July 26th: Holding A Franchise Hostage

This past week, Kyrie Irving asked the Cleveland Cavaliers to trade him. Apparently, playing with the greatest player in basketball (perhaps ever) doesn’t suit him, especially when it means losing so much vacation time playing in May and June. In a league where players are all scrambling to join forces on super teams, Irving wants to take his one-man-show to a destination all by himself.

The baffling part of the story is that, after asking for a trade, the Cavaliers seem to be shopping in order to make a deal. The NBA is one of the only industries in the world where you can make outlandish demands of your employer with relative certainty that you will get what you want. Of course, the Cavaliers don’t HAVE to agree to trade Irving, but a disgruntled star’s performance is unlikely to be more valuable than any of the possible players that could come back to Cleveland in a trade.

KyrieThis doesn’t bode well at all for Cleveland. With rumors already swirling about LeBron James leaving next summer as a free agent, the Cavs could very quickly go from being the three-straight Conference Champions to a franchise struggling to regain an identity. Kyrie Irving’s demand only accelerates that process.

Irving isn’t the only player who has put his team in a bad spot because of a demand for a change of scenery. Carmelo Anthony has made it known not only that he wants out of New York, but that he specifically wants to play in Houston, putting incredible pressure on the Knicks. Paul George’s desire to play for the Lakers in the future forced the Pacers to trade him, for fear of losing him to free agency with nothing in return. The NBA offseason continues to leave teams scrambling to fill out a roster before contracts change the game again and again, while the players look out for their own self-interests with demands and threats.

The 2017 offseason has seen a collection of teams amassing talent while others are forced to rebuild. A season after one of the least dramatic playoffs in recent memory will show a small collection of powerhouse teams clashing, while almost all competition takes place in the Western Conference. Power dynamics are all out of whack, even before we consider the whims of what a particular player wants.

Kyrie Irving’s trade demand is selfish and damaging to the Cleveland fans and the league as a whole. The nature of a contract is that he is expected to play for the team for a certain duration of time, with the freedom to choose a new home when it expires. Trade rumors and speculation may be fun in the short term and get people talking about the sport while it isn’t on TV, but this kind of hijacking of a team can prove dangerous for a franchise that, until recently, was hoping to build a tradition of success.

July 20th: Broadening Our Horizons to Deepen Our Understandings

When was the last time you read an article written by someone with a different skin color than your own? When was the last time you read a blog post offered by someone of a different sexual orientation? Have you ever read a sermon by someone who practices another faith?

We, as a society, have grown awfully comfortable living within the echo chamber of our own identity. We don’t know how to think from anyone else’s perspective outside of our own. It’s because we’re out of practice. The thoughts and perspectives of others feel dangerous because if they are right, it somehow means maybe I’m wrong.

On top of it all, we’ve so thoroughly pigeon-holed individuals that identity seems to be all we can talk about. Black writers examine race, women challenge gender issues, gays argue for the rights of marriage equality. Of course, it isn’t everyone, but we come to associate someone’s identity with their preferred topic of discussion. Somehow we have revoked credentials for meaningful discussion on too many issues begging for attention.

I want to know what a gay man thinks about the economy. I want to know what a woman thinks about steroid use in baseball. I want to discuss the enduring legacy of the West Wing with a Muslim, to hear how he thinks differently or similarly to myself.

Truth be told, I want to have these conversations not only despite their identities but because of them. Who we are influences how we think, and teaches us a great deal about what is and is not important. It’s time we embraced the idea that we aren’t always going to get along or agree, and to widen our horizons.

The written word has the incredible ability to allow one person to gain momentary access to the thoughts and feelings of another person sharing this earth. With our modern technology, it is only getting easier to collect and consume it all. What a gift we’re wasting if we only ever read things that come from “people like me.”

It’s going to be a little bit messy. Reading can lead to frustration and discomfort and unease, even to anger. But that’s the cost of sharing a world full of people who aren’t always going to see things my way.

I’m taking up the challenge. I want to learn more, to listen to new ideas and to be inspired by others to think differently. I want to engage in powerful discussions without the need to “win.” I want to participate in a great debate worthy of the innovation and freedom we enjoy. I hope you’ll join me.

July 13th: It’s Getting Coaled in Here

I don’t understand coal. Sure, I understand it is an energy source and a big provider of jobs for a large section of American workers in certain regions. I get that, as coal’s value on the global market decreases, life gets harder for those whose income is tied to it. I’m even on board with the idea that, as the industry changes, the American government has an obligation to ensuring that the people aren’t left hung out to dry.

What I don’t understand is the desire to preserve and prop up the coal industry that seems to be being left behind by the innovation of other fields. President Trump repeated promised during his campaign the support and stimulus of coal and its workers. It seems to be a common trope for Republicans. That, though, defies the logic of the conservative party’s stance on other, similar issues.

