Walking in the Footsteps of Kings

From Seth

Arriving back at the synagogue after a long vacation seems somewhat surreal. In many ways, it as if I hadn’t left. In other ways, I feel like I have been gone for much longer.

Taking these 3 ½ weeks off has been a tremendous gift. I feel blessed that I am supported by the congregation with generous vacation time, and this year was the first that we as a family were able to use a good amount of it all at once. Between all of our schedules, we had this time and we took it. We wanted to expose ourselves, and our children, to the important civil rights and justice sites, primarily in the South.

This trip was full of many different experiences. Aside from all the driving, the visiting, the touring, I did get to spend several days in spiritual retreat through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a welcome and restorative respite both from the travelling and from my daily work as a rabbi. It was a week of growth and exploration.

And the road trip itself was one of growth and exploration. Seeing all of these sites of American history, ones we do not generally visit, felt truly important and necessary. As a kid growing up in the east, I was exposed to the historical sites of colonial America, Civil War battlefields, national monuments. This trip I feel like I added a necessary chapter to that narrative.

There is much to reflect on and process, and I know it will take some time. I walk away with a deeper appreciation of place, in that we can understand so much more of our history when we actually visit the places where key events took place. Reading about the Selma-to-Montgomery march in a book or a museum is informative. Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is transformative.

We sat in the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached in Atlanta. We drove along Route 80, the path of the march between Selma and Montgomery. We stood a few feet away from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was shot. To be at these places was to be on hallowed ground, for these were places of liberation, of martyrdom, of hope, and of commitment.

Returning to the congregation in time for parashat Eikev, I open up the Torah to the Book of Deuteronomy and read these words:

Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the commandments or not. God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that one does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years… (Deuteronomy 8:3)

The context is Moses preparing the Israelites for their entry into the Promised Land after being freed from Egyptian bondage and wandering in the desert for forty years. At first it reads like falsehood, how can that physically be? But then it reads like inspiration and hope, if we can make it this far, we can make it even farther.

In reading these words, I think about our modern spiritual ancestors, the ones who endured the hardships of contemporary oppression and hatred, the ones who had to travel in the wilderness to attain freedom and liberation, the ones who persevered and fought for justice with their very lives, the ones who were tested time and time again.

The line that has always struck me is, “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” I have a new appreciation for this verse, having visited these historic places, knowing how much of the movements involved marching. And how those involved in nonviolent action—not only the marches but the sit-ins at the lunch counters and the freedom rides on the buses—stressed the need to be well-dressed. Their feet did not swell, their clothes did not wear out, as they had a vision of a better future and did what they needed to do to attain it.

Another verse from this passage is the famous line about “a person does not live by bread alone.” To that, I offer a modern midrash from King himself, in a sermon he gave at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, AL in 1954:

And so because man is an animal with a material body, we must forever be concerned about his material well being. Too often have we talked about the primacy of the spiritual with little concern for the material. It might be true that man cannot live by bread alone, but the mere fact that the alone is added to the passage implies that man cannot live without bread. My friends man is body as well as soul, and any religion that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, and the economic order that cripples them, is a dry, passive do nothing religion in need of new blood. As I look at the economic and social injustices existing in our world, I plead for a church that shall be a fountainhead of a better social order.

Indeed. Arriving back at the synagogue after this trip across America, I have a new understanding and appreciation of this idea. We are people of body and soul. A true spiritual community considers both.

Refugees, Both Foreign and Domestic

From Seth

As we make our way back home, we stopped in Utah for some outdoor exploring. The social justice part of our trip ended two days ago, so an opportunity for a short reflection on the of the trip.

While we originally just planned on the civil rights tour, we added on the Japanese internment camp, Holocaust museum, and Trail of Tears site to add diversity to our exploration of justice in America. There were sites along our already planned itinerary, which made things a bit easier. We know we couldn’t do everything, touch on every topic. One topic that looms large today is immigration and refugees, but we didn’t explore any sites related to this topic specifically.

It wasn’t far from our our consciousness, however. We listened to NPR daily in the car and kept up with the issue surrounding family separation and reunification following the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border. Yohanna reflected on her experience in McAllen as she wrote about Viola Liuzzo, who was killed when she joined the Selma to Montgomery march. And we listened to Hamilton (a lot!) in which a recurring theme is the fact that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to the nascent United States.

We did, however, have one experience today, a last minute stop as we drove from Moab to Boise. In northern Utah we visited the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the location of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. It was noted that a major source of labor on the railroad was Chinese and Irish immigrants.

