Friday, February 7, 2014

In Praise of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. I remember attending a solo concert of Pete’s at Carnegie Hall when I was a young man. He stood on a small oriental rug on a bare stage, just him, his banjo, his guitar and a full house of people ready to sing with him. At intermission he simply sat down on the edge of the stage, feet dangling, and chatted with people. There was no proscenium, no pretentions, and no separation between performer and audience. I was at the time a professional children’s performer, and I promised myself to be like Pete, as much as I was able. I wanted to bring people together. The way I lead today is a conscious and direct result of watching Pete Seeger.

I first listened to Pete when I was a baby. My favorite record was “Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Bigger Fishes”, an album of songs about animals – just Pete and his banjo, recorded on Folkways. Since high school I have performed his classic story-song “The Foolish Frog” countless times (from that very album), and it never fails to delight and to get children dancing. In college I wrote Pete a fan letter, describing how we had named our performing troupe “The Corner Store” after the Corner Store in the “The Foolish Frog” in which all of creation gathers for a big party. He wrote me back an encouraging handwritten note on homemade stationery that I remember to this day.

When life brought me to Woodstock and the Hudson Valley, one of the great, added benefits of that move was that I was in Pete Seeger’s home stomping grounds. Time and again I got to see Pete, and thanks to my friends in the folk community on a number of occasions I even got to share the stage with Pete. My early sense of Pete’s integrity was only confirmed and strengthened by my greater proximity to him: he was the same personable, engaged, curious, selfless to a fault, unpretentious man wherever and with whomever he stood.

In May 2012 we held a benefit at the synagogue to help Kim and Reggie Harris cover the overwhelming costs of property damage they suffered after Hurricane Irene. Pete, age 93, showed up at the synagogue with some relatives of his that were visiting in order to show his support for Kim and Reggie, whom he loved dearly. Of course Pete had his banjo and he asked us, “Do you mind if I sing a song?” Did we mind! Here is a photo of that moment:

(And this link should lead you to a video of that moment: )

Afterwards Pete and his out of town guests needed a bite.  Betty Boomer had cooked, and I pulled out a variety of delicious leftovers from our synagogue retreat the day before, and we all sat in one of classrooms and talked and sang and laughed some more.

So there I am, some 57 years after hearing my first Pete Seeger record, singing and eating and chatting with the man himself! And he’d been singing and troublemaking long before I was born. It seemed to me sometimes that Pete just might never die. But of course even the longest race finally ends. Toshi Seeger, Pete’s wife of nearly 70 years and truly the woman behind the man, left us this past July, and Pete, it turns out, was not far behind. His grandson reported that Pete had been chopping wood just 10 days ago at his beloved mountaintop home overlooking his Hudson River in Beacon, New York. Pete took ill last week, and the end came swiftly. May we all be so blessed to go like that, still vigorous in old age.

Of course I’ve been pretty sad today, even though I knew this day must come. I am one of thousands and thousands that Pete Seeger has not only personally touched, but inspired to live a life of meaningful effort. I am one of countless millions that Pete has inspired and will continue to inspire through his songs.

Pete wrote his own epitaph in a song he titled “To My Old Brown Earth”:

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I'll now give these last few molecules of "I."

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I'm yours
And you are also mine.

If you want to hear Pete singing this, here are two options – the first is a video clip from the PBS American Masters series "Pete Seeger: Power of Song" in 2007. The second is just the audio recording.

Thank you, Pete. I’m still here, and as long as breath is in my body I will keep on singing, encouraged and inspired by the blessed memory of you.

Israel Journal, Part 2: Good People Everywhere

Dear Friends,
I managed one dispatch during our tour, but then no more until now – flying back across the ocean to home in Woodstock. But I would still like to share some of the highlights of our trip with you.