Why is it that a child born on the southside of Chicago doesn’t deserve federal funding for a better school while we’re supposed to help a coal miner keep his job in a dying field? If the answer is because one is contributing to the work force, then we have a very short-sighted view of our economic plan. What about a fast food worker who can’t make ends meet on a minimum wage? Why leave them to struggle in an industry doing fine for itself while an equally educated mine worker gets a helping hand? For the party that promotes capitalism and ignoring the plight of the “little guy” in favor of “fair” competition, this seems nonsensical.

The liberal thing to do in this situation would be to take the time and spend the money to retrain and educate coal workers for new, future proofed trades. Why not take those in an outdated field and push them toward technology and programming jobs, pushing for a more modern future and success for our nation? This is, of course, time consuming and expensive, but has the chance to solve the root of the issue, not just push it back until it can be another administration’s problem.

So the two options appear to be to either help job train for the future or to let them fight for themselves. Why is there so much noise for propping up a fading, environmentally taxing industry? Because coal miners vote, and it’s a great way to score easy points to promise job security and governmental support.

Nobody wants to hear that their work is losing value, especially when families have been in the business for generations. Nobody wants to have to learn a new craft, to start over again. And everyone wants to believe that politicians are personally concerned with their lives and the challenges they face.

Yet, at a certain point, we have to honestly grapple with the issue at hand. How do we, as a country, ensure our greatest success and stability moving forward? We have taken the coal industry and bought an extra large package of band-aids in the hopes of taking care of a case of cancer. Until we are honestly willing to look for legitimate, long-term solutions, we are going to have to continue to embrace the hypocrisy of a plan that doesn’t want to fix a problem, but rather to let it fester until we have a crisis.

July 11th: What Mega Churches Have to Teach

Growing up, I was fascinated with Joel Osteen. The televangelist was able to reach an audience on a weekly basis that blew me away, and his words were able to have an impact that was so incredibly powerful and moving. I had always wondered: what could we, as the Jewish community, learn from seeing his success and the way he has run his community?

I finally went to find out. My father and I traveled to Houston last week to experience a service at Lakewood Church, the largest church in America. Built out of the remains of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets had once played, the church was a cathedral of modern religion. Throughout the service, there were some powerful lessons in things that the Megachurch is able to do that Jewish communities need to emulate, and others that we need to be very careful to avoid.

Things the Jewish community needs to learn from the Megachurch:

  • Lifestyle of church attendance

From the very start, the church was clearly selling a lifestyle. Church isn’t viewed as a luxury of time, something to do only when it’s convenient. No, the church is a place to go on a regular basis, as many as three or four times a day. The programming they offer matches everyday needs of modern people, from seminars on maintaining a healthy marriage to discussion groups on meaningful and pertinent topics. The church is selling the idea that participation in programs is a route to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, something that anyone with a passion for religious community can understand. Jewish communities have been offering worship services and religious school for generations, but we have a long way to go as a collection of congregations in terms of making participation on the temple an essential part of the experience of life. Going to church isn’t a question, just like going to the grocery store isn’t a matter of “if I have time.” We, as Jewish communities, need to figure out how to sell people on the idea that participation isn’t a luxury but a necessity for meaningful living.

  • Music

It would have been hard to tell if the prayer service we experienced was church worship or a rock concert. Between the full band, the lighting, and the smoke machines, the vibe was that of a party, of a celebration of the greatness of God and community. This sure beats the droll, traditional music that too many places of worship occupy. Of course, not everyone can afford a full scale band and performance caliber musicians, but the central idea is that worship doesn’t have to feel dogmatic. Innovation and enthusiasm speak volumes about the experience that they are attempting to create. And it was far more spiritually moving. It wasn’t just that it was fun to watch or listen to, it was the sensation that a community coming together to celebrate life at its finest can feel like a real connection to the divine. We need to take a note from this book and figure out how to turn services into celebrations of the greatness of life and of God, rather than an act of repetition of a thousand years of ritual practice.

  • Modern message with religious context

The sermon that we heard at Lakewood dealt with the importance of perseverance, overcoming the challenges of daily life in order to strive for your goal. And the anecdotes and lessons the preacher shared were relatable, were powerful, and were able to touch a nerve for everyone listening. There was substantive sourcework for biblical passages to support her ideas, and she was able to make her point about life while using a fascinating mixture of scripture and real-world application. While Jewish communities are doing better than ever before at this, it was a powerful lesson in the way a message can hit home when the lessons of our tradition are applied to the world around us. We have to learn how to offer something fresh, something that feels modern and applicable. By combining our texts with the world around us, we are able to provide guidance and help that our congregants desperately need, while giving them a service that they can’t get anywhere else. Only religious institutions are able to combine the moral backdrop for grappling with modernity in this way. We need to grow more comfortable with grappling with our texts and asking the vital question: how does this make sense in my life right now?

