separate people are erased.

 

Civility and Respectability Politics…

I recently attended an alumni event at my alma mater, City University of New York School of Law (CUNY). It was wonderful to return to CUNY Law, reconnect with the school, see the new building, attend the Continuing Legal Education program, visit with the faculty, and generally drink the CUNY Kool-Aid. Perhaps the best part of the weekend was getting to spend time with my nephew, Chase, who is currently a 1st year student at CUNY Law. I’m very proud to have a legacy at CUNY and I love hearing about his experiences at the law school.

It was during a conversation with my nephew regarding the importance of civility in the practice of law and how, when advocating, it’s important to find common ground and connection with others who may not share our views that my nephew told me that some of the students in his law school class rejected such an idea as being “respectability politics”, a label that renders the option invalid.

I’d never heard the term “respectability politics” before and I became curious as to where the term originated and what is its actual meaning. According to Wikipedia, “respectability politics” is defined as

“attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”

One of the most interesting pieces I located on the history and application of respectability politics was written by Randall Kennedy and published in the October 2015 edition of Harpers Magazine. The author reviews the important role that respectability politics played in the 20th century civil rights movement. He also notes that this approach has fallen out of favor and is now often criticized by black activists:

“This approach has recently become a target of much derision. It is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit concession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim.”

This concept challenges one of my strongest beliefs, that is, when seeking social change or conflict resolution, it is useful to find common ground whenever possible. I strongly feel that the more people see themselves in kinship with each other, the less likely they are to seek to oppress or mistreat each other.

I’ve been contemplating this idea for several days now and I have to admit that I’m disturbed by this idea that finding common ground with opponents is somehow improper. Certainly, it’s not my role to pass judgment or dictate how other people seek to liberate themselves from societal mistreatment and abuse. I’m not a person of color and I’ve not experienced the discrimination and racism that continues to exist in the world. On the other hand, my life’s work is to create justice and give a voice to people whose voices are often unheard.

The idea of respectability politics is not limited to ending racial discrimination, but can be and is being applied in many different contexts. In my own Jewish community, respectability politics is especially dominant and is seen as a defense and rebuttal to anti-Semitism. When the Bernie Madoff scandal was in the news, many Jewish leaders expressed concern that Madoff’s misdeeds would be used to justify anti-Semitism in the United States. The Jewish community often seeks to rebut criticisms of Israel by showing the many great accomplishments of Israel and its similarities to Western culture. Scholars also note the use of respectability politics in the gay rights movement.

We must consider whether or not respectability politics allows us tell the full and honest story of our history and reality. Part of the work that people have to do when recovering from injustice and trauma, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, is to deal with the messier truths of experience. I recall an article in the New York Times about the Rwandan genocide and the process of reconciliation happening within the country and how both perpetrators and victims are working together to heal from the genocide.

When I think of more recent American events, I wonder if it is accurate for me to view Michael Brown as a violent person who gave the officer in Ferguson, Missouri little option but to shoot in self-defense while also seeing him as a victim of injustice? I know from my own work as an attorney that the combined effects of racism, economic injustice, and oppressive policing push people beyond their breaking points and strip them of their connection, hope, and dignity. In this respect, Michael Brown is a symbol of the lives, hopes, and aspirations that have been lost due to the unaddressed injustices in American society. He’s not seen as a victim because he’s a model citizen, but he can be viewed as a victim of societal injustice. This bring us to the point that I do think is significant about a rejection of respectability politics, that  blame is reflected back on the larger society that allows the injustice to continue. I see truth in that reflection.

I find that people connect with even the most imperfect story if you give them the opportunity to see the commonalities of human experience. I was once privileged to witness a very large tattooed Latino ex-gang member bring a group of white upper middle class housewives to tears through his sharing of the story of his life, which included his being a victim of abuse and poverty, then evolving into a very angry and dangerous criminal, followed by his recovery of his humanity. He didn’t project that he was like them in order to gain acceptance, but he did share with them his very real suffering, his acting out, his shame over his own actions, and his efforts to find re-connection and redemption.

One can argue that respectability politics is rooted in a belief that only some, being those who conform, are worthy of justice, and that those who don’t conform are not. I agree that such a paradigm isn’t justice, but privilege for the conformist and the members of the dominant group. However, I do think there is value in the self-empowerment ideas behind respectability politics. The idea that members of an oppressed group guide and encourage each other to rise to their highest levels, despite the existence of oppression, fits very well with my own personal philosophies that it takes a village, but that I am the only person over whom I have any control. In some ways this conflicts with my belief that self-empowerment also includes authenticity. I am not empowered if I am only accepted to the degree that I am like other people. True freedom and empowerment has to include the ability to be one’s true self to the degree that it doesn’t intrude upon the rights and well being of others.

