Sukkot offers some incredible starting points for discussion. The Sukkot holiday begins tonight and lasts for a week. Among other things, core to Sukkot is the sukkah itself: something that provides shelter, but is temporary.
One topic the ISJL’s curriculum focuses on is the concept of Ushpizin. This is the custom of inviting our ancestors into our Sukkah. While the traditional Ushpizin guests are biblical characters, it sets a precedent for inviting people who add value to our life into our personal dwelling, to allow them to help shape it and shape us.
This got me thinking. There are so many people who have been involved in social action and who have led various social justice campaigns, so… as someone committed to social justice, who would I want to invite into my temporary dwelling to sit and have some coffee and cake with and learn.Which also made me wonder – maybe even more importantly than the question of who would I invite in, is the question what would we talk about while we were in there?
I started Googling Sukkot and Jewish social activists, and what I came across is the group Jewish Women Watching and their 2007 Sukkot campaign, “Treyfing Sukkot.” I’d be curious to hear what you think. Jewish Women Watching had an interesting approach to Sukkot: “Sukkot is a time when we step outside of our comfort zones. We need to go beyond ʻsafe causesʼ and challenge the status quo.”
The campaign included sukkah decorations that highlighted causes that were, at the time, “kosher,” i.e. “safe causes”; while other decorations listed causes that were “treyf” – more polarizing, less “safe.” These decorations presented a real challenge to the Jewish community and Jewish individuals. From a quick glance at their website, it doesn’t look as though Jewish Women Watching is still an active group. However, one line quoted in the press release that announced this campaign stood out to me.
“The sukkah is a fragile dwelling, and for it to be kosher, it must be open.”
If our sukkah is truly open, who would we invite in? And would we only explore the safe, kosher questions or the challenging, treyf ones?
Who would you add to the Ushpizin guest list? What might you want to talk with them about?
August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech that immediately preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago was delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
As Rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Prinz was expelled from Nazi Germany. Since this speech, which you can read in its entirety here, will receive less attention I wanted to spread Rabbi Prinz’s message on that day. The entire address is inspiring, but this line, in particular, stands out for me:
“The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together.”
Those who know me will not be surprised by my choice to discuss this quote.
It is a quote that articulates the importance of relationship building, and cooperation. This idea is repeated in some of my prior blog posts, after all: real social change is most often the result of the efforts of many who work in partnership. The members of different churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship may have different traditions or political perspectives, but there are almost always overlapping hopes, particularly for their children. Across religious differences, we want our youth to have access to a good education, to be healthy, to be safe, to have the opportunity to live peacefully and pursue their lives and passions. We can make assumptions based on these beliefs, and hope together – or even pray together.
But to work together, we can’t just make broad assumptions (even good, positive ones!) about our hopes and goals. To truly cooperate, we need to have a good understanding of what exactly is driving all of the parties involved. It is the only way to be certain that we are all, in fact, aiming for the same ultimate outcome. On a truly basic level, to work together we have to know each other. We have to know our neighbors’ names, and have their contact information, and not just talk about being a community – but do the work it takes to become a community.
Occasionally, I’ll hear from a synagogue that is skeptical about working with local churches. This is often fueled by a fear that the church members will try to proselytize. I wonder what Rabbi Prinz would say? I suggest that both congregations get together, and discuss what each group needs to feel respected and accepted. It is important to give cooperation a chance. There is too much work that has to get done. We cannot afford to only work with people who think like us. We are all better off when we work together.
May this line serve as a source of inspiration for all of us to commit to working with one another. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided a directive and a vision – and Rabbi Joachim Prinz reminded us of the work that goes into pushing that vision forward. 50 years after these great leaders, and their peers, rallied a crowd of thousands, we must hear the call today. We must be united by a shared dream, then roll up our sleeves and share in the work.
Photo credit: New Jersey Jewish Historical Society
A recent New York Times online opinion essay, Beautiful Pathologies, got me thinking about the non-profit sector as a whole, and about Jewish organizations in particular.
The writer tells the story of a class of medical students waiting eagerly to be able to witness an organ transplant. After a lengthy process, a fellow student was paged to leave class because a transplant would potentially be taking place:
“It’s eerie to think about that morning, the strangeness of medical students cheering the news of someone’s death. Yet these contradictions happen all the time in our education. Our lecturers say, ‘This is a great case,’ when describing a toddler who died from a rare cancer. Or, ‘Look at this beautiful pathology,’ when holding up the clogged heart of someone’s father. I wonder if other professions share these kinds of perverse excitements. Do human resources trainees hear of ‘great’ instances of sexual harassment? Do law students study ‘beautiful’ murder cases?”
I relate to this feeling of eeriness. After all, there are so many non-profits that have to make their case to funders and what better way than to personalize it. So the most desperate stories of clients who benefit from the organization’s activities are shared and the hope is that people are moved to help. At times it feels exploitative and other times inspiring—after all, we are hearing the most incredible stories of human resilience.
A future doctor learns from watching a transplant. When heart-wrenching stories are shared, funds are raised to support essential and valuable programs.
At the ISJL we are often in a position where we need to make the case for the organization; in the Community Engagement department here, we are now also working with congregations aiming to address the needs of their larger community. It’s important that we pay attention to how we think and talk about these needs. Does it benefit us to highlight the shockingly low literacy rates in places like our home base of Mississippi as we work on a program to bolster literacy? Perhaps. But it is also important to envision what the community would look like if everyone was a fluent reader. Perhaps it can be sufficiently moving to focus on the future, and how the community can look when everyone is a fluent reader.
But then, when we achieve that goal, will the support run out? Will we see slip back to lower literacy levels? Is the ugly truth that we need some level of “beautiful pathology” to keep us focused on making things better – or can we build a good case from good stories, and keep the good going without relying on “worst case” stories?
What do you think?