August 23rd: Football Can’t be Football Anymore

During a preseason football game last week, two of the game’s most exciting young players made a powerful statement. While teammate Khalil Mack kneeled for the national anthem, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr placed a hand on his shoulder, a symbolic gesture of support. This week, about a dozen Cleveland Browns kneeled in a prayer circle during the national anthem, while their peers, both black and white, stood near them, hands on shoulder and on their hearts.

A year ago, Colin Kaepernick took a stand by refusing to do so during the national anthem. He was hoping to demand a conversation about race relations in a country that feels so broken. Now, it has cost Kaepernick a job, but the NFL seems to be having the conversation he inspired despite the protests of many football fans.

What started as a single uncomfortable protest has clearly grown into an opportunity for dialogue in locker rooms across the country. Black players have taken (and been given) an opportunity to tell their peers about their experience, to share their stories and how they feel about the world around them. White players have begun to offer support and a willingness to see from someone else’s perspective, or, in many ways, to come to terms with their inability to truly understand.

We’ve reached a point of deeper nuance. It is no longer true to say that sitting makes you unpatriotic, that anything other than standing is hostile to your own country.

The country as a whole has something to learn from the evolution of this conversation. As the world has gotten more complicated, we have, for some reason, demanded a simplicity that is impossible to uphold. Everyone is either a Democrat or a Republican. Everyone is either a racist or a snowflake. Everything must be completely good or completely bad.

We have to learn a new willingness to embrace the nuance. This doesn’t mean compromising our values or accepting the abhorrent. Yet, a true understanding of our reality demands that we be willing to listen to one another. We need to be willing to reach out a hand and be supportive of those who are fighting for their rights and for their ideals, even when we can’t fully understand why.

When Colin Kaepernick began his protest, America was too uncomfortable to talk about our challenges. Too many wanted to pretend everything was ok, to hide our heads in the sand from the dissent and frustration different groups felt toward one another. Now, though, we have realized we cannot escape the friction between groups of people. We can’t let football just be football. If we are going to have to confront the polarization, we must begin with better understanding and a willingness to listen. The Cleveland Browns have accepted that we have something to work on, and have begun the process. The rest of America needs to follow suit.

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August 17th: Is This REALLY Necessary?

I never thought I would have to write a blog post condemning Nazis. If I had, I never thought it would be quite as hard as it is right now. What really is there to say? You type a sentence like “Nazis are bad,” and you think it sounds so ridiculous. OF COURSE Nazis are bad. We fought an entire war about it. My people have spent almost a century trying to recover from it. We mourn those who learned that lesson the hard way every year, every month, sometimes every day.

The hardest thing about living through a period of such incredible hatred and violence is that all of the tools we are taught for how to deal with things like this come up short. I’m not one well-spoken argument away from convincing anyone that the KKK isn’t in America’s best interests. I’m not one powerful dialogue away from convincing a white supremacists that we are a stronger nation when we cherish and accept every culture and identity within our borders. I’m not one compromise away from being able to convince someone that my ability to be Jewish and be American are not mutually exclusive, and that I pose no threat to them except their identities as purveyors of hate and violence.

The scariest part of all is that we talk about the need to do something, to take action somehow, and I’m not particularly sure what there is left to be done in the face of those who refuse to see reason and refuse to acknowledge Jefferson’s “inalienable rights.”

What I’ve come up with is this: we need to know who walks the streets beside us. It is sad that we need to declare ourselves in opposition to racism and bigotry, that we need to make known our distaste for anti-semitism and violence. But, now that this is the reality in which we live, I want to make it known that I stand in support of all of those who live in fear. I am here to fight for those who have nobody to fight for them. I want to make sure that all Americans and all people enjoy the freedom to live in this country and to have every opportunity to succeed. If you are African American, you are my friend. If you are a member of the GLBTQ community, you are my friend. If you are a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or any other faith identity, you are my friend. And if you are a swastika wearing, hate spewing, violence loving monster, you are the enemy, and you will be defeated.

We have a president who has refused to stand in support of the communities within America he has sworn to protect. We have a congress full of leaders who feel they deserve brownie points for being willing to tweet that Nazism is bad, made worse by the fact that not all of them have even taken the time to do so. We have a world of digital communications in which people like Alex Jones and Tomi Lahren are given credibility, while news organizations are chastised and ostracized. There are times when we can be forgiven for sitting in a chair and scratching our heads, wondering what in God’s name we’re supposed to do to make this world a better place. But, when that’s all said and done, the only thing we can do is demand justice, support peace, and look evil in the face and insist that there is no place for hatred in our country or our lives.

This is the point where I usually try to come up with some call-to-action. I try to say “let’s speak out against this injustice,” or “let’s go get our hands dirty making the world a better place.” It’s hard to not know what to do. But what we can do, and what we must do, is to constantly remind our neighbors that they are not alone, that they have support and that they are loved. What we can do is demand that those in power demonstrate the leadership that is required of them, or demand that they allow someone else to do it. And what we must do is to remain loud and determined in our work to shout down injustice and to demand that the world fight for the light.

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.