I don’t see civility and seeking common ground with others as forcing respectability politics. We can find common ground, develop connection, and form alliances without disempowering ourselves. In the practice of law you can be an aggressive advocate and attorney without being uncivil and without reducing your opponents to one-dimensional villains. According to a resource from the American Bar Association:

“Civility in the legal profession is generally defined as “treating others, opposing counsel, the court, clients, and others, with courtesy, dignity, and kindness. Civility for an attorney means treating opposing counsel the way the attorney would want to be treated i.e., the golden rule”

CompassionCivility is absolutely necessary for me to function as a lawyer. Maintaining civility keeps my focus on the law and facts of a case, which is where I am most effective.  When civility is lost in a legal dispute you wind-up fighting about everything and often accomplishing very little. The litigation becomes more about beating the other guy than persuading the Court or jury. Acrimonious disputes create unnecessary stress in an already extremely stressful business – a factor that I think greatly contributes to the high rates of substance abuse, depression, and burnout in the legal profession. Lastly, I find that being a civil person is simply good mental hygiene.

The American Bar Association, in its guidelines for lawyer conduct, notes the importance of civility:

“Deteriorating civility, in former ABA President Lee Cooper’s words, “interrupts the administration of justice. It makes the practice of law less rewarding. It robs a lawyer of the sense of dignity and self-worth that should come from a learned profession. Not least of all, it … brings with it all the problems … that accompany low public regard for lawyers and lack of confidence in the justice system.””

Regarding civility, Justice Kennedy, a favorite jurist of mine, is quoted as saying:

“Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual . . . respect for the dignity and worth of a fellow human being.”.

There are few people who are more passionate about the dignity and worth of their fellow human beings than the law students with whom my nephew studies. It is my hope that while they examine the weaknesses and unfulfilled promises of respectability politics that they also recognize its strengths and accomplishments. Lastly, I hope that they become the change they seek and that they approach the practice of law in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of the judges, lawyers, clients, and even the opposing parties with whom they come into contact.

 

 

Modern Slavery – Yes, it happens in Tallahassee

Few things are more precious to us Americans than freedom. However, it may surprise you to know that not everyone in our nation is free and that slavery is a growing problem in our country. At this past week’s meeting of my Rotary club, Terry Coonan, director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, gave an especially compelling presentation on Human Trafficking. I was looking forward to his talk because I gave a sermon at my synagogue a few years ago on the Tomato on the Seder Plate initiative of Rabbis For Human Rights of North America which focused on the problem of slavery in Florida’s agricultural industry.

Modern slavery, which includes both worker and sex trafficking, is a worldwide problem. According to a 2013 White House report, it is estimated that there are 21 million people who are being held in bondage in the modern world. This is the largest number of people living as slaves in human history. One might think that modern slavery is relegated to the third world countries and remote areas of the world, but modern day slavery is happening throughout the world, including the United States, in both our urban and rural communities. It is especially pervasive in the sex, agricultural, and the hospitality industries. In modern slavery people are not kept captive with chains. Instead, traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to keep people enslaved.  A huge industry, modern slavery generates between $9-12 billion annually in the United States alone. It is said to currently be the second largest criminal industry behind the drug trade.

Even relatively tranquil communities such as Tallahassee are not immune from this problem. One of the major sex trafficking prosecutions in the past 10 years, the Melchor case, began when two women being held captive in a private home in the Killearn neighborhood of Tallahassee escaped and ran door to door seeking help. The women, who had come to the United States based upon the promise of jobs, were forced into prostitution utilizing a mobile brothel model where they were driven to apartments and mobile homes on the outskirts of Tallahassee and forced to perform 25-35 sex acts per night.  An ensuing two-year investigation revealed an international conspiracy that trafficked women from South America into multiple Florida cities for the purpose of forcing them into prostitution.

Melchor is not the only case to arise in the Florida panhandle. The Destin King labor trafficking case involved workers at the Sandestin Hilton and other hotels along the Gulf Coast. The workers were young women aged 19 -23 from eastern Europe who came to the United States upon the promise of employment at Disney. When they arrived in the United States they were told that the promised Disney jobs weren’t available, but that they could work at hotels in the Florida panhandle. They found themselves living 15-20 people in a single condo, while working for less than minimum wage.  As if paying less than a living wage wasn’t enough, their employers charged them for things such as rent, job placement fees, transportation fees, and $1500 – $2000 for visa processing fees. The young women were not employed directly by the hotels, but they worked for subcontractor corporations that negotiated contracts to supply the workers to the hotels. The subcontractor corporations were able to submit low bids for the contracts due to their failure to pay even a minimum wage to the workers. The hotels were able to claim ignorance of the situation because the women weren’t employed directly by the hotel, although one has to question whether or not the hotels were simply turning a blind eye to the exploitation when they unquestioningly accepted such extremely low bids from the contractors.

You can do something to help!
You can do something to help!

