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Social Media, Social Justice, and Social Self-Selection

We live in a world dominated by social media, and for an increasing number of us it’s how we get our news (more on that in a minute). What I’m wondering right now is whether or not we’re getting the same news, and what we should do about that.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, when talking with a good friend, I brought up the Department of Justice (DOJ) report investigating civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department. Puzzled, my friend responded that she hadn’t heard of the report, but would be interested in reading about it. I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, the release of the DOJ report was the largest news story of the week. I could understand if my friend hadn’t read the entire 102 page report, but I was shocked she hadn’t even heard about it.

But then I remembered a conversation I had with my dad earlier this year. He called me, sounding frantic: “There’s a huge fire in Jackson by the Agricultural Museum! Are you okay?”

I was totally fine (although I do live pretty close to the Ag Museum). In fact, despite him being in Arizona and me being on the ground in Mississippi, a mile from the flames—I had no idea that the museum was burning. My father was watching the television news in Tucson, which was reporting on the fire. The Jackson news outlets were certainly featuring this story, too, but I don’t own a television.

I am not alone: Most of my friends don’t own televisions or subscribe to newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a quarter of Millennials (22%) read newspapers at least every other day, compared to 40% of adults overall. Overwhelmingly, Millennials get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

What does this really mean? This is what it looks like for me.

Most of my friends who comprise my social network tend to hold views similar to mine. This means that the things that are posted on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are generally things I’m already interested in learning about. Meaning, I rarely read pieces that challenge my viewpoint. Generally, I am presented with news and content in which I have already expressed an interest—and frequently presented it from a perspective with which I am likely to agree.

So, for someone in my generation who doesn’t have a real investment in what’s happening in Ferguson, news of the Department of Justice report is unlikely to reach them. While I recognize that it’s unreasonable to think many people would read the full 102 pages, I do think it’s necessary we seek out the sort of information released in the report, and talk about its implications.

This got me thinking not only about how this impacts me personally as a Millennial and a citizen, but also about how it impacts the work I do as a Community Engagement Fellow. My job is focused on social justice. The way that we approach social justice is from an informed perspective. In seeking to repair the world and fight for justice, it’s imperative that we first learn about the statistics and realities of injustices in our communities and throughout the nation. That’s why we like to begin our partnerships with Jewish communities with a needs assessment process—some sort of activity that asks them to research statistics in their area and learn about the realities in their communities.

Ferguson and the DOJ report represents an important example. The extensive report gives us a window into the realities of police brutality and civil rights violations happening in our nation right here, right now. It’s news to which we should be exposed, whether or not it’s in our self-selected newsfeeds. At least reading a well-assembled synopsis of the report is an important start, and helps everyone join the conversation.

Although my generation has exchanged TV screens for phone and computer screens, we are still engaged. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. While there, I had the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. At one point, he said something I felt deeply as I read the Department of Justice report. The President said: “All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to see that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

Let’s open our eyes and our hearts, and continue the work of the brave men and women that fought against racism and oppression 50 years ago. I think it starts with all of us, not just reading whatever comes across our screen but seeking out information, multiple perspectives and most of all facts and full stories. We need to be aware that we might not all be getting the same news, and when we come across facts and full stories worth sharing, we should talk about them—online, and offline, too.

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Posted on March 11, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Still Marching in Selma

On the Pettus Bridge

On the Pettus Bridge

There’s a slight curve to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The curve means that you can’t see what’s beyond the bridge until you are halfway across it.

This weekend, I participated in a walk across the bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Because of the size of the crowd, it took at least an hour to slowly shuffle up that bridge, staring at the block letters spelling out the name of the KKK Grand Dragon it honors. When I finally crested the top, and was able to see past the curve, I was surprised by the sea of people swarming on the other side.

This weekend, the people on the other side were peaceful, wandering past vendor booths and a concert stage. But I realized that fifty years ago, when the original marchers began walking up that bridge, they had no way to know what was on the other side either… and still they kept marching.

Our morning started at Congregation Mishkan Israel, where hundreds had gathered to commemorate Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. There are only about ten Jews living in Selma today, yet almost every seat in the synagogue sanctuary was filled. People came from all over the country, including a group from North Carolina that had traveled all night by bus, and were hours away from an equally long trip home.

