I listened to a recent episode of the NPR show On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith) called “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship.” The piece focused on the mutuality of service, a topic we have covered many times in our community-engagement-focused blog posts.
The guest on the show was Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoo on the Heart. Father Boyle is a Jesuit who leads Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a business that employs former gang members in a Los Angeles neighborhood which, as host Krista Tippett notes: “…was once the poorest parish in the city and had the highest concentration of gang activity in the world at that time. And there’s so much grief and so much heartbreak in these kids’ lives and in the stories that you tell.”
Father Boyle’s approach has been, in his words, less about helping other and instead: “…this is fundamentally about our common call to delight in one another.” He says that service, on the whole, is “not an end in itself but a beginning, towards finding real kinship with others.”
This resonates with me, and my own convictions as a community engagement professional. Also, as someone who has been working on community engagement for a Jewish organization while living in the Bible Belt of the South, Father Boy’s religious perspective was intriguing.
Father Boyle evokes numerous Christian personalities and stories from the New Testament to support his characterization of service as mutuality. As I listened, I was moved but I wondered whether some of his message would be lost on a Jewish blog or to a Jewish audience.
I thought about what might be the Jewish equivalent. Does the concept of b’tzelem elohim (each and every person is created in the image of God) suffice?
Then, he began to talk about God.
Leaving out any debate as to the existence or nature of God, I’ll say that I did think of many of the Jewish teachings about God with which I am familiar. Father Boyle used the word “spacious” to describe God, and I immediately thought of the many ways in which Judaism characterizes God: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Judaism, like Christianity, hinges on the idea that the mission of human beings is to emulate God. How does one emulate this grandiose version of God?
After talking about a memorable encounter he had with a young gang member, Father Boyle suggests that it “came by way of knowing that the day won’t ever come when I am as holy as the people I’m called to serve, that the day won’t ever come when I have more courage or am more noble or am closer to God than this 16-year-old gang member sitting alone on his porch.” Those who believe in a God that is not limited by space can appreciate the idea that God is everywhere. God doesn’t stay away from the East or West side of town, from the low-income or high crime areas and therefore we can strive to adopt such spaciousness in our own lives.
Are believers in God prepared to reject the manifestation of God that is in another part of town? Can service aim to remove barriers that enforce the separations between the “us” and the “them.” Whether or not we believe in a God that is omnipresent, Father Boyle provides other teachings that are similarly inspiring, including the value of being in awe of another person’s fortitude during trying times.
I recommend listening to the interview. What values does he discuss that might transcend Christianity and apply to all people of faith? What resonate even with those who take a non-faith based approach to service? Do you know of Jewish teachings that demonstrate the ways in which we benefit and grow when we are committed to services? Share your comments below!
While some of my friends and neighbors are getting ready for the holiday season by watching Christmas specials, I recently decided to watch a different sort of “tradition-al” film— Fiddler on the Roof.
“Fiddler” is celebrating 50 years since it first opened on Broadway. Like many people, I associate the musical with old-world life in the shtetl. But, watching it recently, I was struck by how much remains relevant to Jewish life today, particularly during the holiday season.
As Tevye, the main character, and his family face the influences of secularism and Christianity, he struggles to reconcile his love for his family with his love of tradition. And, when his daughters’ pursuit of love comes up against his passion for tradition, he is willing to adapt, and he does…until he can’t.
The struggle reaches a climax when his third daughter marries a Christian. After his dreams of arranging his daughters’ marriages has already been shattered by his two older daughters (with the eldest marrying a poor tailor, despite Tevye having promised her to a wealthy butcher, and the next one leaving home to join her political prisoner love in Siberia), the final straw comes when his third daughter proclaims her intentions to wed outside the faith. When she and her beloved come to him, their exchange is painful:
CHAVA: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
TEVYE [to himself/to the heavens, as the others all freeze]: Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith? My people? If I try and bend that far, I will break. On the other hand…No. There is no other hand.
What I find most beautiful about this musical is that regardless of whether one thinks Tevye should be more accepting of his daughters’ choices or if you think that his daughters ought to have more reverence for the traditions with which they were raised (matchmaking included), one cannot help but admire the characters’ willingness to struggle.