Palmach Museum
Tel Aviv is such a vibrant city – it is at the hub of a metropolitan area of 3,000,000 people. Building cranes are everywhere, jackhammers resound, and skyscrapers rise. As one is enveloped by this massive urban reality, it is difficult to conceive of just how tenuous and uncertain the Zionist enterprise was a mere 65 years ago, during the years leading up to the declaration of the State, and during the War of Independence. During World War II, as news of the concentration camps and the destruction of European Jewry filtered to the Zionist leadership in Palestine, the crushing urgency of their mission to create an independent Jewish state weighed impossibly on them. I recall an iconic photo of David Ben Gurion and his provisional government ministers holding their heads in their hands as they listen to the news from Europe. It was imperative that Jews be trained to fight. The British complied by recruiting and training a Jewish battalion to help in the fight against the Nazis. When the British no longer needed the services of these soldiers, Ben Gurion assigned them a new task: fighting the British, and, after the United Nations approved the Palestine Partition Plan of 1947 and voted for the creation of a Jewish State, fighting the Arab armies as well. These fighters were known as the Palmach, the vanguard of the Haganah, the first Jewish army in almost 19 centuries.

The Palmach Museum in toney North Tel Aviv is a museum primarily for Israelis, not tourists. Young Israelis, immersed in a booming materialistic society, may not be aware of the life and death struggle that their grandparents faced in an effort to ensure a Jewish future. The young Israelis, surrounded by one of the most powerful militaries in the world, may not know that their grandparents scrounged for bullets, often used World War I-era rifles, and faced impossible odds.

The museum is designed as an experience, as one walks through recreations of settings in which a film is projected on the walls that tracks the history of the Palmach by following a fictionalized group of soldiers from their recruitment in 1941 until the Palmach was incorporated into the newly created Israel Defense Force after the War of Independence. The determination and losses of these fighters is hard to imagine. Historical outcomes are not a given – the future rested in their under-equipped hands. And they won, at staggering cost.

As an exercise in collective memory, the Palmach Museum is amazingly effective. Rather than encountering static exhibits, one is immersed in a historical retelling, and one cannot help but identify with the ragtag soldiers as we accompany them on their mission. At the end of the journey we hear a recitation of a poem by the great Natan Aterman. This poem is recited every year on Israel’s Memorial Day, which falls one day before Israel Independence Day. It is called “Magash Hakesef” – “The Silver Platter”:
The earth grows still.
The lurid sky slowly pales over smoking borders.
Heartsick but still living, a people stand by
To greet the uniqueness
Of the miracle.
Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in awesome joy before the light. - -
Then soon,
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work clothes and heavy-shod
They climb
In stillness.
Wearing still the dress of battle, the grime
Of aching day and fired night
Unwashed, weary until death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair.- -
Silently the two approach
And stand.
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
"Who are you, the silent two?"
And they reply: "We are the silver platter
Upon which the Jewish State was served to you."
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation's feet.
Let the rest in Israel's chronicles be told.

Good People Everywhere
One of our goals on this tour was to explore some aspects of Israeli society that are off the beaten tourist track. To this end we took a decidedly unglamorous side trip to – no kidding - Shafdan, the enormous wastewater treatment plant that services the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area. It was fascinating. Israel, as you may know, is a water-poor country with a booming population. Out of necessity Israel has transformed itself into the world leader in water conservation and recycling. The Shafdan plant utilizes state-of-the-art technology to receive, purify and recycle all of the sewage produced in greater Tel Aviv. The purified water is then used to irrigate the crops grown in the Negev, while the sludge becomes fertilizer. Israel is now exporting this technology worldwide.

As interesting as the presentation was, I found our presenter equally interesting. I mean, this young man spoke with passion about sewage, good microbes, and sludge. He addresses dozens of school groups who come to the plant to learn about water conservation. When I spoke to him afterwards, he explained that he had left a job in the corporate world because he wanted to make a positive difference in the world. He would not be the only idealistic young Israeli we would meet on this trip.