One thing earlier in the trip that did provide a new perspective on the issue is the framing that was provided on African American history at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. In presenting the period after slavery and after Reconstruction when lynching became a dominant practice of white supremacists, the museum used the term “racial terrorism.” And in response to this racial terrorism, many African Americans fled from the South into the urban centers in the North. They were, in a sense, refugees fleeing oppression.

This was illuminating for me, something that was new to me yet made complete sense when I read it. Terrorism strikes in many ways, refugees flee for a variety of reasons. To associate these categories exclusive with one group is inaccurate and wrong, to make generalizations about a group is harmful and misleading.

In this case, whites were terrorizing African Americans with violence and death that went unchecked by law. African Americans felt they had no choice but to leave the homes they knew for somewhere new and potentially safer. As the museum related, this had a real impact on the makeup of the United States.

Jews have been on the other end of restrictive immigration policies and have been refugees as well. This was made clear in the Holocaust museum. That fact, along with our spiritual teaching of the Exodus and fleeing Egyptian slavery for the Promised Land, compels us to address issues of immigration.

We need to be welcoming to refugees, both foreign and domestic.

A River of Hope and Pain

From Seth

Driving cross-country, the varied topography of our country unfolds before you. Flora, fauna, landscape change before your eyes. Yesterday we began the day in unbelievably flat Kansas and ended it in the Rockies of Colorado.

Most of the sites we visited on our justice tour were human creations where significant events took place: internment camps, bridges, motels, churches, city squares, schools. Plus all the museums, memorials, and monuments created to remember and retell the story of these events.

But geography can also tell a justice story, as we learned when we visited Trail of Tears State Park near Jackson, MO, on the shores of the Mississippi. (We had wanted to find a site, and this was the closest one on our route.) It was here that members of the Cherokee nation crossed the river in their forced relocation to Oklahoma from their ancestral lands in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina. And in visiting the site we were reminded that our country has always carried out injustices against groups of people, even from its very founding with the killing and resettlement of Native Peoples.

The forced relocation of the Cherokee took place in the late 1830s, and in total about 20,000 people were forced from their homes. Many of the injustices we had already learned about on our trip had echos in the Trail of Tears. Before the march, the Cherokee were rounded up and held in stockades, just as slaves were held in warehouses and Japanese citizens would be held in internment camps. Just as the economy of the US was built on slave labor, part of the motivation for moving the Cherokee was for white settlers to claim arable land and mine for gold which was discovered in Georgia. And the undercurrent through all that we witnessed: the indifference and antagonism of white leaders to racial and ethnic minorities.

This is not the only site of the Trail of Tears, and the Cherokee is not the only nation to have been forcibly moved. This one visit on our trip could not do justice to understanding the scope of this terrible episode of our history. But it did provide a glimpse into the hardship endured. The Mississippi, a river that embodies so much of the American imagination, is also a site of injustice. Looking out at the river, recognizing it’s crossing as one of the hardest part of the Trail of Tears, I tried to imagine how one could cross it under such physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing conditions.

And more than just this one fact of history, it was a reminder how land itself is important to Native Peoples. Living in the Pacific NW, I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this fact, moreso than I had in other places I’ve lived. And the integration of land and culture is an important teaching of Jewish tradition as well as we recognize, for example, the agricultural and seasonal basis of our major holidays.

For all of its promise of justice, this country was also founded on injustice. It is not only reflected in the people, but the land itself. The interpretive center at the Trail of Tears State Park told how Thomas Jefferson–the author of the Declaration of Independence and the words “all men are created equal–first proposed a policy of Native American removal and resettlement after the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. We need to reckon and wrestle with these facts.

And as always, the first step to achieving justice is recognizing past injustice. We must confront our history and tell the stories not just of America’s promise, but also of its persecution. Both of them are true.

Prayer Conditioning

From Seth

It seems odd to say that after six years of education and 15 years as a rabbi that I’ve gained a new understanding of Shabbat, but that did happen on this trip.

After exploring Memphis and the civil rights museum–housed at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot and killed–we drove north towards St. Louis. We stopped at the Trail of Tears State Park on the Mississippi River as part of our justice tour (more on that later), and as we were making our way through some back roads in rural Missouri, we passed by a church. On its sign, on that hot and humid day, was the message, “Come on in, we have prayer conditioning!”

This was a Friday, and we knew that we would be spending Friday night in St. Louis. In our original itinerary we didn’t necessarily make any plans for what to do for Shabbat, but as we were reassessing we decided to find somewhere to go to Erev Shabbat services.