As individuals there are some things we can do to help combat modern slavery. There are a number of websites that list possible signs of Human Trafficking such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. I’m not going to reproduce the list here, but I do encourage you to make yourself familiar with the possible signs. One thing that I will say is that it is absolutely necessary that we slow down, recognize, and engage with people who are often invisible in our society. We have to take time to notice the hotel maid, the streetwalker, the runaway youth, the homeless, and the agricultural worker and report instances where we suspect involuntary servitude may be happening to the toll free human trafficking number 1-888-373-7888. We need to support businesses that are willing to join Fair Food and Fair Trade programs and to encourage other businesses to join through our purchasing decisions. I also would suggest that supporting businesses that allow their employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining is yet another way of combating human trafficking.

I hope that this post will inspire you to want to learn more about this huge injustice. I believe that the more attention that can be brought to this subject, the better. As I think about this topic, I can’t help but recall that the Hebrew Bible, at least 36 times, more than any other commandment, repeatedly reminds us that we must treat the stranger kindly because of the Jewish people’s own experience with slavery in Egypt. This is not an issue we can afford to ignore.

 

The Lawyer as Artist

In 1989 Salman Rushdie was quoted in the London Independent as saying:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

To me this sounds a lot like the work of a lawyer. Is there a connection between artistic creation such as one finds in poetry and the practice law? Can a lawyer be an artist, or are we merely logical thinkers who rarely color outside the lines society draws for us?

When I was a law student attending City University of New York School of Law I lived in Brooklyn. When the long hours of studying law exhausted my energies I would sometimes take the subway into Manhattan, or “the city” as genuine city dwellers call it. Once in there, I would go to the Pastel Society of America where they offered inexpensive classes in pastel painting led by the top pastel painting artists in the United States. I loved these classes and found the process by which these incredible artists created their paintings to be fascinating. Through these classes I began to see that a tree is more than just green and brown, but is really a collection of an endless variety of different colors spanning the entire rainbow. Indeed, the only limit on the colors found in a tree is that created by the artist’s own mind. When I would return from my expedition into the world of art and creativity to the “logical” world of law I noticed that my understanding of the cases and legal principles I was studying seemed to be enhanced. I wasn’t just rejuvenated – I was inspired. It occurred to me that, after the classes, I was seeing law differently, and this led to a continuing curiosity into the intersection between law and art.

I don’t often hear people describing lawyers as artists, but in my mind great lawyers think artistically as well as logically. I love going to art museums, plays, concerts, and reading great writing because, when executed well, they provide me with opportunities to see some aspect of the world from a different perspective. For me, art is fundamental. In my spare time I play and study music. I explore Tallahassee on my bicycle and take photographs. I’ve written and performed a play about economic justice. Even this blog is a creative outlet that allows me to play with ideas. I find that art is at its very best when it takes something that is familiar to me and lets me see it in a totally different way than I’ve ever seen it before.

So it is with law. I believe that a great lawyer or judge doesn’t just see law and justice as words on a page to be blindly followed and applied. Such an approach to the law would leave it forever stagnant and allow injustices to go undiscovered. Great lawyers recognize injustices and create for themselves and others, a constantly refining vision of justice. Consider that for nearly 100 years the law and the courts in the United States steadfastly held onto the rarely challenged notion that racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal” was justice. However, it took visionary lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall to show them a different perspective, that “separate but equal” would never be equal. Such work is as much art as it is logic. The question is how to tell the story such that the injustice of the status quo becomes undeniable.

The primary art form of the lawyer is that of storyteller. Our client’s cases are non-fiction stories that we advocate be viewed from a certain perspective. Our choice of words, the way in which we present evidence, the focus we give to certain facts, and the way in which interpret the law all become part of our storytelling vision. I know that many will read this and think that this idea of “storytelling” is justification for deception and dishonesty, but it’s not that at all. Effective storytelling is truthful. When a story becomes dishonest it loses the ability to fully engage us. Good stories are often messy and even the best cases usually present a challenging fact or two for a lawyer to deal with. It is the lawyer’s ability to weave the messy or difficult parts of the story into a collective whole with a positive truth for the client that I believe distinguishes great creative lawyers from the ordinary.

Many lawyers such as John Grisham, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Scott Turow have made successful transitions from lawyer to author. In fact, so many lawyers are interested in making the transition from lawyer to author that there actually was a panel called “The Law as a Platform for Writing” at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Bar Association. While I hear many stories of unhappy lawyers, I don’t see the interest in writing as a product of that unhappiness. Instead, I see it as evidence that many lawyers see the art in our profession, and once this is recognized, are compelled to give expression to that art in as many ways possible both in and out of the courtroom.

