I prefer to get my news by listening to public radio. Because I’m a visual learner, I’m forced to concentrate more to catch all the details, so I find that listening to the news keeps me better informed. Because I’m sensitive, I try to avoid graphic pictures and videos on television and social media; when I do see a disturbing image, it tends to get stuck in my mind.
Hearing of the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officers involved in Eric Garner’s death, feeling frustrated that I could not take to the streets of NYC with my colleagues to protest, I turned on the television to watch the news unfold. Inadvertently, I also watched the video that I’d previously managed to avoid, the video that captured one officer subduing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, another holding his head against the pavement, pushing with both hands and exerting what appeared to be excessive force. Seeing a broadcast of these final, violent moments of Garner’s life left me feeling depleted.
I recognize that a few moments of video footage cannot adequately show everything that may be apparent to those who are physically present. Eye witnesses’ vision can also be distorted; despite that we possess greater peripheral vision than a camera lens, our eyes offer a limited view of the world around us. We sometimes rely on others to report what they are seeing when we are out of visual range, and even when we can see with our own eyes, we don’t always understand what we see. Our eyes convey images to our brains, where the information is stored in memory and can be revisited…and revised. We remember our initial, emotional response to what we’ve seen and reinterpret its significance.
Because our eyes can lead us astray, God commands Moses to tell the people of Israel to put fringes on the corners of their garments: “And you shall have the fringe so you will see it and bring to mind all of God’s commandments and will do them, and you will not go around after your heart and after your eyes, because you whore after them.” (Numbers 15:39, according to Professor Friedman’s translation) The tzitzit, fringes, are intended to cause a positive association with God, to help our eyes guide us toward holiness. Wrapping in garments and gazing at the fringes, we prevent ourselves from being misled by our imperfect vision, from being seduced by our desire to possess things, from being influenced by people who would lead us away from God.
I am haunted by the idea that my eyes deceive me.
A week ago, I was walking home from the park with my dog, when I saw tree branches poking out of a pile of dead leaves next to the sidewalk. The dog began to pull me toward the branches—she perceived with her keen sense of smell what I could not see clearly—and as she dragged me closer to them, I saw they were not branches but the head of a young buck. He was lying in perfect stillness, as if he’d stopped to catch his breath before heading up the hill and into the crosswalk. But I could see that his eyes, with their glassy sheen, were not blinking. He was beautiful in lifeless repose.
This is not an image of graphic violence, yet it returns to me when I watch Eric Garner cease to struggle as he is lowered to the ground. They are both lying—the deer and the man—empty of breath. I close my eyes to see with my heart, and resolve that tomorrow I will return to listening without watching the news.
For the last couple of years, I’ve admired the creativity of several of my Facebook friends who have posted photos of their Elves on the Shelf staged quite mischievously each night leading up to Christmas. It seemed Jewish families just didn’t have a good option available for such a doll in their house. And then, last year, I stumbled on the Kickstarter campaign for the Mensch on a Bench and was very impressed to see a Jewish version of this toy.
The Mensch, named Moshe, is a one-foot tall plush doll. To my eye, he looks stereotypically Jewish: he’s got a beard, a black hat, and a scarf resembling a tallit (prayer shawl). He’s got a Hebrew name (Moshe) and could have jumped off the screen of Fiddler on the Roof. When I see the Mensch, he looks nothing like most Jews I know.
Most Jews I know never wear a tallit. Most Jews I know never wear a black hat. And, most Jews I know don’t have beards. Only some of the Jews I know are men. And only some are white.
I understand that the Mensch’s creator had to choose one “look” for the Mensch, and so it’s impossible for him to represent us all. Admittedly, I’m not sure what the Mensch should look like. But I can’t help but wonder if this Mensch is inadvertently perpetuating some stereotypes – conveying that this is what “authentic” Jews look like.
If the Mensch looked more like the Elf but was wearing blue and white, I’d be happier. Or, if there were different versions of the Mensch showing the diversity of the Jewish community, I’d be way happier (and I’d probably buy them all!).
Also problematic is the book that accompanies Moshe the Mensch. That story opens with an illustration of a family lighting a Hanukkah menorah. You guessed it: a white family with a mom and a dad and a son and a daughter. A family in which the dad and son wear yalmulkes as head covering. While some families I know look this, others do not. Some have two dads, some have only a mom, some have a child or parent of a different race, some have no children. And while some Jewish men (and women!) wear yarmulkes, most do not. When we designed coloring book pages at OurJewishCommunity.org for Hanukkah, we purposefully included images that reflected diversity: interfaith families, Jews without yarmulkes, kids in wheelchairs, same-sex parents, etc.
Sadly, I think the images reflected in this opening illustration of the Mensch book present the most traditional approach, one that simply doesn’t reflect the identity of most Jews today. While Moshe may be typical of how Jews are most often portrayed, I think it misses an opportunity to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.
A few months ago, I had an opportunity to meet with the Mensch’s creator (and he was nice enough to give me a Mensch!). A former Hasbro employee, now a dad and an entrepreneur, Neal Hoffman is an impressive guy.