As congregational rabbis, we attend and lead many Shabbat services. So when it comes to vacation, since Shabbat is part of our “work,” we oftentimes choose not to go to shul and instead find other ways to wind down and relax. On the other hand, it is rare that we have the opportunity to participate in services as congregants, so that can also feel vacation-like. This trip we chose the latter.

We chose to attend Central Reform Congregation since it was close to where we staying and had known by reputation the senior rabbi, Susan Talve, who is very active in social justice work and played an active leadership role in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer. But attending Shabbat wasn’t meant to be a part of our justice tour, it was meant to be that spiritual pause that Shabbat is meant to be.

And this time, sitting in the sanctuary, that truly came alive for me. Since I didn’t need to lead the service, I could just absorb the energy in the room. I could sing, or not. Use the words in the prayerbook, or not. Speak, or just be in silence. We had been going non-stop on our road trip and justice tour. During the sweet services, I was able to find the time to just be. I was able to pause and deeply reflect on the trip and how far I have come personally since the day we left Olympia. I was able to express gratitude for this opportunity and for the ability to share it with my family.

And how necessary this is. The importance of Shabbat was renewed for me. And I don’t mean the formal structure of a service, or the traditional 25-hour observance or refraining from work-like activities. I mean the spirit of taking time out of the week for even an hour and half or so to sing, express gratitude, meditate, rest, receive, reflect, process, listen, and connect with others who are doing the same. We need this. And I don’t mean one needs to go to services to do it–though that is a place to find it–but one really needs to create that time and space for oneself. It is not always natural to do so, which is why we, as the church sign said, need to condition ourselves to make space for prayer, however we may define it.

Our visit to Central Reform Congregation turned out to be not totally separate from our justice and civil rights tour. By happenstance (kismet?), the congregation this weekend was hosting a local training by Bend the Arc, a national Jewish justice organization. The CEO, Stosh Cotler, was present for the training but also to present remarks to the congregation during services. (The Bend the Arc training also included a gathering for Jews of Color, an important reminder of the racial diversity within the Jewish community as we have been exploring racial justice.)

This wonderful coincidence reinforced the idea that there is no separation between spirituality and justice work. Indeed, so many of the leaders and organizers in the civil rights movement were clergymembers or churchgoers, many organizing meetings and trainings took place in the basements of churches, sermons were a vehicle for spreading news and messages of hope and justice. This spiritual foundation provided for much of the consistency and ultimately the success of the civil rights movement.

Sitting in the congregation this past Shabbat, hearing words of justice from the pulpit by a national Jewish leader, I felt that link. And just as being a congregant for this Shabbat really reminded me of the need to make Shabbat for ourselves, it also really reminded me of how the work for social justice can be reinforced by spiritual practice.

Stosh spoke beautifully about the work of Bend the Arc, the need to do the difficult work of resistance, and the need to–as Jews–reach out to others who are in need. She spoke specifically and relevantly about supporting immigrants–those who are under threat of deportation and especially now those families who are being separated, leaving young children scared and alone.

And she shared words that we had heard earlier in the week during our travels, the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke just prior to Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. On that day he said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

We must not be silent, either in protest or in prayer.

We, Too, Must Ascend the Mountaintop, and Walk Down the Other Side.

From Seth

Our trip took us to Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel where, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

King had come to Memphis to support the striking African-American city sanitation workers. In the last year of his life he had launched the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, addressing issues of economic inequality in addition to his work on racial inequality. The sanitation workers were on strike to demand fair treatment and better pay.

The night before his assassination, he addressed a crowd at a rally with what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, a powerful visionary speech that was also eerily prescient. In it he makes references to death threats made against him, including a bomb threat about the plane he was taking to Memphis. He concludes, evoking the biblical imagery:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The night before we arrived in Memphis, we had walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, echoing the path of the Selma to Montgomery march. In 1965 civil rights activists planned to march from Selma to the State Capitol building in Montgomery to demand voting rights. This was the march of the famous photos of King and other leaders–including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel–marching arm in arm.

What I hadn’t realized until we made this trip was that this was the third attempt at a march, and that after the first two attempts a specific call was made for religious leaders and others to join in. The first attempt became known as “Bloody Sunday” because as the marchers crossed the bridge they were met by police who beat the protesters, including the leader John Lewis. (The second was a symbolic walk led by King that turned around halfway across the bridge.) The images from Bloody Sunday were widely viewed and gained a lot of sympathy for the cause.