 

 

Mass Murder in America – Looking Beyond Legal Solutions

Until a couple of days ago, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this week. However, the tragic gun deaths of nine students, and wounding of nine others, at an Oregon college is a topic that deserves attention. Predictably, this event has reignited political debates regarding issues such as gun control and allowing students to carry firearms on campus. While I think these are important discussions, and I support gun control legislation, I’m not convinced that either gun control or further proliferation of firearms will resolve the problem of mass shootings.   I say this because on many levels these events are more than simply legal problems and failure of legislation.

I recognize that law has its limits. We cannot seek to resolve our social problems solely through criminalization and regulation. I believe we need to take a closer look at what social forces are driving these events and consider how we can create change that stops the creation of people who are driven to commit mass murder.

When one looks back that the majority of mass shootings in our nation we see a recurring profile of the individuals who commit these violent acts. The group is exclusively male, most often white, alienated, unemployed or underemployed, and exhibiting symptoms of untreated mental illness. These are not professional criminals, gang members, or individuals with histories of long-term involvement in radical organizations, although they may take up a cause to justify their actions.

I would like to focus upon the issues of alienation and untreated mental illness because I feel that these two areas are ignored in most discussions. Human beings have a strong drive for connection. We are not solitary creatures. In fact, social isolation has been compared to smoking and obesity in terms of the magnitude of its impact upon our health. Yet we live in a society where the social fabric is decaying, and with it, opportunities to find social connection. More and more of our professional and personal lives have moved into the digital realm. I was recently talking with some young people about job hunting and I was encouraging them to go to the employer and talk with someone in person whenever possible as part of their job hunting strategy. I was surprised when they told me that this was no longer possible with most employers and that for grocery stores and other retail entities all job seekers are directed to the Internet. As I wrote in an earlier posting, social institutions of all sorts are declining in membership. I would argue that even where membership is steady, the social life of many institutions has declined tremendously in the past two decades. I remember years ago when the holidays of Chanukkah and Sukkot in my local Jewish community meant multiple invitations to parties and dinners. In recent years such invitations have become increasingly rare to the degree that I am surprised when one is extended.

Alienation creates worse health outcomes, not just physically, but also for mental health. We are not prepared to respond to  the increased mental health needs arising from increased alienation. The United States’ mental health infrastructure is completely inadequate and  is getting worse by the day. We do not have the providers and we  haven’t funded the research needed to deliver effective evidence based treatments. Even for those who have the financial resources to pay for care, it’s often simply not available or the quality of care is poor due to inadequate training of the provider.

Untreated mental illness often brings people into the criminal justice system. I remember when I was doing contract nursing and I was sent to work in a local prison. I was stunned at how a majority of the inmates’ medical records showed the same profile of untreated mental illness; a history of childhood abuse or neglect; low IQ; and untreated addiction. Is it any wonder that the largest provider of mental health services in the State of Florida is the Department of Corrections? However, this also says that, as a society, we’re not committed to the prevention of crime and destroyed lives, only to reacting to the damage they cause.

One last story and I’ll close. When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a young woman who, at age 13, was sent to adult prison in Florida for 9 years following the home invasion robbery of her Grandparents’ house. This child, and she was a child until the state of Florida stripped her of that status, had been evaluated by two mental health experts a few weeks earlier following a violent outburst. The mental health experts both recommended immediate inpatient treatment for her. Nothing was done, her behavior continued to escalate, and the State of Florida decided that rather than mental health treatment she was a criminal and made her the youngest person in the Florida adult prison system. It should be noted that her escalating violence was associated with her mother’s abandonment of her. During her 9-year prison sentence, neither her mother nor her grandparents ever visited her once. The recommended mental health treatment was never provided to her. I argued her clemency petition to then Governor Jeb Bush, who denied it. I guess he just figured that stuff like this happens.

In closing, I don’t believe that we’re helpless in the face of this problem.  As individuals, we can work to decrease alienation in our communities by simply going out into the world.  I know some will disagree with me, but a digital connection is not the same as being in the presence of a live person.  We can lobby for mental health research and treatment funding, not simply because of this issue, but because it creates justice in the world.   If we can do these things, our lives will all improve.

 

 

Life Lessons I Learned From Flying Airplanes

About 20 years ago, my wife gave me an introductory flying lesson as a birthday present. I loved the experience and was soon on my way to earning my private pilot’s license. I was fortunate to meet an exceptional flight instructor, Tony Hicks, while taking ground school through the Florida State University Flying Club. Tony, a former Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot, was a great instructor because he not only taught the mechanics of flying an airplane, but also the psychology of being a pilot. With Tony’s guidance and training I was granted my Private Pilot’s license on September 11, 1998. I enjoyed flying regularly until the events of another September 11th three years later forever changed general aviation. Although I’ve flown a few times since then, the cost of aviation, plus the loss of freedom associated with increased security, have pretty much grounded me, and many of my pilot friends. However, the lessons of aviation have stayed with me and I often think of aviation problem-solving when facing a problem or challenging situation on the ground. Here are a few of the lessons that often go through my head:

Fly the airplane – No matter what happens in the air, a pilot’s first and foremost job is always to fly the airplane. It doesn’t matter if the wing is on fire; you fly the airplane first, and then worry about the fire. In 1972 the crew of an Eastern Airlines L-1011 violated this rule with disastrous consequences when they flew their aircraft into the ground after they became focused on trouble-shooting a burned-out landing-gear indicator light.  This is true in life too.  Paying attention to our task and our mission prevents unnecessary problems and failures.  Things are going to go wrong sometimes.  Our job is to stay focused and not create disasters by neglecting the fundamentals while we try to solve what are often minor problems.