Overall, I like the Mensch and think it’s nice that there is a Jewish version of the Elf. Also great is that the the Mensch encourages mensch-like qualities. He comes with a set of Hanukkah rules, one of which is to choose a night of Hanukkah to give gifts to people in need.
It turns out I’m not the only one evaluating the Mensch this week. The Mensch on the Bench will be on Shark Tank this Friday night, so we’ll see what the sharks think. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Mensch’s looks; please share your comments here.
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.”
This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.
In the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.
What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.
Today will be a difficult day for my family. And for me. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia.
I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him. And that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me and for my young children who never met their first cousin. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie, while deep in her own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan’s memory alive. She came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform mitzvot and acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. Stephanie and her husband Hylton have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.
I was thinking of this last night when I learned about an easy way to support the cause of Pancreatic Cancer research by purchasing Hanukkah candles on Amazon.com. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to buy a box of purple Hanukkah candles for $20 on Amazon and 100% of the money goes to Pancreatic Cancer research. With a couple of hours left in “Giving Tuesday” I quickly clicked the link and ordered candles in memory of my uncle, Jerry Gudes, who died of Pancreatic Cancer in 2009. After I ordered the candles, Amazon asked if I would like to post my purchase to Facebook and Twitter to let others know about this product (and charitable cause). When I posted to Facebook with appreciation to Rabbi Wolpe for the tip, I mentioned that Rabbi David Wolpe and his brother Rabbi Dan Wolpe lost their father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, to Pancreatic Cancer. This led Rabbi Dan Wolpe to also click the link and buy Hanukkah candles in his father’s memory. Talk about paying it forward!
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have created several initiatives to encourage people (young and old) to make the world a better place and pay it forward. The first thing that they created was the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan. This is a place where individuals or families can share their stories of how they were kind to others in honor of Rylan. Just this week, a friend shared that he paid the bridge toll of the car behind him in memory of Rylan and later heard that this act of paying it forward went on for many cars thereafter. One woman posted, “I brought our new neighbors muffins and welcomed them to our street. They were so grateful.” It’s also become a forum for leaving stories of ways that others have been witnessed being kind. “A woman leaving as I was driving up to a space gave me the rest of the minutes in her parking ticket!” posted a woman.
Stephanie and Hylton Gelb have also set up a new scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA) to financially assist families with conference or evaluation expenses. The Galactosemia Foundation organizes a conference every other year in various locations around the country and this scholarship fund will help families pay for conference registration and offset travel expenses. The goal is to help families become more educated and make lifelong connections with other families. The second goal of this memorial scholarship is to financially assist families to be evaluated by a medical professional specializing in Galactosemia because there are currently only a few specialists around the country who have experience in the treatment of Galactosemia.
Finally, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, together with our family and friends, have donated a Buddy Bench. The purpose of the Buddy Bench is simple. It is placed on an elementary school playground to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children. The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness. Stephanie chose to have the custom designed Buddy Bench placed on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is the same school that both she and my wife, Elissa, attended as children. What’s so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have seen many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench to let other children know they are lonely and need a friend, and also for children to include others in their activities at school recess. The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.
It’s remarkable how the tragedy of an infant’s death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It’s a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives — especially during the grieving process — but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan Gelb has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for us.
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
When Abraham Lincoln set forth his proclamation in 1863 fixing a national day of Thanksgiving he evoked the images of a nation so blessed with bountiful harvests that we are “prone to forget the source from which they come.” Of course, 1863 was still the heart of a devastating civil war which would eventually bring about the emancipation of those enslaved, as Lincoln had proclaimed earlier in that same year. Lincoln was explicit about the connection between the renewal of the Thanksgiving tradition and the ordeal being faced by the nation:
I … commend to [G*d's] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union
Lincoln knew that not every American shared equally the bounties with which the country was blessed. However, humble gratitude for one’s fortune was a way for those with plenty to recognize their privilege and those who faced hardships to find strength, solace and healing.
The deep well from which Lincoln drew, as did Washington before him, is the Book of Deuteronomy that enjoined the Israelites to make their days of feasting and rejoicing occasions for words of blessing and deeds of thanksgiving. One verse in particular captures the powerful way in which this day marks both the privilege of what we receive and the responsibility for what we are able to give. Deuteronomy 16:16 discussing the three pilgrimage festivals states that none shall appear empty handed but rather “every man according to his hand’s gifts (matnat yado) and according to the blessing of ADONAI (birkat YHVH) which has been given” This verse is like the kind of reversible picture where a duck becomes a rabbit or a cup becomes two faces. One on hand the “hand’s gifts” and “blessing of ADONAI” could refer to that which is given into our hands and the blessing given by G*d. However, they could also mean each Israelite man should appear according with the gift given by his hand as a way of offering blessing to G*d. In fact, it is both at the very same time.