 

The dangers of the Megachurch:

  • The Relationship with Money

A Megachurch is only able to work because of the profound income they create by way of tithes and contributions. They have created a system where church attendance comes with a weekly financial contribution, one that comes with a not-so-subtle subtext: if you contribute to the congregation, God will take care of you. A significant portion of the service was dedicated to this message. By giving your money to the church, they reasoned, God would smile upon you and would make the money you had left to multiply. By giving your money to the church, you were not only facilitating the good work of the church, but you were also creating good-will with God for yourself, with the promise that God will turn around and give you more than you already have. This message, delivered by a woman holding a brand-new iPhone and wearing a multi-thousand dollar watch, is a dangerous one when presented to a great many people who don’t have enough for themselves. Everyone wants to believe that, by giving money to God, God will take care of you. But, for the general public, this results in a large percentage of money going into the church, leaving congregants with even greater financial challenges when they walked in the door. Anyone selling the idea that you need to buy your way into heaven needs to be considered with caution, and can be a dangerous message for people who are desperate for a better life.

  • Indoctrination

This was the place where church got a little bit scary. At one point, the preacher was talking about when obstacles come along and try to get you to stop your pursuit of your dreams. She said that this doubt was the devil whispering in your ear, telling you you can’t do something, and that all thinking is the work of the devil. When that thinking happens, you’re supposed to turn your brain off, open your bible, and drown out the voices in your head. I struggle with any ideology that tells me that independent thinking and asking questions is the work of the devil. The entire experience called for a kind of repetitive rote performance of life, following the instructions of the church leaders and of the bible while preventing the kind of independent thinking that leads to trouble. Of course, this derives from the idea that human beings are inherently sinners and in need of guidance away from our natural inclination for sin. This is a fundamental difference between the work of Judaism and the work of Christianity. Judaism doesn’t believe in this kind of thinking; in fact, questioning and grappling are inherent to understanding one’s faith and understanding of their Judaism.

 

Throughout the experience at Lakewood, I learned the importance of experiencing a variety of different ways of understanding religion in a modern context. I may have been the first person in that building wearing a kippah in a very long time, but there was so much to learn about the way others communicate message of faith, and so much we can learn about how to get our message out to others. We are all striving for meaning in the world around us, and Lakewood Church is offering a version of that reality that has something to teach as Jewish communities try to express a message of our own.

July 6th: Call Your Knesset Members

Last week, the Israeli government suspended plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in so doing ostracizing a large portion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel and abroad. After plans were put aside, Jews around the world, most notably American Reform Jews, voiced their significant displeasure, noting their feelings that Israel is willfully hostile toward the interests of liberal Jewish communities globally. Some even went so far as to claim that Israeli Jews “hate” Jews living in the Diaspora.

The problem comes in the idea that Israeli Judaism is in any way concerned with what is happening in the rest of the Jewish world, or that it is considerate of us one way or the other. Apathy seems more appropriate than hostility. While Jews across the globe send money to our “homeland,” there has been very little that leads anyone to believe that there is any significant influence exerted by Jews outside of Israel.

As long as Israel is going to wear the mantle of being the Jewish homeland, they have an obligation to represent the interests of all jews. That is a tall order for a people that so rarely agree unilaterally on much of anything. But Israel’s representation of global Judaism only works so long as we continue to allow it to be the case.

What that means is that a certain level of knowledge and involvement is required that hasn’t been seen from Americans concerned with Israeli affairs. We can’t sit in our congregations and our homes thousands of miles away and criticize Israel while ignorant of the politics and demographics that make up the country. If we want to be truly involved and engaged, we have to go out and invest ourselves in the realities that Israelis are dealing with on a regular basis.

To do this, we have to deepen our involvement through grappling with the tough questions. Jewish educational institutions across America have done a great disservice to American Jews by over-simplifying the relationship with Israel. We need to know more than hummus and falafel. We need to know more than Israeli dancing and IDF simulations. We even need to know more than just conflict and war. We need to know what it is like to be an Israeli, right now, today, what it truly means to be a Jew living in the homeland of our people.

Birthright poses as a solution to this problem. Send people to Israel for 10 days at a point in their identity formation that they will learn to love and support Israel, and that love will endure beyond their experience. Well, the values of caring for Israel are certainly established, but Birthright does preciously little to meaningfully educate or engage students about the politics or conflicts or ideologies of the region, and certainly not enough about what a young person can do to get involved in the many organizations and nonprofits that exist in the country for exerting influence as a Jew.

Moreso than at any time that I can remember, American Jews can identify with living in a country with a conflict of ideology. We know what it’s like to experience the kind of philosophical differences that Israel politics involves. We need not shy away from really engaging with these political and ideological questions: in fact, we have an obligation to involve ourselves thoughtfully with those challenges.

