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.
Can a 6’5’’, 310 pound man be bullied? Prior to this week, many of us probably thought such a question to be absurd. But the recent allegations surrounding the treatment of Jonathan Martin, a 24 year-old right tackle for the Miami Dolphins, should cause all of us to take a step back and reassess the complexity of power relationships.
The drama surrounding Martin grows more surreal each day. He left his team after a lunchroom hazing incident and checked himself into a treatment facility for emotional distress. Then a voicemail message from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, surfaced in which Incognito berated Martin with racial slurs (including the use of the N-word), death threats, and physical threats against Martin’s mother. Additional allegations surfaced involving physical, verbal, and financial hazing by Incognito and others against Martin. Incognito, who was kicked off two teams in college and was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player in the past, has been suspended by the team.
Incredibly, rather than rallying in support of Martin, many of Martin’s teammates, and other NFL players, have at least partially blamed Martin! As Antrel Rolle, a safety on the New York Giants, put it:
“Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man.”
As a football fan, a parent, and a rabbi, I am appalled by the harassment Martin was forced to endure and even more appalled by those who fault Martin for breaking a code of silence or for not being “man” enough to retaliate physically. Many in the media rightfully have been quick to vilify Incognito and decry the destructive machismo of the football locker room. I am glad that Incognito, and the racist, homophobic, “warrior man” culture he embodies is being addressed. Yet Martin is a multi-millionaire adult with a degree from Stanford. Whether or not he plays football again, I believe he has the resources to come out of this ordeal and go on to lead a healthy, productive life.
But what about all those who are bullied yet lack the support systems or resources to cope with its destructive impact? What about the 15 year-olds like Jordan Lewis of Chicago, who killed himself because he couldn’t tolerate the bullying in his school? Or Rebecca Sedwick, the Florida teen who jumped to her death from a silo because she couldn’t handle the onslaught of online bullying from fellow teenagers, one of whom responded to her death by posting on Facebook: “”Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.”?” I could go on and on, but instead I urge you to just google “teen” “bullied” and “suicide”: the sheer number of hits, of lives lost to bullying, is sickening.
So where do we go from here?
The ugly truth is that we all have some Richie Incognito inside of us. In our various relationships with others, there are times when we have relatively more power than others and a temptation to exploit that power for our personal gain. We don’t like to admit this. How often do we look in the mirror and point the finger at ourselves, at how we conduct ourselves in our own “locker rooms?” Even where we are not the actual perpetrators of bullying, how often do we permit a permissive bullying culture to persist around us? ADL and others have developed incredible resources for combating bullying, including resources for families to use with one another. It is incumbent upon us, as rabbis, parents, teachers, and members of a community where our youth are essential to our survival and prosperity, to shine a spotlight on the permissive culture of bullying and demand that we change. We need to insist that our religious schools, youth groups, and other fora where vulnerable and impressionable children and teenagers find themselves are safe spaces. We need to affirm, not marginalize, their value as unique and special human beings is affirmed. We need to be vigilant against “just letting things slide,” or minimizing the impact of harmful words or actions. The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.” We all have the potential to shed this blood, but we also have the potential–and the obligation–to ensure that this blood is no longer spilled.
You might also be interested in: Should a Known Bully Be Allowed to Become a Bar Mitzvah?
I am an unabashed advocate of Jewish day school education. I attended day school from kindergarten through eighth grade, and I firmly believe that I would not have the same Jewish identity, comfort level, or knowledge were it not for my day school education. One of the first decisions my wife and I made as parents was to send our children to day school.
As a result, I now am also well aware of the exorbitant cost of day school, ranging from $20,000-30,000 per year (at least for non-Orthodox day schools).These overwhelming costs, unfortunately, are often prohibitive for parents who might otherwise want to send their children to day school. So you might think I would be excited about recent efforts within the Jewish communal world to expand access to day schools. Jewish federations, community relations councils (CRCs), and organizations are becoming actively involved in a new, heretofore heretical, project: lobbying state governments to pass new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools. The UJA-Federation of New York has hired a lobbyist to push for enhanced government entitlements and tax exemptions for Jewish schools. Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, has called on the Jewish community to embrace greater state support of parochial schools. In Louisiana, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the OU, and a local Jewish day school met with legislators to support vouchers and tax credits. As this article notes, last year the JCPA featured panel discussions about tax credits, vouchers, and state reimbursement for non-religious school expenses at its annual policy conference.
But there is an important question that we need to be asking: is the short-term boost these efforts might give to our day schools worth the Jewish community’s entanglement in the thicket of religion and education? These stances would have been anathema for most major Jewish organizations throughout the 20th century. From the ADL to the AJC, the leading institutions of Jewish-American engagement were steadfast in protecting against any encroachment of religion into the educational sphere. Jewish organizations were some of the most outspoken guardians of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” And for good reason: the history of Jewish communal life for much of the past 2000 years has been the history of how well or poorly we were tolerated in countries where religious and political governance usually went hand-in-hand.
So are we making a Faustian deal by having Jewish communal organizations advocate for new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools? And if so, is it worth it? The parent in me says yes to both. The lawyer in me says no. The rabbi/communal leader in me is unsure. What do you think?
I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:
So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)
This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.
This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83. Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.
I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.
He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.
In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’
While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:
‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’
The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.
Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality. And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.
But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.
This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.
When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.