On our way up north to the Galilee from Tel Aviv, we stopped in the Israeli Arab village of Baneh to meet an afterschool circus program for Jewish and Arab kids. The population of the Galilee is pretty equally divided between Jews and Arabs, but the two populations have little contact. The two communities have separate school systems, and even though the countryside is a patchwork of Jewish and Arab villages and towns, Jewish and Arab children have little contact. The founders of the circus are local folks who wanted a fun way for these kids to build friendships and trust. The lead teachers are a strapping pair of young men, one Jewish and one Arab. We entered the community gymnasium and were treated to a surprisingly good performance of acrobatics and clowning. We learned that, indeed, the shared activity had led to some budding friendships between Jewish and Arab parents, even some play dates. We learned that, as with all children’s performances, parents and extended families showed up for performances, meaning mixed audiences of Arab and Jewish families, a rarity. As we played and spoke with the children afterwards, I also got to show off my handstand!

The next morning we visited the Tsfat studio of Avraham Loewenthal, an artist and student of Kabbalah. I have brought groups to Avraham’s studio several times now. Avraham was born and raised in the USA, and came to Israel some 20 years earlier on his own spiritual search. He arrived in the mountaintop town of Tsfat, center of Jewish mystical study, and never left. Avraham is one of the sweetest neshamas – souls – I have ever met. In 20 minutes he gave us an introduction to the Kabbalah that cut through to the core: we are here for a reason: to love. The purpose of kabbalistic study is to discover the particular loving work of each of our lives.

Avraham’s work hangs on the wall of our sanctuary in Woodstock. It is known as “shiviti”, an aid to focusing in meditation and prayer. The piece is composed of the word “ahava” – “love”, written hundreds of times in different sizes and patterns, with the infinite name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay prominently in the center. I feel connected to Tsfat, and to the deepest meaning of God, every time I look at it.

That very evening we found ourselves in Kiryat Shmona, a perpetually depressed development town up at Israel’s northernmost border, an easy and frequent missile target from Lebanon. We were here to visit and share dinner with Israeli college students in the Ayalim program. This program offers scholarships to students who are willing to live and volunteer in distressed communities throughout Israel while they attend college. This particular neighborhood, once a haven for drug dealers, is one of Ayalim’s great successes. Over the past several years that the Ayalim students had lived in this neighborhood they had renovated numerous apartments and initiated a wide variety of afterschool programs. Remarkably, there were no drug arrests this past year, and there are children playing on the streets. We spoke with one of the directors of the program, a young Israeli man who, like his counterpart at the water treatment plant in Tel Aviv, had left a corporate career in order to find more meaningful work. Many of the Ayalim participants see themselves as representatives of a continuing vision of Zionism, a vision that requires that a Jewish national homeland also be a humane and just society.

Oh Jerusalem!
Here I must make mention of our erudite and patient guide, Ariel Fogelman. In his late 30s, Ariel is a Jerusalem native who is a passionate student of Jewish and Israeli history, politics and culture. In particular, he grew up in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and would appear to know every alleyway and building crammed into that single square kilometer. But what makes Ariel extraordinary is that he is a committed educator, preparing now to pursue a doctorate in how to teach critical thinking. He is also very good looking, and many in our group thoroughly enjoyed swooning over him. Our group was also blessed to have a very caring program organizer with us, Cheryl Meskin, who helped our travelers in countless ways.

On our walking tour of the Old City Ariel took us into what are known as the Western Wall Tunnels. This is a relatively recent archaeological exploration that defies easy description, but imagine this: when one stands at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in 2014, one is standing upon up to 90 feet of the accumulated rubble of the ages. That is, the base of the Kotel is many meters below the small section that we touch when we pray at the Wall. The Western Wall tunnels dig under existing neighborhoods and reveal a part of King Herod’s Jerusalem of the 1st century BCE that is relatively untouched by the ages. As we stood deep below present day Jerusalem, I marveled at the massive, perfectly aligned stone building blocks of Herod’s ancient Temple Mount.

Of course, all archaeology is political in Jerusalem. We were standing below the current Moslem Quarter of the Old City, literally undermining their claim to Jerusalem while verifying our own Jewish claim. The golden Dome of the Rock, which stands where our ancient Temple once stood, has only been there since the year 691(!) When these tunnels opened some 15 years ago, deadly riots ensued. But the tunnels themselves reveal irrefutable historical wonders.