Know your Limits – Not all pilots are the same. Experience, training, and proper equipment can safely take one pilot where another would be at great risk.  Just because you have an instrument rating and spent some time in the clouds doesn’t mean that you’re ready to fly an instrument approach at an unfamiliar airport after a 3 hour flight, with 200-foot ceilings, gusting winds, rain, and ¼ mile visibility in a Cessna. However, you might be fine at your home field with 1000 ft. ceilings, 1.5 miles visibility, and light winds. It’s a pilot’s job to know his or her limits and know that those limits aren’t constant. Recent experience, proper equipment, and being healthy and rested all impact on a pilot’s limits. It’s true for life on the ground too.  Sometimes it’s better to wait until conditions have improved, or we have better prepared,  before launching a new project or trying something new. There are limits to the number, type, and severity of challenges we can all handle.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – This is the prioritization for pilots when things go wrong. One of the best examples of this is Captain Sullenberger and the Hudson River landing. If you listen to this recording of his communications with air traffic control, it’s clear that his focus isn’t on talking with the control tower but on flying the aircraft and navigation. The reason for this is, there’s very little an air traffic controller can do to assist in an emergency other than get other aircraft out of the way.  A pilot’s first priority remains flying the aircraft, the second job is to know where the aircraft is, and where it’s going. Once you have those down, then you worry about talking to the tower. This is true in life too, when things go wrong our first job is to maintain personal control and do our part as best we can. Next, we need to figure out where we are, and where we want to go. Lastly, we can reach out to trusted others for guidance and assistance.

Collaboration – How to Thrive When Others Are Dying

I’ve just returned from a visit to Los Angeles with my wife where we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During our visit we attended two different synagogues, both of which appear to be experiencing exponential growth and vibrancy at a time when studies show that overall synagogue attendance and membership are in rapid decline. Of course, it’s not just synagogues that are in crisis these days. For example, the Christian Post reports that “Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964”. The Presbyterian Church reports that it lost 15% of its membership between 2012 and 2014. Moreover, it’s not just religious institutions which are suffering membership losses. In his book Bowling Alone, author Robert D. Putnam examines the severe membership declines in a wide array of organizations such as political groups, civic organizations, fraternal lodges, religious groups, and service clubs. He describes this decline as a destruction of the social fabric of our society. I agree with him and I’ve been trying figure out what is driving this decline and how it can be reversed. This is issue is so important to me that I actually take notes when I visit synagogues regarding the size and composition of the people attending, the nature of the service, and other characteristics that are notable to me.

I want to tell you about these two synagogues because I believe they reveal some important truths about the changes in our world. The two synagogues I visited at first appear to be very different. The first, Beit T’Shuvah, is a synagogue led by an ex-con turned Rabbi, Mark Borovitz, and grew out of an addiction treatment center that is attached to the synagogue. It’s very focused on addiction recovery and, while the crowd is predominantly under the age of 40, there are plenty of people of all ages. The second synagogue is iKar, and it is led by a dynamic Rabbi, Sharon Brous. iKar does not own a building, but attracts hundreds of people of all ages to its services. Neither of these two synagogues are old legacy institutions. iKar was started in 2004, and Beit T’Shuvah about 25 years ago. The weekly attendance at both these institutions is in the hundreds and for holidays grows beyond a thousand.

One of the factors that I see in common between these two institutions that I believe is allowing them to thrive when their cohorts are withering and dying is that they are collaborative in nature. These are not authoritarian institutions run in a top-down model by the clergy and board of directors who insist upon complete and total control. Instead, the synagogues seem to exist for the purpose of providing a space or mechanism through which the members can create their own Jewish experiences. The clergy are facilitators of the experience rather than providers of the experience. This is very different from my experience where people attending services are passive participants whose participation is limited to responsive readings and where synagogue boards concern themselves with issues of whether or not congregants should be allowed to wear blue jeans to services on the basis of maintaining tradition and without consideration of what experience is being sought by the members.