The synagogue in Selma

The synagogue in Selma

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, was the star of the show. In 1965, after marching, he famously said he felt as though his feet were praying. His daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, addressed the crowd in 2015. She offered some context for that famous quote: He may be lauded today as a Jewish hero, but he wasn’t at the time; most Jews responded to his involvement in the movement with confusion or even hostility.

Part of the reason we revere him today was because he stood largely alone at the time.

And that’s the thing. It’s so much easier to join a cause that’s already been won. There’s a reason the marchers of 2015 outnumbered those of 50 years ago by at least 30 to 1. While we were dealing with street vendors and porta-poties, they faced tear gas and billy-clubs. Real social change rarely comes with funnel cake. I got the impression those around me understood this fact. We were there to honor those who led the movement and celebrate their success, but we were also there to energize ourselves for the work that needs to be done.

David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, reminded us that in some states it’s easier to vote with a gun permit than a college ID. In fact, almost all of the speakers at Mishkan Israel focused their remarks of the growing disenfranchisement movement in our country, and our duty to oppose it. It’s only in hindsight that poll taxes and literacy tests appear so blatantly evil. Plenty of people defended their use at the time just as plenty defend the elimination of early voting and same-day registration today. Fifty years from now, we will look back on the current wave of disenfranchisement and wonder what people were thinking.

Professor Susannah Heschel told the audience at Mishkan Israel: “Today we’re on a pilgrimage to remember, not simply to remember what we Jews contributed to the civil rights movement— no, we’re here to thank the Civil Rights movement for what it has given to us as Jews.” Her father was a religious leader who aimed to shock people out of complacency; to truly honor his legacy, we must still be willing to shock people out of complacency today. He spoke of praying feet, but he also warned that a consensus of conscience means nothing without “incessant action.”

This incessant action is still necessary. This is why we are marching in Selma still today. We must not only march, but also raise our voices against injustice still… even when we can’t quite see past the slight curve in the bridge we are marching across.

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Posted on March 9, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Dressing Up As Vashti

Abby & Gid Purim 1998

Abby as Vashti, Purim ’98

Little girls don’t usually dress up as Vashti for Purim. Esther is the heroine, after all, and those poofy princess dresses that went on sale after Easter last year make the perfect Esther costume. But we shouldn’t be writing off Vashti so quickly—she’s just as much of a hero as Esther is, albeit for different reasons.

The set-up for the Purim story is a familiar one: Queen Vashti’s expulsion from the palace that creates the demand for a new queen and ultimately puts Esther in a place to be able to save the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of the king’s evil adviser, Haman.

But that’s not why Vashti is a hero. It’s the details of the set-up—the downfall of Queen Vashti—that are too often overlooked that make her a hero. By skimming through the first chapter of Meglilat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) so we can get to the grogger-inducing, Haman-filled chapters later in the scroll, we miss a valuable opportunity to see an unprecedentedly early example of feminism. This idea has picked up some traction, and I tend to agree with where these ideas land.

So let’s take a look.

We meet King Ahashveros just as he’s finishing up a 180-day long party and beginning another “feast,” this time for all the citizens of Shushan, the capital. By the seventh day of this second round of parties, the king’s heart is “merry with wine”; in this drunk state, he sends for his wife Vashti, wanting to show off her beauty to all those in attendance. Vashti refuses. The king is furious– so furious he gets rid of her and seeks a new queen.

And that’s where the heroism begins, right there when Vashti says “no.” Rejecting the king’s request was a big deal—so big, in fact, that one of Ahashveros’ councilmen warned that it would have ripple effects across the entire kingdom. Vashti’s refusal was a stain upon the perceived control of the king over his kingdom. What was worse, the king’s adviser noted, was that other women would follow by example and use Vashti’s refusal as authorization to disobey their own husbands.

As a woman in a position of power, Vashti did exactly what she should have: she used her public status to lead by example, empowering citizens against abuse. It’s not just that Vashti took a stand against the objectification of her own body. Vashti served as a role model for the entirety of the female population of the kingdom… and for girls today looking for strong female role models. Two thousand years later, women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s radical refusal the “first stand for women’s rights.”

So maybe it’s time to re-think our costume choices. When we dress up as Vashti, we should do so with pride and not derision—after all, while Esther nobly stood up on behalf of Jewish people, Vashti stood up just as nobly for womankind.

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Posted on March 4, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy