May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

May 18th: A Tale of Two Playoffs

The NBA and NHL playoffs have kept pace with one another, both beginning in early April and continuing through the first few weeks of June. On the one hand, basketball has pitted two powerhouse teams on either side of the bracket, with a virtual destiny to meet for the third time in a row in the Finals. Meanwhile, the NHL has four teams remaining, two of which are competing for their first championships in team history, while a third looks to seal the deal on a dynasty. Two sports in very different places have, by fate of scheduling, put themselves in position for comparison, and the results are striking.

The NBA has always gotten the attention of the American public. ESPN covers basketball to an almost obnoxious degree, with every single game, character, and personality analyzed. Because of NBC’s stranglehold on the rights to the NHL, hockey is, at most, a few moments on any given night of Sportscenter, dramatically preventing the public from getting the chance to see the excitement that goes into a playoff hockey game. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are some of the most intense, dramatic, and exciting contests in professional sports, but most Americans would never know that.

Curry

While there have been a dramatic number of overtime games this year in the NHL, the NBA is dragging out a snooze fest. With some of the largest margin of victory in the history of the league, the Cavaliers and Warriors have made the playoffs “must-miss TV,” with a very low chance of getting to see anything surprising or exciting. There have been a few games of intrigue (Game 7 between the Celtics and Wizards being one of them), and the Finals are supposed to be an epic clash of the Titans, but, in general, NBA fans have had little drama to get them excited or to incentivize tuning in for a game.

One of the reasons that the NHL has been so successful at creating intrigue for the extended playoff season is that their playoff structure stacks exciting matchups early. Intra-division playoff series start each post-season, meaning that teams are facing bitter rivals right off the bat. As the playoffs grow deeper, the gravity of the situation spurs on the intensity, having gotten the boost from prior round’s enthusiasm. The hardwood could learn a thing or two about this by restructuring the divisions in the NBA (which are seemingly worthless now), to allow a playoff structure that would create more engaging and entertaining matchups than watching a top seed abuse a squad with a losing record.

The bottom line is that this spring, two sports have both had the chance to exhibit their greatest chases to the ultimate crown. One of those races has proven to be as exciting and engaging as ever, with matchups that keep the attention of just about all fans of the sport, while the other has put forward a generally unsuccessful attempt to stir up drama where it doesn’t exist. While there is still a ways to go, both sports are forcing fans to choose which they would prefer to watch, and the result may be that the more casuals fans are choosing to watch neither at all. If those fans can’t get the updates and highlights they want on a major network, and are getting highlights that aren’t worth watching, it takes the fun and excitement out of the playoff chase, the time when both sports should be able to shine the brightest.

May 16th: How our Tech Companies Rule Our Lives, and Why We Let Them

Apple logoIn a New York Times article last week, Farhad Manjoo posed the question: which of the five biggest tech companies do we depend on most?

We all can agree that technology plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives. But, as Manjoo points out, five companies have a stranglehold on the market for personal computing and information access. Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft each hold a massive slice of the pie, and while others may fit particular niches, those five are responsible for the bulk of our digital experience.

amazon logoIn a fantasy land, constructed by Majoo, a dictator forces you to relinquish all connection to one of those power-five companies at a time. Which ones would you give up first? What order would they fall, leaving you with only one that absolutely can’t live without?

When I first took the “quiz,” I thought Apple would be the one that I couldn’t live without. Apple is responsible for the hardware that I use: I have an iPhone, Macbook, and iPad, so my access to information is wrapped up entirely in the Apple world. Yet, the further I thought about it, nearly all services I use on those devices related back to Google: Google docs, Gmail, Chrome, etc.

FB logoThe answers may differ for each individual, based on the hardware and services used by any of these companies. But the greater value of the article was the subsequent conversation: how can we better understand the influence of these five specific companies on our lives, and how do we better acknowledge how they influence our decisions, both our behavior and our purchases.

What makes these five companies particularly powerful and fascinating is exactly the convergence that I struggled with. We use our Apple phones to buy Amazon products, sending confirmation emails to our Gmail accounts. We post reviews of those products on Facebook, and interact with other users. Maybe we use our Windows computer to accomplish all of this instead.

Microsoft logoTwo-day shipping has become an expectation, not a luxury. The fact that I can send a text on my phone and have it appear also on my computer isn’t magic, it’s synchronization. We expect everyone to be on Facebook, and learn a great deal about the people around us without ever having to meet. We trust Google more than anyone else in our lives.

All of this is said with a morally neutral stance. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad about all five companies: we use them as tools to make our lives easier, and they also own us in ways that can damage our relationship with the “real” world. The more important thing is that we have to be aware of the influence they have on our lives, and to understand what they contribute to our ability to live our lives, and how we can take ownership of our experience of their products to make sure that we are thoughtful, knowledgeable consumers.

Alphabet

May 5th: Low Unemployment, High Expectations

This morning, the Labor Department released statistics regarding job growth and unemployment rates for the month of April. Job growth was up by 211,000 jobs last month, while unemployment dropped to 4.4 percent, the lowest it has been in nearly a decade.

While a low unemployment sounds like great news for the average American, and more jobs means more opportunities, the time is quickly upon us to begin to wonder what the ramifications are going to be for the citizens who used the November election to ensure that their voice was being heard. For many in this country, times have been hard, and a status quo wasn’t going to be acceptable for turning around the fortunes that left too many Americans struggling to make ends meet.

In an NPR report this morning, it was noted that growth in technology fields have helped to show that boost in the economy, while brick-and-mortar retail stores have been struggling to keep up with online sales. This demonstrates an opposite side to the coin, regarding average Americans. While growth is growth, and generally a positive, growth in the technology field tends to help the highly educated generally better-off in society, while retail opportunities generally tend to be the place where those in need of immediate help turn. In that regard, not all growth is considered equal, and results in a multitude of different ramifications, depending on who is being assisted in any given moment.

The public has been asking for the government to take interest in their affairs for a long time. They expect to see quick results, and an immediate impact on their own lives. While statistics like the ones released today spell an initial success for the job market and for the Department of Labor, it remains to be seen whether or not the day-to-day lives of Americans are going to be changed for the better.

 

May 4th: An Incomplete Circle

CircleSeveral months ago, I read a book, The Circle, by Dave Eggers. In it, a young woman begins to work for a social media technology company, and she begins to see the extent to which our devices and our profiles can take over our lives. While I didn’t particularly like the book, I appreciated the fact that it asked a pair of essential questions that my generation is going to have to confront: when do our connections on social media cross the line from beneficial to dangerous and when does transparency on social media become a violation of privacy?

A cinematic adaptation of the book recently came out, and I saw it this evening. Without spoiling anything, the ending in the movie is dramatically different from the one in the book. Unfortunately, the world of movies is far less comfortable with indeterminacy, something that literature has come to terms with far more maturely. While the book ended without answering the questions posed about society, the book does even worse: it gives the kind of resolution that rounds out a happy ending, without actually getting to the answers that the central theme demands.

CircThe Circle is an attempt to answer the questions that we are going to have to engage with if we are going to continue to learn how to develop relationships via the internet. They can be uncomfortable questions, and they can force us to find the answers that might be right, but we may not like. Ironically, neither the book nor the movie did enough to come to any kind of conclusion. But, it was the inspiration to start the conversation, and hopefully readers and viewers will take the opportunity to talk offline to discuss how we can ensure that we remain in control of our social media, rather than consumed by it.

April 19th: The O’Reilly Factor Has Been Subtracted

Well, it only took a month for Fox to figure out what most others have come to terms with years ago. Today, Fox news cut ties with host Bill O’Reilly, more than two weeks after a New York Times article showed a long history of litigation against the talk-show host accusing him of sexual harassment.

O’Reilly, the host of one of America’s most popular political talk shows, has had a long history of pushing the envelope. From arguing with guests on his show to a near constant attack on the Obama administration, O’Reilly has fed conservative America exactly what they have wanted, often at the expense of being entirely truthful.

What is of note particularly in this situation is the time it took for Fox to come to the decision, and what it means for political activism. Very little has changed in the two weeks following the release of allegations against O’Reilly. In fact, according to the New York Times, the report may not have even been news, as the claim was that Fox supported O’Reilly through his legal troubles. That being said, his firing indicates that either the claims against him had reached a particular critical mass, or that the desire of the American public had finally reached the ears of the all-too-often tone-deaf when it comes to sexual assault and sexism.

With characters like Bill O’Reilly and even Donald Trump piling up with a long history of sexist, degrading behavior (if not actually assaulting), the political right has had to find an answer to the moral question: how can we support or buy into the things these people say when their behavior is so detestable? This is a huge opportunity for Fox News to move in a direction of more respectable personalities, with the hopes of getting rid of the distractions that take away from the political opinions.

As someone who has never been a fan of Fox News, O’Reilly’s show has always been of particular concern to me, as it puts a morally bankrupt individual in control of spinning political realities for a public that needs to be given the information with a particular skew. The general public has hopefully learned through this situation that we are in a position to demand characters who will give us our news without the ethical issues that we have come to expect.

With the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Tomi Lahren both losing their jobs within weeks of one another, the faces of conservative television are changing. Whether they move forward or backward is still very much to be seen, but now is the time for the public to flex their muscles and demand a certain level of integrity that we haven’t been receiving to this point.