To not “appear empty-handed” is not about the quantity or even the quality of what he have. It is to know that to have what for which to give thanks is a privilege. And to have privilege is a serious responsibility. The privilege of taking this time of reflection, enjoyment, and gratitude for the fruits of our freedom leads to the responsibility to make sure that the harvest of these fruits reaches all. The privilege, especially as Jews, to live in a country that has vouchsafed our freedom of religion, protected our rights as minorities, and allowed us full access to all that America has to offer leads to the responsibility never to forget what happens when individuals are denied these opportunities.
May we be inspired in our work of thanksgiving with the gifts of our hands and according to our blessings.
When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?
Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.
These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.
Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.
But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.
Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.
If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:
- If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
- Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
- Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
- Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?
I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”
I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.
The human trait of Hakarat HaTov, literally “noticing the good” but often translated as gratitude, is a perfect character trait to find within us and to continue to cultivate more of, especially the week of Thanksgiving.
In the Passover Haggadah we are reminded of the word Dayenu, “it would have been enough.” This song is based on a Psalm that reminds the Jewish People: If God had only taken us out of slavery it would have been enough. If God only gave us the Torah, that would have been enough. But there was more. We were given the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, the Holy Temple, holidays to celebrate, food to eat, drink to quench our thrust. Any one thing would have been enough of a gift, but in fact we have so much!
In developing our gratitude it is helpful to be “grateful for the partial” (click for a video). So often we have a fine day until X, or Y, or Z happens, and then suddenly we forget all the perfectly fine things that happened. Hakarat HaTov, noticing the good, reminds us to accept the good as genuinely good, and not let the negative in our life so easily overshadow the positive. As it turns out, our brains are wired to notice unpleasant threatening stimulus, but we can also notice the good.
I once heard a story of a Spanish sea captain who would put on his reading glasses every time he ate strawberries.
“Why do you do that,” his crew finally asked.
The captain replied, “I love strawberries. The difficult things in life always seem bigger than they really are, so I wanted the good things to appear bigger too.”
Making your Thanksgiving meaningful.
A) One time each day, take some time to consider something nice, good, or kind. It might be a loved one, a great song on the radio. It might be chocolate. Spend a few minutes thinking about it. Being “grateful for the partial” means noticing that this person, thing, or activity is somehow part of your life. Where do you feel this gratitude? Maybe a warmth in your chest? Perhaps a smile comes across your face. As it turns out, gratitude has a feeling.
B) This week, make a “gratitude list.” Actually write down 10 people, activities, or things that make your life better. Each time you sit to write your list, be sure not to repeat previous items. If it is possible, reach out to another person to share your gratitude – especially if they are involved or responsible for what you are grateful for.
Start now!! List 5 things you are grateful. Share your list with others. Invite them to add to the list, and watch it grow.
I was hip for a week. For one week, I had a stripe of purple hair mixed in with my usual brown shiny locks. I loved it! I felt bolder, braver, and more fun. Most of all it just made me smile to see it in the mirror.
Frankly, I needed to smile. A couple of weeks earlier, a good friend died of aggressive breast cancer. Her untimely death woke me up. I understood in a new way how fragile and short life is. It is a cliché that we need to live life as fully as possible while we have it—but it is true. We do. My friend lived life loud, literally. She had a big presence and a booming voice. You always knew when she was in the room. She embraced all things silly and fun, and let you know you were missing out if you did not participate.
In the midst of my sadness, I realized that I needed more fun in my life. I was missing out on some things. Since adolescence, I have wanted to dye my hair some funky color, purple, blue, hot pink. Yet, I never have. I felt the time had arrived.
So, I walked in to a hair salon and asked to dye my hair. The hair stylist suggested I go an easier route and put in a pre-dyed hair extension. She explained that it would last a month or two and was cheaper and less complicated than dye. Five minutes later I had purple hair!
I felt liberated. Finally, my inner punk was on full display.
I texted friends and posted a picture on Facebook. The out pouring of joy and support was immediate. My favorite Facebook comment was “Ok, You’re my rabbi.” I was further astounded by the number of women who told me that they were jealous, that they wanted to be that brave, that they wanted to do it too!
Sadly, a week later, my purple hair extension silently slipped out of my hair. Apparently, my never before dyed or processed hair was too “healthy and silky” to firmly hold it in place. If only I had been more of a rebel when I was younger….
I would have liked it to last longer; however, the week with purple hair was a revelation. I learned several things. Many, many women like me are putting off being their whole selves, or true selves. I was astounded by the number of women who shared with me how they wanted to do something similar, yet something was holding them back.
As a rabbi, I encourage others to be their best selves, to bring their dreams and aspirations in to reality. So if you have something you want to do, be it dying your hair a funky color or changing a major part of your life—just do it! Life is short, if you let your fears and doubts hold you back from being who you want to be and achieving what you want, then you will miss out on something precious.
I also learned that people are far less judgmental than you think when you present yourself strongly and confidently. When people asked why I had purple in my hair, I answered honestly, I needed a little fun in my life. I got smiles and nods in return.
I love doing out of the box things as a rabbi. I have never fit into boxes very well. My sense is that most of us don’t. So watch out! The purple hair is likely to come back. Or I may try something else….I am open to ideas. How else can I express my inner punk?
“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.
The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.
Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.
When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.
At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.
I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.
My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.
I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.
The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.
As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.