Did you hear the recent story on NPR about the professor who is living in a dumpster for a year? No, not a dirty, grungy kind of place, but a sanitized garbage dumpster. Environmental science professor Jeff Wilson, Ph.D., the dean of Huston Tillotson’s University College, rallied support from students as he prepared the space, which is located on the college’s campus.
The story, documented here by KVUE.com, has reverberated for me all week. Maybe it’s because my own home is now an empty nest. I wonder if the abundance of the often-empty spaces, once filled with the tumult of a busy family, is now an over-abundance.
Dr. Wilson will live in a 36 square foot space, one percent the size of the average home. In this tiny living space, it is estimated that a mere one percent of the average home’s water and energy will be consumed. Likewise, the dumpster-home will produce a tiny one percent of the average waste as well.
In the first phase of the project, Dr. Wilson is just “camping out.” I thought of my kids’ love of wilderness camping, and the experience we shared living only on the supplies that we carried on our backs. It’s incredibly liberating and empowering.
In the second phase of the dumpster project, it will be connected to the grid, to become a slightly more regular home – with appliances. The professor and his students will measure its consumption of water and electricity. What a powerful lesson this will generate – as Dr. Wilson instructs his students in new ways to consider what we really need in a home.
Home ownership is often called “the American Dream.” But somewhere along the way, the American credo “bigger is better,” shifted our values. Many Americans have aspired to and acquired large homes – proclaiming, “We have ‘made it’.” These cultural values have led many people to stretch beyond their means in purchasing homes, with potentially tragic consequences.
Dr. Wilson’s lessons in consumption and sustainability are a prompt for recalibrating. How much do we really need? How can our choices help us to sustain our natural resources for a healthy planet?
In the third and final phase of the project, the dumpster will be fitted with solar panels to produce its energy. But since those panels (in the sunshine of Austin, Texas) will collect far more energy than the home can use, it will replace energy back into the grid.
Dr. Wilson will live in the dumpster most of the time, but some of his enthusiastic students will take turns living in it while he is away. I wonder, after the novelty of the project recedes, will the experience shape their values and choices?
I hope so. The generation who is inheriting the world that consumes beyond its means can reshape our culture with wiser values.
I am not ready to downsize just yet, but I am inspired by the professor’s courageous example, and even more, his students’ expanded potential.
This week’s stunning headline read “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in Rehab After He Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.”
The term “affluenza,” popularized in a 2001 a book, Affluenza, the All-Consuming Epidemic (de Graff, Wann, and Naylor) is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
The headline for the “Affluenza defense” told a horrific story. It was the defense strategy for 16 year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people and severely injured two more while driving his father’s pickup truck with more than three times the legal limit for alcohol in his blood, along with valium. Driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 MPH zone, the teen was behind the wheel after stealing beer from a store, then taking 7 passengers with him on a drunken ride. Despite the stolen beer, the speeding, the underage drinking, etc.—a long list of offenses—the teen was sentenced to just 10 years of probation and mandatory rehabilitation. The rehab ordered by the judge will cost $450,000 a year, in what seems more a punishment of his parents than a consequence for their killer child.
News outlets reported that a “psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” An anguished man who lost his wife and daughter in the crash observed that Couch’s family’s money was able to pay for the expensive legal defense, and cover the rehab costs—and had this not been the case, the outcome surely would have been different.
They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them—everyone who defended this remorseless teenager—for defending his actions. This defense was a way of saying that he bears no blame. In fact, his facial expressions and body language all bore out an arrogant “you can’t touch me” detachment.
Should the parents be punished for raising a child with such a sense of entitlement, lacking boundaries and lessons about consequences – essentially without morals? Maybe. If only the psychologist had tried to determine the causes for this kid’s malevolent self-absorption, perhaps the parents would bear some guilt. We know that parents can’t control the outcomes of their parenting, and some who try to do their best end up disappointed. Yet, this case does cry out for examination of the parents’ role in producing this outcome.
Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to raise a cultural conversation about parenting with boundaries and consequences—teaching our kids to have a moral compass?