When we surfaced we walked up the Via Dolorosa, the Path of Suffering, that Christian pilgrims take as they walk in the footsteps of their savior, leading to the holiest Christian site in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, the heart of the Christian narrative. We then took a short walk over to the Jewish Quarter and stood by remnants of King Hezekiah’s wall from the 8th century BCE. Ariel read to us Isaiah’s account of the Assyrian emperor Sennecharib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

This is what it is like to be in Jerusalem. Books and lectures and movies are no substitute. Perhaps you can understand why I always want to bring people over here to experience it in the flesh, and in the stones.

“Hamatzav” literally means “the Situation”. It is the term Israelis use to refer to the perpetual conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As John Kerry attempts to wring some kind of agreement out of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, I felt that it was critical that our group also get a taste of the competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives and claims over this small strip of land. To this end we spent a full day across the “Green Line” – the border that was conditionally established when a ceasefire ended the Israeli War of Independence in 1949. As you may know, that war that Israel celebrates is known to the Palestinians as the Nakba, which means the Catastrophe. The winners and the losers of that conflict have meager trust or goodwill for each other. Since the Six Day War in 1967, Israel has controlled both sides of this “Green Line”.

Our bus traveled the short distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, passing a massive concrete wall and checkpoint. In Bethlehem we met with Raed Othman, the head of the official Palestinian Authority News Agency. Raed was very personable, and he graciously hosted us in his spacious office. Many in our group found him infuriating, spinning his answers to our questions like a master politician, giving us a straight answer only when pressed.

We then traveled to nearby Efrat, a place that the news media always refers to as a “settlement”, but resembling nothing other than what it is today, a bedroom community a few minutes outside of Jerusalem. There we sat in the living room of Bob Lang, who had come to Israel nearly 40 years ago from Wisconsin and has been advocating ever since for the right of Israelis to live where they choose on either side of the Green Line. Personable and articulate, Bob is a hard liner of the Israeli Right, and I wanted our group to hear from him too. I wanted our group to understand how entrenched the two sides are, and how impossibly intertwined their aspirations are, cheek by jowl. The “Two-State Solution”, whereby an independent Palestine will take its place on one side of the Green Line, looks much more complicated – nearly impossible, in fact – up close. Bob Lang, along with a growing number of Palestinians, advocate for a “One-State Solution”, whereby the former West Bank will be annexed by Israel, and citizenship offered to all residents, Jewish and Palestinian. This too sounds good until you listen closely to the hopes and fears of these adversaries. I am wishing John Kerry luck.

However, I do not wish to part on this bleak note. For although the leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians are little inclined toward reconciliation, an extraordinary number of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians continue to cooperate on grassroots initiatives for peaceful coexistence. Most of these efforts function below the media radar. For example, some of our group met two of these inspiring folks, Ibrahim Issa and Eden Fuchs over dinner one night in Jerusalem. WJC member Roberta Wall, who is spending another winter in Jerusalem teaching Non-Violent Communication skills to Palestinians and Israelis, arranged for our meeting. Ibrahim has been teaching coexistence to Palestinian children for many years at the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, a school his father founded. Ibrahim explained that he had come to the conclusion that both sides needed to truly understand the other, and that non-violence was the only path that he could pursue. Ibrahim is a very brave man. Eden was a career officer in the IDF. When he retired he felt compelled to finally get to know his enemy, and for the first time in his life began to listen to Palestinians and make friends, an experience that has been life-changing for him. Eden made a very compelling case for grassroots social activism, and for the possibility of changing attitudes from the bottom up, especially in a small country like Israel, where lines of connection pretty rapidly lead to the top. Eden is completely committed to this work, come what may. Eden and Ibrahim’s organization is called The Center for Emerging Futures.

I pray that it is indeed their vision of the future that somehow emerges in that land that I love.