Holidays seem to bring this struggle to the forefront as our observance of tradition is made public with whether and how we celebrate Hanukkah—whether we put a menorah in our windowsill for all to see, whether we have people over for latkes and whether we give children gelt or gifts. Perhaps though, the more confusing dilemmas are related to whether and how a Jewish family acknowledges and/or celebrates Christmas.
I encourage everyone who struggles to watch Fiddler on the Roof. If nothing else, it is proof that those who struggle are not alone and that the struggle is not exclusive to our generation. I also believe that an even more profound message is in this classic film – a lesson not to be too quick to judge others for their choices during the holiday season. Remember, for each “on the one hand,” there is an “on the other hand.” Because even though Tevye initially says “there is no other hand”…. His struggle does not end there. He only seems to reach a wall—but the wall is porous, as we see Tevye’s love for his daughter shine through. When the Jews of Anatevka are forced to leave, Tevye’s daughter Chava and her Christian husband come to bid farewell to her family. They express that they, too, cannot stay in a place where people are treated so poorly. At first, Tevye does not acknowledge her but as she walks away, he mumbles: “And God be with you.”
During this holiday season, let us honor the struggle Jews have faced for centuries and recognize that there is a myriad of ways in which we could honor tradition and the choices of our families, friends and neighbors. And, as we try and stay true to our “on the one hand,” let us always remember that somewhere there lies an “on the other hand.”
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For many, the end of Daylight Savings Time is associated with an extra luxurious hour of sleep. Since modern electricity mitigates our lighting experience throughout the day, I don’t really consider the fact that it also means that it will get dark earlier in the evenings and lighter earlier in the mornings. I can switch on a light and read while it is dark outside, and I can close my blinds in the morning if I want my apartment to get darker.
But this year, I’m wondering what it would be like if at sunset, I could no longer read, no longer maneuver around my crowded apartment without candlelight, and I could no longer see someone while I am talking to them.
This is in large part because I listened to this TEDx Zurich Talk still in rough form given by Anya Cherneff, Executive Director of Empower Generation. (Anya’s talk is about 52 minutes into the unedited clip.) I met Anya through her father, Peter Cherneff, the founding board chair of Footsteps. As Executive Director of Footsteps, I was often inspired by the Cherneff family’s commitment to social justice. Most inspiring to me was that when it comes to social justice, the Cherneffs’ vision is global, transcending their own personal experiences.
Personal experience influences how we see the world. Years ago, I co-founded and championed Footsteps, an organization that supports the choices of people who want to enter or explore the world outside of the insular ultra-orthodox communities in which they were raised. Like many founders, I was inspired by my personal experiences and the challenges I faced and witnessed around this life transition. Peter did not share the same background, but his support of Footsteps members has been unwavering. For some, working with people from such a drastically different background would have been a Herculean task. But not for Peter, who with compassion and curiosity became one of the most effective drivers of change on behalf of the Footsteps community.
It should not—and did not—surprise me then when Anya and her husband Bennett Cohen founded Empower Generation in 2011. Empower Generation is an organization that seeds and supports women-led enterprises addressing energy poverty. The vision of this organization is “a world where women living at the base of the economic pyramid are empowered to lead their communities out of energy poverty, where human dignity for all and environmental sustainability are universal values.”
Empower Generation has been focusing its efforts on Nepal which, as they explain, “is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half the population living below the poverty line and more than half living without access to reliable power.” As she explained in her TEDx Zurich talk, that means that families need to choose between using the limited light they have to do homework or cook.
Nepal is far from where Anya grew up here in the U.S. but, like her dad, she has forged friendships and alliances that have made citizens in Nepal who are impacted by Empower Generation truly valued, engaged, full partners in this endeavor.
Empower Generation is an example of what we can do when we allow ourselves to be moved and when we value the ideas and wisdom that are rooted in experiences outside of our own. It is also the outcome of reflecting on resources we take for granted. Light is one such resource, and as we prepare to lose an hour of light in the evenings, let’s think about those who live without access to reliable power. In a country where power is abundant, let’s think about the impact our energy usage has on our world at large. Instead of just gaining an hour of sleep, let’s also gain some insight.
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