Even more so, the consequences for the teen should have made a different point. If this is a child who was not taught to live with boundaries and consequences, then the court did the worst possible thing by repeating that very same pattern. Ideally, he should be taught that there are painful—and sometimes disastrous—consequences of bad judgment. Perhaps he won’t learn morality at this point, but we have a responsibility to try. And if nothing more, society should make sure he can’t hurt anyone else again.
How about a lifetime ban on his obtaining a driver’s license or purchasing or leasing any motor vehicle?
We owe it to the victims and to all of our children, to do better than this.
Where is home? Is it where you live, even if it is temporary? Is it where you grew up? Is it the place where your parents or grandparents and their families originated?
Home might also be a special place where the heart resides even if it isn’t our place of residence. The Jewish people have held Israel in their hearts for over three millennia.
Home could also be the place where we have grown up or come of age. At a recent event I met someone with whom I had an immediate connection—we shared the history of the same childhood home synagogue in Philadelphia. Neither of us have been there in decades, but the connection to this home bonded us.
And of course, home is where we live, if we are fortunate enough to have stable housing—something we cannot take for granted.
I’ve been ruminating on this for the last couple of weeks as various manifestations of “home” have been in my face.
I spent a week with my husband and two of our kids in the Bay area of California. We stayed in an Airbnb rental in Berkeley and experienced being paying guests in a stranger’s home—it was much more comfortable than a hotel. I wondered how it would feel to have people staying in my home who were paying consumers. We spent a day talking about whether and how we would consider being hosts, renting all or part of our house for SuperBowl weekend (since we live in NJ, not far from the stadium, where hotel rooms are scarce.)
We walked around downtown Berkeley for six days, confronted with a very present and aggressively begging homeless population. The streets are their home. We talked about how homeless people can feel invisible as the streets fill with people who avert their eyes as they pass them by.
Even with unusually frigid weather in New Jersey, it was so nice to come home. But soon the political scandal engulfing my state caught my attention. Maybe it was the sleazy drama of it all, but something drew me into listening to a long press conference and reading endless columns of reactions and analysis. My home, New Jersey, was being maligned. I felt protective of my home state—I wanted to tell the world about the great hiking and biking, lush farmland and gardens in my home state. Please don’t think of New Jersey as traffic and the turnpike and slimy politicians. It’s my home.
This week the Modern Language Association debated one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel, way out of proportion to rebukes to the other nations of the world, and I felt protective of my other “home.” I am fortunate to have spent enough time in Israel to relate to the land personally; it’s not an abstract feeling of attachment.
We who are fortunate to have comfortable places to call home, with perhaps the means to share with guests, or the opportunity for multiple special places of “home,” are truly living with the blessing of holiness. Jewish tradition has many names for God, including the oft-used “hamakom“—meaning, “the place.”
The homeless people who claim their spot on the street, staying day-after-day in “their” place, are striving for the same shelter under “Divine wings.” They deserve to not be invisible; they too are created in the Divine image.
In this week’s Torah reading (Yitro),the Israelites, newly freed from slavery, had to figure out how to make a home in the wilderness. It was not easy. But thanks to Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, they organized themselves into a representational polity that took the needs of all the people into account.
When we care for each other, as if we are guests in each others homes, we find “hamakom.” Home is where we are respected, seen, nurtured and fully alive as ourselves. It takes eyes that see and hearts that care for “home” to realized. That is the blessing we can make real in our world.
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I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.
Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.
Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.
Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.
Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world? Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?
So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.
We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.
The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary. Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:
“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”
The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.
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It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance. Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.
My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’
It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community. Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise.Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.
Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with synagogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.
Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible. With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.
That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.
I will soon launch a new center for Jewish learning and experiences. Through it, I will also seek ways to collaborate with local rabbis and communities whenever possible. We are all in it together. ”The times, they are a’changin.” The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.
The yahrzeit for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, passed with scant notice here a few days ago on the 12th of Heshvan. November 4 will mark the date on the secular calendar, now eighteen years later. Perhaps by then we will have returned Rabin’s memory to its proper place in our discourse and our prayers.
In the days after the assassination, the Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain!”, set to music in Hebrew, became the theme for those who mourned Rabin’s death at the hands of an extremist Jew. The poem had originally been written to mourn the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The shock of that moment, just when Israel seemed to be on the brink of peace with the Palestinians, signaled another painful block in the road.