Rabbi Jonathan

Israel Journal, December 2013: Jewish Spiritual Renewal in Tel Aviv

Dear Friends,
I have the privilege of sending you dispatches from our latest WJC tour of Israel. Our itinerary is substantially different from past trips, a conscious effort to provide our return travelers with new experiences and insights into Israeli life and history. To this end, we have spent the first four days of our trip in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is barely 100 years old, a new city built not on ancient ruins but on undeveloped sand dunes by the Mediterranean Sea. Its history therefore does not run deep, and on past trips we have chosen to focus on places and sites that combine the ancient and the modern. But while Tel Aviv’s history may not be ancient, it is the birthplace of the modern State of Israel, and Israel’s commercial and cultural hub. Tel Aviv anchors a metropolitan area of over 3 million people, the New York City of Israel. Like NYC, it is a city that never sleeps, and young Israelis flock to it.

Israelis typically divide their country into two symbolic halves: Jerusalem, fervent, serious, ancient and spiritual; and Tel Aviv, raucous, secular, and not beholden to our burdensome past. The stereotypes carry a good deal of truth, but those distinctions are beginning to weaken in fascinating ways. In recent decades, disaffected by the state-supported orthodox Judaism that they know, many secular “Tel Avivi” Israelis have turned to Eastern religions and philosophies, to ecstatic rave dances and drug use, and to other paths as they search for spiritual grounding in their lives. But some of these seekers have even more recently begun to explore Jewish practices – not in the traditional mode, but experimentally. They are looking for a way to express their own lives within the Jewish template.

To welcome Shabbat, we joined with a congregation called Beit Tefila Yisraeli – the Israeli House of Prayer. The rabbi’s name is Esteban Gottfried. A lovely young woman with a stunning voice accompanied him on the keyboard, and a young man drummed. Prayers were sung to familiar but also to very new melodies: Leonard Cohen, Latin beats, Israeli melodies. We sang. And we danced. And we told the group what we were thankful for, speaking from our hearts. And we greeted friends and strangers alike. We from the WJC “got it” from the first note. I was thrilled. We had found our Israeli spiritual home not in Holy Jerusalem, but in secular Tel Aviv!

On Shabbat morning we studied with some faculty and students from an organization called Binah (which translates as “Understanding”). Binah calls itself a “secular yeshiva”, that is, a secular academy for studying traditional Jewish texts. What might seem like an oxymoron in the USA (secular yeshiva?) makes perfect sense here in Israel. Here in Israel if non-religious Jews wish to seriously study Torah as a spiritual path their options have been almost entirely limited to studying within the Orthodox establishment. But now some groups are springing up for secular Jews who want to wrestle with and learn from Jewish texts in an open-ended and egalitarian format. Our Torah study with the folks from Binah was uncannily like our Torah study at the WJC: participatory and directed toward how the Torah portion might inform our own lives. We had met our Israeli counterparts.

The staff of Binah, however, takes their commitment a step further. Their mission is to combine study with action. And so they have located their school in one of the poorest sections of Tel Aviv, a neighborhood that has been flooded in recent years by African asylum seekers from the Sudan and Eritrea. Their study is meant to inform their action as they volunteer to service the needs of the local community. The leaders of Binah are responding to the desire of these young Israelis to contribute to their world, while showing them – for the very first time for most of these participants – that their desire to do good is connected to being a Jew.

For example, we studied the passage in this week’s portion, Shemot (Exodus) in which Moses witnesses the Egyptian taskmaster punishing a Hebrew slave. “Moses looked this way and that, and seeing that there was no ish (person) about, he struck down the taskmaster.” Our teacher explained that one traditional reading of this passage is that, rather than the apparent meaning that Moses was looking around to make sure no one was watching, Moses was actually looking around to see if there was any other person about who would intervene and stop this injustice. When Moses saw that there was no other person who would intervene, he stepped forward and stopped the beating. This reading is based on a famous saying from Rabbi Hillel: B’makom sh’eyn ish, hishtadel lihyot ish – In a place where there is no ish, strive to be an ish. Ish, person, can more accurately be rendered as mensch: “In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch.” Moses knows that it is his undeniable responsibility to act like a mensch and stop the mistreatment of this poor laborer.