In preparation for our trip I read March, the three-volume graphic novel by John Lewis (now a Congressman from Georgia). It is an incredible telling of his life story from childhood to his leadership in the civil rights movement. The books climax at the Selma to Montgomery march, and vividly brought to life this history. As the book evokes, when one is crossing the arched bridge, one can’t see the other side from the other. When they started out, they didn’t see the police assembled on the other side until they reached the top of the arch, the midpoint of the bridge. At the exhibit at the Memphis civil rights museum, he described it as seeing a “sea of blue”–Alabama state troopers.

I thought of this as we crossed the bridge, and it’s true, you can’t see the other side until you reach the midpoint of the arched bridge. I tried to image what that must have been like, to head off with hopes and ideals ascending the bridge only to meet an army of those who would seek to destroy those ideals.

Lewis, in a way, had also been to the mountaintop. And at the top of the bridge he saw those ostensibly charged with the public trust who would beat their fellow humans based solely on the color of their skin and their desire for justice. (The same as in Birmingham, which we also visited, where police turned dogs and fire hoses on protesters.) And after the confrontation, in which Lewis was badly hurt, it took courage and conviction to return.

And it took courage and conviction for King to continue knowing there were death threats against him. And it took courage and conviction for the movement to continue after King’s murder.

As we stand where these justice heroes stood, putting their lives on the line for justice, equality, and human dignity, it renews for us the commitment to continue this journey. The issues may change (and in some ways they have not). But the spiritual commitment is the same: to ascend to the heights, envision a better future, see the obstacles ahead, and have the courage and conviction to take the next step.

The Persistence of Racial Inequality

From Seth

The past few days have been an intense confrontation with the narratives and sites of the civil rights movement and African American history in our country. This was at the heart of why we wanted to take this trip. With issues of white supremacy and racial justice still at the forefront of our contemporary societal discourse, we felt it important to see for ourselves–and show our children–this history firsthand.

After a detour to Charlottesville and a stop to see family, we made it to Atlanta, and then on to Montgomery and Selma. Over these past few days we have visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the MLK National Historic Site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Avenue Church, the Atlanta State Capitol, the site of Rosa Parks’s bus stop, the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Route 80 between Montgomery and Selma, and the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Each of these experiences was a new learning opportunity. Whether a museum or a historical site, we have walked away from these few days enriched with a deeper understanding of the history of our country.

Today in Montgomery we visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, joint projects both newly opened in the past few months. The Memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynching, a long overdue tribute to a horrific part of our history.

The Legacy Museum wove a powerful narrative of the African American experience in the US, beginning with slavery. Montgomery as we learned was a center of the slave trade–the museum is in a warehouse where slaves were kept and is located a few blocks from the slave auction site. (The Rosa Parks bus stop overlooks this site, now the location of a beautiful fountain.)

The narrative follows from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. The first three are the past, the last one is the present, all together making up one coherent narrative of institutionalized racism and inequality. Essentially, as one institution is dismantled, another arises to take its place. Institutionalized racism existed at the founding of our country and has persisted in different forms throughout the years, made possible by the attitude that African Americans are less than human. If you can chain a person once, it seems, you can chain them forever.

Because it was institutionalized, these acts of terror and racism were carried out either by the authorities or by others with (explicit or implicit) permission of the authorities. This was the fact that was perhaps both the most known and the most shocking to me to revisit. To know that only 1% of those who carried out lynchings were ever prosecuted, or that it was state troopers who beat people trying to register to vote, or local police who looked the other way when gangs came to harass lunch counter protesters, is to know that racism was built deep into the fabric of society.

At the memorial–a beautiful and evocative design–there is a prayer/dedication on the wall that reads in part: “For those abandoned by the rule of law.” This phrase perfectly captured this idea of institutionalized racism. It treats people not “above the law” but “below the law.” It excludes and treats a class of people as not worthy of full citizenship, of full participation in society.

And it persists today. The museum and the Memorial are projects of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which addresses racial injustice and fights for racial equality in the criminal justice system. At the end of the Museum is a series of touch screens inviting the visitor to get involved on the issues and provides both national and local (by state) resources.

This is always a good place for a museum such as this to end. Confronted with the challenges of the past and the present, we can commit to remake the future.

Witnessing Hatred, from Ancient Jerusalem to Contemporary Charlottesville

From Seth

On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. The center of the Jewish community, their destruction led to disruption, chaos, and exile. The day is marked with fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations, and is sometimes called the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar.”