The services I attended were very participatory, allowing member input and expression. This was especially true of Beit T’Shuvah, where members frequently got up to share their stories and give their reflections on readings. Musically, these two synagogues have moved far beyond the operatic cantorial solo and utilize music that is engaging and participatory. Although it has an excellent band, at Beit T’Shuvah members often get up to perform songs they’ve written or to perform with the band. At iKar, drumming combined with traditional lyrics provides a musical experience that draws in the audience to sing along, dance, and move expressively. At both synagogues when people are called up to help lead or give readings they are allowed an opportunity for self-expression rather than being limited to reading words on a page. The result of this is that the experience is not simply something that is scripted out by the Rabbi or Cantor, but is dynamic and is influenced by the people attending. The congregation is no longer a passive recipient, but is an engaged partner in creating the service experience.

A few years ago, I was at a legal technology conference where the keynote speaker was Don Tapscott, who spoke about the transition to a collaborative society and who wrote:

“Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to learn. The spirit of collaboration is penetrating every institution and all of our lives. So learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation, and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.”

In my law practice I sought to become more collaborative and I found that it creates very happy clients. I now use software such as Mycaseinc and clio that allow me to share files with clients, exchange messages, and to better bring them into the decision-making process in their cases. Rather than being simply the problem-solver for my clients, I now see myself as in partnership with them, my role being a resource and advocate, as we seek to find a solution to their legal need or concern.

We live in a new era, where old models of authority and top-down structures are being rejected. Sadly, many of our social institutions have resisted the change to a more collaborative world, and they’ve been steadily paying the price as people vote “no” with their feet and head for the door. My experience with the two synagogues leads me to believe that there is a great need out there for religious and civic institutions. I believe people are craving community and connection, but I don’t think most will find it in places of arbitrary authority where they are expected to passively consume the experience. The question is, can the old institutions adapt to this change? Or will their demise be required so that new institutions can arise and meet the need?

 

Rosh Hashanah: Finding Connection To A Meaningful Life

I am presently with my wife in Los Angeles, California where we are preparing to spend our second year celebrating Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.  We are both looking forward to seeing a young man from Tallahassee helping to lead the services at this synagogue.  A year ago this young man was at a very low point in his life, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of Beit T’Shuvah  he is finding a new lease on life.

It is always interesting to me to see how life evolves.  What follows below is a talk I gave at the very beginning of Rosh Hashanah 2013 in Tallahassee.  In the talk I mention Beit T’Shuvah and the work they are doing.  Little did I realize that my curiosity would take me on such an incredible journey that has created many wonderful new relationships, not just for me, but for a number of people in my life.  I actually got to meet the young woman I quote in the talk and she’s an incredible person who is doing amazing work in her life.  I hope you enjoy this look back at my writing from 2 years ago.:

Rosh Hashanah Talk 2013

Last year, a few weeks after we finished the High Holy Days I gave a talk from this very bima on why I don’t like the High Holy Days and described my struggle to find meaning in the rituals and words in the High Holy Day prayer book. In a way my talk was somewhat of a challenge to our tradition and maybe even to G-d to help me find some meaning the process we’re about to go through. Let me tell that if you come into a synagogue, stand before your community, and directly challenge G-d to help you understand something, you’re probably opening yourself up to some interesting opportunities for growth.

And that’s what happened for me, and through my experience I got a new perspective on not only why we observe the High Holy Days, but also why we even come here at all.

The answer, I have learned, is actually very simple. It’s all about connection.

For me all this understanding started with an email to my Mother-in-law. You know that in any good Jewish story there has be a mother or a mother-in-law. So, I was writing my Mother-in-law an email and I was telling her a story about some challenges people close to me faced many years ago. I’d told this story many times before, but this time when I hit send, I’m felt uncomfortable about what I had written. As I thought about my discomfort I realized that while everything that I’d told my Mother in law in the email is true, I haven’t really been honest in what I shared with her because the story I told her was carefully edited to leave out any of the struggles that I encountered or any of the failures I experienced. I was quite distressed when I realized that I had written myself out of what really was an important part of my life story.

It occurs to me that one of the challenges in life, at least for me, and I suspect for many of you, is to show up and tell our stories in the most honest way possible, disclosing not just our strengths and victories, but also our struggles and failures. I’ve certainly seen this in my work as a nurse and as an attorney. People will commonly talk around and evade disclosing information that reveals their struggles and imperfections. But why is this such a challenge? Don’t we all want to be authentic honest people?

To understand this further, I looked to the work of researcher Dr. Brene Brown who studies shame and vulnerability. I’m told that Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is one of the top ten TED talks of all time and she was named one of 50 most influential women of 2009. Brene Brown says we as human-beings are hard wired for connection with other human-beings, but that shame, which is really fear of loss of connection, creates a barrier to connection, and that to fully connect we must be willing to be vulnerable and tell our stories in a wholehearted way.

She writes: “We must remember that our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness”. Brown says that in seeking avoid vulnerability we numb ourselves, but we’re not just numbing shame and vulnerability, we’re also numbing joy, love, and creativity.