A beautiful reading. But Binah is committed to walking its talk, and therefore this week’s Torah teaching becomes the foundation of the intent of all of their students as they head out to their social service internships in the community. I was inspired. And the good news is that Binah is bursting at the seams, looking for a larger space in Tel Aviv and opening new branches all over the country.

More on Tel Aviv to come soon-
Rabbi Jonathan

For the Sin of Racism (Yom Kippur 5774)

The Vidui, the communal confession of sins that we chanted just a few moments ago, is actually an elaborate acrostic. The ancient litany makes its creative way through the entire Hebrew alphabet, enumerating all of the ways that we have missed the mark, from Aleph to Tav, the Hebrew A to Z.

The opening lines frame the entire list:
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’ones uv’ratzon
For the wrong we did before You under coercion or of our own free will
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’imutz lev
For the wrong we did before You by hardening our hearts
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha bivli da’at
For the wrong we did before You unintentionally, without knowing

Whether under coercion or of our own free will, whether awarely or unintentionally, when we participate in a wrong it is still wrong, and our tradition demands that we make an accounting of it and commit to not repeating it.

Tonight I want to speak about the collective sin of racism, and our responsibility to combat it. I speak tonight as a Jewish American, a citizen of a nation whose great wealth was built on the enslavement, exploitation and degradation of African Americans; a nation that rationalized and institutionalized the intolerable treatment of African Americans by claiming their inferiority to those of lighter skin tone; a nation that, despite much progress, continues to be separate and unequal.

I speak tonight humbly, knowing that many other sins infect our society, equally demanding of our attention, knowing that I am taking advantage of my pulpit tonight to speak on only one deserving topic out of many. I speak tonight humbly, after much reflection, trusting that I should speak my mind.

I speak tonight as an American Jew, my Ashkenazi blood only recently elevated to the status of white people. It is within the memory of many in this tent when Jewish immigrants and their children were not considered white, but rather dark, swarthy and foreign, when quotas kept us out of the privileged institutions of our country. Many of us know that a century ago Ralph Whitehead chose Woodstock for his utopian arts colony in part because no Jews or Blacks resided here.

I speak tonight as a Jew, compelled by our own ancient story of slavery and degradation to work for fair and just treatment for all.

I speak tonight as one who can usually comfortably ignore racial inequities in our nation, but this year the continuing, insidious reality of racism has forced its way into my consciousness, and I realize that I have been unaware. But my lack of awareness is no excuse; we just chanted, “For the wrong we did before you unintentionally, without knowing.” And so I confess my wrongs and commit to action.

My consciousness has been raised again by the shameful perversion of justice in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

My consciousness has been raised again by the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a moment that changed American history for the better, a moment when the phrase “I have a dream” entered our national lexicon.

My consciousness has been raised again by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act that was created to ensure that every American had the right and the means to vote, regardless of skin color. History can march backward as well as forward. Dr. Martin Luther King, quoting a 19th century abolitionist preacher, used to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Just over two weeks ago, at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama reworded this phrase, and said, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”

The forces of racism, like the forces of anti-Semitism, do not disappear on their own. Ideologies of domination and hatred are incredibly resilient, reinventing themselves as conditions change.  Our constant vigilance is required.

My consciousness has been especially raised this year by a brilliant book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by civil rights lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander. Michelle Alexander makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that over the past few decades we have, mostly unawarely, been participating in a society-wide reassertion of racial inequality in our country through the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of darker skin.

Alexander argues that in the wake of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling the Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans legally disadvantaged, a new strategy developed over time that continues to keep much of the African American community in the position of an underclass. The centerpiece of this strategy was the War on Drugs, and its selective and prejudicial enforcement, primarily against African American and Hispanic males. The statistics speak for themselves:

•From 1970 to 2005, the United States prison population rose by 700%. The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world – more than Russia, China or Iran.
•African Americans make up a little more than 12% of the total U.S. population, but nearly 50% of all those behind bars.
•1 in every 106 White males over the age of 18 is incarcerated. 1 in every 15 Black males over the age of 18 is incarcerated.

The majority of these crimes are for drug dealing and possession. And so we must ask: do Blacks use drugs more than Whites? Do police sweep liberal arts college campuses with the same frequency as poor urban neighborhoods looking for illegal drug use? How about Woodstock? Clearly, the game is rigged, and African Americans are the born losers.

But as I learned from Michelle Alexander, the damage extends far beyond prison terms. She writes: “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights…than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”

My jaw dropped repeatedly as I listened to Michelle Alexander’s words. I didn’t know! For the wrong we did before You unintentionally, without knowing. Of course there are men and women who are convicted of crimes where removal from society is an issue of public safety. But I didn’t know that even after a jail term, those who have been labeled criminals – and their families – face permanent roadblocks to the most basic rights and services. I didn’t know that the communities in which these families live fall further and further behind, creating a powerless and mostly permanent underclass in the United States. And I didn’t know that these laws are enforced disproportionately against African Americans.

It’s easy not to know. We have elected an African American President and have an African American Attorney General. There has been real and substantive progress. We no longer possess the clarity that infused the Civil Rights Movement in its fight against the manifest injustice of the old Jim Crow. But institutionalized racism persists in our nation, under new disguise, with the support of our legal system all the way up to a slim majority on the Supreme Court. I want to do something about it.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to do something about it at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Ignited by Michelle Alexander’s book, Susan Griss and Chaia Lehrer initiated, with our Board’s support and endorsement, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Task Force To End the New Jim Crow. They and their task force have been my consciousness-raisers and my inspiration to speak tonight. The Task Force is working on multiple levels. On the local level, for example, in cooperation with Temple Emanuel of Kingston we have been reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book together, and are beginning to organize new activities with area African American churches and organizations; on the state level Task Force members have lobbied in Albany for change in our state’s draconian mandatory sentencing laws; and nationally Task Force members traveled to Washington, D.C. and proudly carried a WJC banner in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington. But even more ambitiously, the Task Force plans to organize Jewish communities around the country to become a Jewish voice in the emerging movement to ensure racial justice in the United States.

We Jews are rightfully proud of the coalition we forged with African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and the contributions we made to that movement’s success. Some of us here tonight were on the front lines. Who here was at the March 50 years ago? And who participated in Freedom Summer, 50 years ago next summer? I was too young to attend, but growing up with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement shaped my understanding of what it means to be a good Jew and a good American. In honor of these anniversaries, I want to renew our commitment as a Jewish community to work side by side with our African American brothers and sisters towards creating a more just America.

And so I invite you, if you are so moved, to join in the work of our Task Force this year. But even if that is not your cup of tea, I want to invite you to consider some very personal things that each of us might do to combat the sin of racism.
•Notice your reactions when you encounter African Americans, especially young black men. We are mostly conditioned to be afraid. Reach out in your mind and heart past that initial, conditioned response, towards the human being in front of you. Be brave.
•Listen carefully to your African American friends. They experience daily insults that sail right by us. Learn from them.
•The White and Black communities mostly lead separate and parallel lives.
Consider putting yourself in situations in which it might be easy to interact with African Americans. Take the risk to cross the divide, and forge some new connections that might grow into friendships. Have fun!

Every action, no matter how private, that we can take that counters the tide of racial prejudice is like a drop of fresh water, and when enough drops join together a rivulet, and then a stream begins to flow. As the prophet Amos preached in ancient Israel, and as Dr. Martin Luther King repeated 50 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!

V’al kulam, elohai selichot, slach lanu m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all our wrongs, even the unintentional ones, dear God, forgive us, pardon us and grant us at-one-ment.

I wish you all a new year full of at-one-ment, rich with life-giving connections with all of God’s children.