Historically, the two Temples were destroyed by foreign powers: the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans on 70 CE. But our ancient rabbinic commentators sought to find other reasons–internal reasons–that led to the Temples’ fall. One such reason given is that the community at the time was plagued by sinat hinam, usually translated as “senseless hatred.”

Hinam also has the meaning of “free,” as in “hatred freely given.” And so it was fitting that on Tisha B’Av we stopped by Charlottesville, VA which, a year ago, was the site of one of the most public, largest, most frightening displays of sinat hinam in recent memory. Then, white supremacists marched through the town with Tiki torches chanting, among other things, antisemitic chants (“Jews will not replace us”). They marched through town, including by the local synagogue.

Things turned violent when someone drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer. We visited the street where this happened, paying homage at the memorials both formal (the street was renamed) and informal (flowers on the sidewalk and chalk messages on the brick walls lining the street.) A clear and contemporary demonstration to the power of sinat hinam.

Viewing this on Tisha B’Av gives new meaning to this day. The hatred that has the power to destroy communities and level institutions did not just exist back then, it exists right now. It is on us to identify and name it as such. In addition to fasting and reading ancient texts, this day could be observed through this type of witnessing.

But really this type of work can’t be relegated to one day a year. It must be done every day.

When we mark Tisha B’Av today, we do not hope for the Temple’s return. That too would cause disruption, chaos, and exile. But we do hope for a time when hatred ceases. Memory is the first step, whether the events happened thousands of years ago or one year ago. Putting that memory into action is the next.

America and the Holocaust, Then and Now

From Seth

Though we were staying in the Washington, DC area for a few days after our retreat to visit family, we did continue our justice tour on Friday with a visit to the US Holocaust Museum, specifically to tour the new exhibit on America and the Holocaust.

The exhibit is exceptionally well done both in terms of education and engagement; many of the displays were not only very informative but interactive as well. We felt this would be an important stop to include because, if we are going to be looking at the various examples of hatred and oppressions throughout our country’s history, we need to include antisemitism as well.

It was antisemitism in large part that drove much of the American response to both the Holocaust itself and World War II in general. The setting of immigration quotas prior to the war that cut off immigration, the refusal to let in refugees during the war itself, and the decision not to bomb rail lines as the extent of the Final Solution became known–these were in large part driven by fear and suspicion of the Other, the immigrant, the Jew.

Some of this history I was familiar with, yet organized into a coherent narrative and organized framework was helpful and illuminating. And there were surprises and new insight as well. One interactive display showed how newspapers around the country were reporting on the antisemitic policies of the Nazi regime in the mid-30s. And how, both in contrast yet also eerily similar, Life magazine after the war published powerful images from the camps, without mentioning Jews once.

Antisemitism was not confined to the leaders. Statistics displayed in the exhibit told how, in 1938 for example, 2/3 of Americans believed that Jews in Germany were responsible for their own persecution. And even some Jewish groups were reluctant to press the government on the matter of European Jewry because they felt it would be detrimental to their standing in the US. Prior to the war, the America First Committee tried to get the US to stay out of the war, and blamed Jews in part for their outsized influence.

It is, of course, hard to not see parallels to today. (Even some of the language is the same.) We know as Jews what it is like to be on the other side of an immigration policy or refugee decision. It is our story, yes. And it is a human story.

So rather than belabor the connection I’ll just mention two personalities that emerged from the exhibit, one villain and one hero.

The villain is Breckinridge Long, the assistant Secretary of State who was in large part responsible for limiting visas and slowing the admission of refugees. When Congress was debating in November, 1943 to establish a body to help European Jews, he deliberately misrepresented facts during secret testimony to a Congressional committee, overstating the number of refugees the US had admitted. His lies were uncovered and widely criticized, and he resigned from his position the following year.

The hero is Helen Roseland of Eagle Grove, IA. After being fired from his teaching job in Vienna in 1938, Franz Goldberger was looking to emigrate to the United States. Needing an American sponsor but knowing no one, he wrote letters to people he didn’t know–through professional organizations, for example–looking for someone to provide an affidavit. His plea found its way to Roseland, who agreed to be his sponsor and raise the money. Navigating the bureaucracy and providing the necessary paperwork took about four years, however, during which time Goldberger died in a concentration camp.

As Jews we desperately believe that the story of the Holocaust, and America’s response, needs to be told and taught. Everyone needs to know this history and how antisemitism operates. And we also need, in our day, to identify the Breckinridge Longs and be inspired to be the Helen Roselands.