In 1999 the Prime Minister Ehud Barak remembered Rabin at a memorial in Oslo: I still mourn the death of Yitzhak, my commander and mentor. And I tell you, Yitzhak, that you are fallen dead, but your spirit and will are stronger than ever. So today, I pledge to you, Yitzhak, to all our neighbors, and to the whole world—to travel the course you charted and to finish the journey you’ve led towards security and peace. Only then, when we reach this destination, will we proclaim, in the words of Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.” And here today I bring to all of you the prayer that we will see in the not too distant future the fulfillment of the vision of Psalms about Jerusalem: “May peace be within your walls, tranquility within your palaces.” This is our hope. This is our responsibility.
Peace would be costly, including withdrawal from most of the territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, a painful retrenchment. It would mean facing the issue of Jerusalem, with swaths of Arab East Jerusalem being open to negotiation.
Rabin brought much of Israel together under the banner of peace. The first Intifada had led many Israelis to understand that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza carried unsustainable costs. Compromises were necessary. But in the ensuing years, and the second Intifada, many Israelis grew to despair that the Palestinians could be trusted to make peace.
So many attempts, so many failures. Another round of talks have brought out the optimists, the pragmatists, the pessimists and the naysayers yet again. I reside in the realm of pragmatic optimisim. It must be the case that peace is possible.
Now, 18 years after Rabin’s murder, where are we? Are we any closer to peace? Does the legacy of Rabin’s courage and leadership linger and inspire as he did before his violent end?
On the night of Rabin’s assassination, he was carrying the words to the song “Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace” in his jacket pocket – it was the theme of the huge peace rally in Tel Aviv that night. After the shooting, the bloody paper illustrated the wound to the prayer, and peace itself.
In memory of our Captain, Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be for a blessing, I pray for a renewal of faith in the possibility for peace. Let us sing Shir Lashalom as our prayer once again. Rabin taught us to reach beyond our despair, our hurts and angers, and even our realistic doubts, and to create the reality that gives full expression to the dream of our people: to live in peace as a free people in our land.
Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace
Let the sun rise, the morning shine,
The finest of prayers can bring us back no more.
And he whose flame has been extinguished,
Who’s buried in the ground,
No bitter wails will wake him, will him restore.
No one can bring us back from the dark of the grave.
Here, neither the joy of victory
Nor paeans from the brave can help.
Just sing therefore a song to peace
Don’t whisper prayers.
Far better, sing a song to peace,
And sing it way out loud.
Let the sun in through the flowers.
Don’t look back, let the fallen rest.
Raise your eyes in hope, not through the barrel of a gun.
Sing a song to love and not to victories.
Don’t say “a day will come” – go bring that day yourself,
For it is not a dream.
In all the squares, ring out a song for peace.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
This week America commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the massive event in 1963 that we so often reference when we recite selections of the iconic speech of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. “I Have a Dream” became a trope for Americans who wrapped themselves in the eloquent words of this American hero, touting support for freedom and equality.
Yes, much progress has been made in legal freedoms and cultural consciousness regarding overt prejudice. It is far less socially acceptable (and absolutely spurned in many circles) to speak in racial slurs, and far more expected that we share schools, workplaces, and politics with our fellow black Americans. Yet, white Americans and black Americans have vastly divergent views of the problems of equality that still plague our country. Writing in the opinion pages of the New York Times (“Fifty Years Later,” 8/24/13) Charles Blow cited a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this month documented shocking differences in perception between whites and blacks concerning the most significant issues that concern the African American community. Blacks widely reported perceptions that there are serious challenges of equality in dealing with police, courts, workplace, stores/restaurants, schools, healthcare and voting, while whites largely reported their view that blacks are treated fairly. The disconnect is telling – many whites like to think that we did it – we fulfilled “the dream.” But, despite the obvious advances, the dream is far from realized.