There are a multitude of ways that American Jews can make their voices heard in Israel. There are organizations and institutions that all are attempting to create meaningful change that American Jews can believe in. Taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the real issues will allow us the opportunity to get involved in ways that we can’t do by donating to “Israel”. Israelis don’t care what American Jews have to say, because, for all intents and purposes, Jewish Americans aren’t saying much of substance in a consistent and powerful way.

The American Jewish population is in control of enough man-power and enough financial discretion that we could be a powerful force in telling Israel how we want the Jewish state to represent us. To this point, we have been operating under the assumption of good faith, something that was fairly loudly declared false a week ago. As long as Israel continues to call itself the homeland of the Jews, it is our obligation to get involved and make our voices heard. That is the only way that we will have a strong, meaningful Jewish state in the land of Israel.

July 1st: All Star Game Starting Predictions

After weeks of voting, the MLB All Star rosters will be announced tomorrow. While voting may generally result in a popularity contest rather than an actual assessment of talent, here is how I would construct the lineup for each position in baseball

American League:

Catcher: Salvador Perez: There is no catcher in baseball as exciting and fun to watch as Perez. Nobody stands out statistically either, so I have to go with the guy who is going to make for the best TV.

First Base: Eric Hosmer: Hosmer has led the fan vote, but been left off most insider predictions. He ranks in the top five or six of almost all offensive categories at his position, and has gold glove defense.

AP ASTROS YANKEES BASEBALL S BBA USA NYSecond Base: Jose Altuve: The face of the rebuilding Astros, Jose Altuve has finally gotten to enjoy the success of the power-house Astros. The spark-plug gets another All-Star selection (his fifth in six years)

Third Base: Miguel Sano: The Twins have been sticking around in the AL Central, and Miguel Sano’s maturation as a hitter is a big reason why. Sano will be fun to watch in the Home Run Derby, and deserves the start at third base for the AL.

Shortstop: Carlos Correa: Correa has made good on his talent potential since he first emerged in the league, and is now at the center of the best offense in the league. He gets the nod over his peers Lindor and Bogaerts.

Outfield: Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, George Springer: The reigning MVP, the likely soon-to-be MVP, and one of the most exciting, fun-to-watch young players in the game make up the AL starting outfield. Even with Trout’s injury, he was having debatably his best season. Judge has proven that he has lasting power in the league. And Springer is a five-tool player capable of changing any game on a dime. This is one of the most athletic groups of players the league has to offer, and will probably each be All-Stars many, many more times in the future.

DH: Corey Dickerson: Nelson Cruz is a more popular name in baseball, but I won’t vote for anyone who has a steroid conviction on their record. Besides, Dickerson has been out of his mind of late, and his bat is a huge reason why the Rays are contenders in the AL East.

ASG ballot

National League:

Catcher: Buster Posey: While the position isn’t very deep, Posey would run away with it even if it was. He is single-handedly carrying his team’s offense, and he is maintaining offensive and defensive statistics that make him baseball’s best catcher.

First Base: Paul Goldschmidt: Disclaimer: I’ve been voting for Anthony Rizzo, because I have a massive man-crush on the man, but Paul Goldschmidt has added yet another under-the-radar MVP caliber season. Goldy is putting the Diamondbacks in post-season position, and has a strong claim on the NL MVP award.

Second Base: Daniel Murphy: After the 2015 playoffs, Daniel Murphy has become a brand-new player. His bat has been the hottest of anyone over an 18 month stretch, and his place as the table-clearer for the Nationals compensates for his mediocre defense.

Third Base: Kris Bryant: Many will argue this is another homer pick, but Bryant has been a rare bright spot in a struggling Cubs lineup. His generally solid stats have been hurt by a few slow patches, but overall, Bryant is the star of the show and should get the chance to shine.

Shortstop: Zack Cozart: All donkeys aside, Cozart has taken his contract year and turned it into a gold mine. His offense has finally risen to match his defense, and he is a big reason that the Reds have been relevant beyond Opening Day this year.

Outfield: Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, Marcell Ozuna: Charlie Blackmon is the best player on the up-and-coming Rockies. Marcell Ozuna is both a hometown player for the All Star hosts, as well as a monster power for the Home Run Derby (possibly). And Bryce Harper is an absolute monster, the most entertaining player in baseball.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington NationalsDH: Ryan Zimmerman: After a hot start to his career, Zimmerman had faded into the background of the Bryce Harper-owned Nationals. This year, though, Zimmerman has put together not only his best season, but an all-around great season, and deserves the credit in a crowded first base conversation.

 

We will see on Sunday how close these predictions are to reality, but in any case, the All Star Game is the game’s best chance to show off the excitement and talent that true fans get to enjoy every day.