A few days ago we gathered for Selihot and prior to the service we watched a film called G-Dog about a Jesuit Priest name Father Greg Boyle, who I met this summer that Chautauqua Institution. I’ve learned a lot about the impact of shame and the power of overcoming shame to reach connection from Father Boyle’s work. I highly recommend his book Tatoos on the Heart. Father Boyle runs, Homeboy Industries,  the largest most successful gang intervention program in the United States. In describing how he helps turn a 70% recidivism rate into a 70% success rate that has helped decrease gang activity in Los Angeles by 50% he writes: “ You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for what it is; the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and those whose burdens are more than they can bear”.   It’s about overcoming shame and developing connection.

Similar work is happening in the Jewish community with the work of Rabbi Mark Borowitz, himself a former addict, who now leads a congregation whose work is a 120 bed residential treatment facility. The name of the facility, Beit T’shuvah. The house of return. Did you know that Jewish addicts and convicts exist? At Shomrei Torah we learned this several months ago when a Jewish inmate wrote to us and requested prayer books. I am very proud to say we answered the call. Unfortunately, the stories of our fellow Jews who struggle with addiction or who have had legal troubles rarely get told in our synagogues. Sadly, even when those stories get told, we often act as if they’re anomalies rather than real problems in our community. Consider what one young woman from Beit T’shuvah wrote:

As a young “nice Jewish girl” from Calabasas, to many people I am not the usual addict. Yet, still people do not want to hear what I have to say. They head nod me off until I shut up and then they give me the “not in my house” speech. Usually goes along the lines of my child gets great grades, they are in all AP’s, they are involved in extracurricular activities, we have Shabbat every Friday, or another excuse to make me believe they are perfect. But I too had all of those traits, yet I checked into rehab at 18 years old.

We all have issues. Every family is dysfunctional in its own way. The question is when do we stop leaving the dirty laundry at home and start talking about our problems? Judaism is rich in sources of comfort and teachings about the possibilities for change. When it comes to the social ills of our own, however, we often seem to prefer denial. People are coming into treatment younger and younger and from all different types of homes. But how can we stop it? My advice is to stop living in denial. Break the taboo and start talking about personal issues and stop hiding behind a mask. Learn how to cope in a healthy way with issues rather than just pretending they don’t exist. Without learning healthy coping mechanisms we turn to escaping through drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, work, food, etc. Addiction does not discriminate. If kids and adults believe that this disease CAN happen in their own backyard, they will become more aware of how their actions affect their lives

Bringing our troubles into the synagogue, telling our stories, it’s really what why we’re here. Sure, there are lots of reasons why people come to a synagogue. Some of us come to socialize, some for rituals, some for a sense of ethnicity, but at the core, it’s all about connection. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

Rabbi Adderett Drucker recently recommended a book to me, and I want to recommend this book to every person who wants to strengthen and grow our community. The book is called “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson and the basic premise is that it doesn’t matter how beautiful your building is, how many programs you offer, how charismatic your rabbi is, or how pretty your website is. None of that matters, what does matter is whether the people who come through your doors find a truly welcoming community where they find connection and build relationships? We need to ask are people, including newcomers, sharing Shabbos dinners, dinning in Succahs together, gathering to study, and is your synagogue a place where people can show up and share their story, and be heard. Is your congregation a safe place for people to tell their story?

One of the most powerful stories in the book is about a synagogue where huge overdone parties had become the rule but as soon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was over the families left to never be seen again. In that synagogue they brought the parents of children preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s together to share their Bar/Bat Mitzvah stories and the author writes: “We realized that they were not happy with what the expectation were, but that they felt helpless to change it. They didn’t want their child to be the only one not having dancers, the games, etc.” As the families shared their stories, the conversation moved from the subject of parties, to what kind of children did they want to raise, and what is the purpose of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

The result of those conversations was not only to change the way the synagogue did Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, but it also turned their previous 80% drop-out rate of post bar/bat mitzvah families into an 80% retention rate. People changed from seeing their synagogue as a place of transactions, such as bar/bat mitzvah training and celebrations, to a place where they were seen and could share stories and experiences with other people. They had become a place of connection.

As we begin our journey through the High Holy Days, we refer time and time again to repentance and t’shuva, but what is this? I used to think that T’shuva meant apology, but that’s incorrect. The word for apology is actually “ sheliot”. T’shuva means “to return”, but return to what? I think it’s a return to connection.

William Tyndale, who coined the term “Day of Attonement” in his 1530 translation of the Hebrew Bible implied that sin is a matter of estrangement, of disconnection.   Maimonides writes that Teshuva “brings close those who are far off” and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek in commenting on Maimonides’s teaching defines sin as that which creates distance between a person and G-d.

There’s a Hasidic teaching that says that every human-being is tied to G-d with a rope. If the rope breaks, but is later fixed with a knot, then that individual is connected ever closer to G-d than if there never were a break in the rope. Thus, errors, mistakes, and failures have the potential of drawing us ever closer to G-d.