This Wednesday we not only commemorate the March on Washington, we, as Jews, enter the last week of the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year. Elul is designated as the month of reflection, introspection, and preparation for the repentance of the Days of Awe, at the Jewish New Year. Our sages taught that in order to make our repentance complete, we must first acknowledge our sins of commission and omission, and seek to make amends with all those whom we have offended or harmed. Only then can we ask God for forgiveness and expect to be written in Book of Life for good.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for complacency. The work is not done; equality has not been achieved.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for prejudice and hatefulness. Simply not uttering hateful words is not enough – acting out of prejudicial beliefs, with unholy motivations is even worse.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for selfishness. As the income gap between “haves” and “have-nots” grows exponentially, the descendants of American slavery continue to struggle to catch up.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for failing to live up to our values and ideals. Social justice and equality have been transmitted from our most ancient roots – the Torah commands “Justice, Justice shall you pursue”, and still we avoid the work it takes to make a just and equitable society.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for continuing segregation – in our neighborhoods, social circles, work places and schools. Desegregation laws were one thing – integration is another.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for believing that we have fulfilled our obligation to righteous action by helping the needy in developing nations. At the same time, our inner cities and poor communities languish in poverty.
This year, we pray not only for forgiveness from these sins, but even more, for the wisdom, courage and generosity to work to advance “the dream” of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. May this Elul and this 50th anniversary signal a new era for our nation and for us, each more complete in righteousness.
“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the opening scene from the Wizard of Oz –where the house spins wildly in the air and lands with a crash. In the next scene, Dorothy wakes up and learns that she is in Oz, opening an adventure. The scene that made me remember this childhood image was very real, and it is no adventure at all. The houses that spun and landed were real houses picked up by Hurricane Sandy just weeks ago. Unlike their fictional movie counterpart, these houses didn’t land intact. They broke into thousands of pieces, some tiny and some amazingly large, some sweeping through the nearby reedy marsh.
This was the scene in Union Beach, New Jersey, where I spent a day volunteering with a group from the Jewish Federation of Metrowest, NJ. Our community has adopted Union Beach and made a special effort to assist this devastated community less than an hour’s drive from my home.
The town manager outlined the extent of the devastation – 1600 modest middle income homes comprise this small, hardworking shore town, and virtually all were either flooded, badly damaged, devastated (needing demolition) or completely demolished by the storm. 50 houses were destroyed, while another 300 are beyond repair. The needs are enormous.
We worked on cleaning a marshland wildlife habitat adjacent to the shore. One street on the bay side of the marsh suffered a direct hit from storm surge, and every single house was destroyed. Much of the debris landed across the marsh. In one section we pried household plumbing and parts of walls out of the tangled marsh. We cut and removed sections of wooden framing from houses, alongside an entire outside deck. We discovered what appeared to be the pieces of an entire house along with its contents, uncovered piece by piece from the mud. A child’s toy truck. A refrigerator. A couch. A hat. A section of a kitchen table. A storage bin for toys. A mailbox attached to the post, #168. A box of love letters, the top one addressed, “Dear Honey-Bunny”, from thirty years ago. Photographs, some in albums, many alone in the debris, attested to whole lifetimes of family and special times. One baby picture looked eerily like my son as a baby. Each item brought tears to my eyes – this was their whole lives, and it could have been mine. I grieved for their loss.
The town manager told us that they don’t know how many people are currently living in the town. Many are sleeping on couches and floors with family, friends and neighbors. FEMA has yet to provide housing for any of the displaced residents.
The AmeriCorps team leader told me that she had just come from working in a section of New York that was a worse disaster than Union Beach. There is plenty of misery to go around in New Jersey and New York.
I wished I could cut just write checks to these homeowners to get their lives rebuilt. I thought of the politicians in Congress playing politics with the request for emergency funding that is facing opposition in the House. I felt sick about it.
I came home and told my son about our work. I was achy and tired, but glad I did it. He said, “Yea, but its only one day.” He’s right. The need is so much greater.
As I scrubbed the mud from under my fingernails and nursed my aching back, I thought of the politicians whose help is desperately needed. All the volunteers can’t do what our government can do to help these communities. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined a fantasy – every politician who must decide whether to fund the Emergency Fund as requested by local officials ought to have to spend a week sleeping on floors and couches in these cramped quarters, spending the daytime not debating, but digging, sawing, lifting, and removing debris. And then rebuilding—wouldn’t that be nice! Maybe if they got their hands dirty they would think twice about saying “no.”
After all, there is no place like home.