My readings on the High Holy Days lead me to the idea that the purpose of t’shuva and repentance is much greater than what most of us consider to be “sinful acts”. I’m seeing the purpose as a return to authenticity and a promise that despite our short-comings, imperfections, and failures, we are worthy of love and connection whether it be with G-d or with our community.

In closing, as we go through the next 8 days, I invite you to look at this as a process of connection, not of self-flagellation. In just over a week we’ll fast, not to punish ourselves, but to render ourselves vulnerable, so that when stand before G-d and recite the al chet prayer ten times, not listing our sins as is commonly thought, because this actually translates as the times “we missed the mark”, we do so with a whole heart showing our true imperfect selves.  This is our opportunity to share our stories, to become more authentic, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and in the process transform both ourselves and our community. Let’s connect.

Labor Day – The Rest of the Story

For most of us Labor Day marks the end of summer, one last long weekend to enjoy sunshine and cookouts with friends and family. Rarely do we ask where did this holiday come from and what does it commemorate? I don’t recall the history of Labor Day being taught in school and beyond advice for avoiding sunburn at the beach it doesn’t get much press attention. I think it’s a safe bet that few of us are aware of the fascinating and complex origins of this national holiday.

Labor Day, as an American holiday, has its roots in the labor movement of the late 19th century. The years after the Civil War were a period of incredible economic expansion and industrialization in the United States. Massive waves of immigrants were landing on our shores as workers arrived to toil in factories, logging, mining, and railroads. Working conditions were often very hazardous, wages were low, the labor market corrupt, and child labor was rampant. Early labor unions were formed to try to improve the lives for workers through solidarity. Individuals who identified as members of anarchist, socialist, and even communist groups organized and led many of these early efforts.

One important event leading to the creation of Labor Day occurred on May 4, 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago, Illinois. The event was a worker rally organized by a group of anarchists in support of the eight-hour workday. In many ways the rally was a complete failure as many of the speakers failed to appear and the expected crowd of 20,000 was only about 2,500. It was near the end of the rally, when only about 200 people remained that more than 100 police officers armed with rifles showed up to break up the rally. An unknown person then threw a bomb at the police, who panicked and opened fire, killing some of their own. In the end seven police officers and four of the workers were dead and scores were wounded.

The government responded to this tragedy by declaring martial law throughout the entire nation and then arresting large numbers of labor leaders including the anarchist organizers of the rally. Eight organizers of the rally were charged with murder despite there being no evidence that they had anything to do with the bomb and the fact that all but two of them were not present when the bomb exploded. The two who were present were on the podium and couldn’t have thrown the bomb. The eight anarchist organizers were put on trial and all were convicted in what most workers considered to be a horribly unfair trial. It is said that the company bosses selected the names for the jury pool and the Chicago Tribune is said to have offered money to the jury if they convicted. Five of the eight convicted anarchists were executed by hanging. The surviving three fared better when they were later pardoned after a new governor, John P. Altgeld, was elected. Governor Altgeld reviewed the case, found there to be no evidence to support the convictions, and granted pardons to the survivors.

This event became known as the “Haymarket Affair” and it became a rallying point for workers who began gathering every May 1st to remember the martyrs of the Haymarket Affair. This annual event grew into what is known as either “May Day” or “International Workers Day” which is celebrated on May 1st of each year. To this day, many countries throughout the world, including all the major industrial countries except the United States, celebrate some sort of worker’s holiday on May 1st.

May1stLaborDayThe creation of the U.S. federal holiday of Labor Day occurred less than 10 years after the Haymarket affair, following yet even more workers’ deaths at the hands of the government. This time it was railroad workers who were striking against the Pullman Palace Car Company. The workers were led by Eugene Debs, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and who would later go onto become the leading socialist figure in the United States. The Pullman Company petitioned the Courts and obtained an injunction against the strike on the basis that, because the company carried mail on its trains, the worker’s strike was causing disruption of the mail. President Grover Cleveland then sent in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marshalls to break up the strike. The Army opened fire on the striking workers, killing 30 and wounding 57. This violent suppression of the strike created conflict between President Cleveland and the labor movement. Less than six days after the end of the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland and Congress, both seeking to find political conciliation with the labor movement, pushed through legislation creating the national Labor Day holiday. However, to ensure that the holiday did not continue to become a memorial to the martyrs of the Haymarket Affair, President Cleveland moved the holiday from May 1st to its current date in September. President Cleveland appears to have achieved his goal, because few Americans today have any knowledge of the Haymarket Affair and few have ever heard of the deaths of the workers during the Pullman Strike.

The censorship of history continues to this day. The US Department of Labor website describes the holiday as “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes of a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It is telling that the Department of Labor website fails to mention the government’s bloody roles in the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman strike and how those two events contributed to the creation of the holiday.