A Field of Memory and Prayer

From Seth

We break our radio silence after our four-day reteat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, during which time we disconnected from our devices (for the most part). And, since we were taking a break from road tripping as well, we took a break from the blog.

The retreat was in two parts: one part spent in prayer, meditation, yoga and silence to support our own spiritual practice, and the other part was spent in study and training. Yohanna and I spent the week with eight other rabbis and cantors studying about prayer.

As part of this, we investigated the process of hitbodedut, a Hasidic practice which is essentially “freely talking to God.” Made popular by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov, one engaging in this practice would put aside the prayerbook, find a private place, and open up their heart to God, saying whatever came to mind.

More on this at another time, maybe even another blog, but for now, you could just know that in one of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on the subject he speaks about going out to the fields to engage in this practice. And this reminded me of another field that we saw right before the retreat.

One of the nice things about road tripping is that you can make a stop or change direction on a whim. In our original itinerary for the trip, we had planned to do a long day of driving from Ypsilanti, MI to my parents in Bethesda, MD. (The kids were going to be spending a few days with their grandparents while we went to the retreat.) However, since we had done some long days, we decided to break up the trip and picked a spot along the way to pull over for the night. After exploring Pittsburgh for part of the afternoon, we stopped in Somerset, PA.

This was just an overnight pitstop until I looked up Somerset on Wikipedia to learn more about the area. It was then that I discovered that we would be just 20 miles away from Shanksville, PA where, on September 11, 2001, the fourth hijacked plane–United 93–crashed in a field after the passengers confronted the hijackers. Because of this, it never reached its intended target somewhere in Washington, DC.

For a generation 9/11 is a key event, one of those events you remember where you were when you heard about it. I had visited the memorial in lower Manhattan with its cascading waterfalls at the footprint of the World Trade Center. Now we would have the chance to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial, which is formally a part of the US National Park Service.

The memorial was very powerful. The museum in the visitor’s center was informative and thoughtfully done, including details of the day and the aftermath, focusing on the story of the plane, the investigation, and the local community (including recordings of phone calls from passengers to loved ones.) But beyond the museum, the memorial’s design succeeds in being just that–a memorial. From the parking lot, one walks down a long black granite walkway to a platform overlooking the field in which the plane crashed. The power of this walk is that the walkway is constructed along the flight path, so one literally walks the exact path and direction the plane was travelling until arriving to see the actual crash site.

At the end of the walkway at the overlook, engraved in glass, is the phrase, “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” It is interesting to think how the events of 9/11 and Flight 93 did turn this ordinary place–a beautiful, pastoral field in rural Pennsylvania–into first a site of terrorism and a crime scene, then to a gravesite for the victims and a focal point of national memory and history. The ordinary can become extraordinary.

Which is the other takeaway of the visit. We don’t know actually what happened aboard that plane, the specific sequence of events, but it seems pretty clear that the passengers (who had heard about what happened at the World Trade Center) organized to disrupt the hijackers plan. Whether the passengers were able to wrest control or the hijackers grounded the plane or both, for example, we do not know. What we do know is that they did act.

Here, too, the ordinary became extraordinary. Ordinary people on a flight to San Francisco faced with a difficult situation rose up to take extraordinary action. I thought to myself, what would I have done if I was on that plane? Its a question that we often ask ourselves when thinking about historical events: what would I have done if I was there? But it is not just an exercise in history–this is the question we need to ask ourselves right now. It is the perennial question when it comes to the social justice issues of our day: will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it?

And it is not just about major isolated events. We know that 9/11 also led to increased Islamophobia and distrust of Muslims in this country, leading up to our current president’s Muslim travel ban. Will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it? Will we stand up for the oppressed, the targeted, the unjustly hated? Will we oppose a climate that fuels the flames of xenophobia, links the actions of some to an entire group, excludes rather than includes?

Looking out at that field in Shanksville, it was my prayer that we recognize our human imperative to answer “yes.”

Eating Baklava as a Step Toward Justice

From Seth

Our driving listening repertoire has been varied. I finally listened to Hamilton, maybe the last person in America to do so. And we have also listened to a lot of NPR and podcasts. (Haven’t made it to any audiobooks yet.)

One podcast we listened to is Hidden Brain, which examines different aspects of human behavior. We listened to several episodes, and one in particular that stands out is called “The Edge Effect” about diversity and creativity. In short, it discussed how rather than sticking with people who were similar to us, it is deep interactions with others unlike us that breeds the most creativity.

This was fitting for the trip in general but in specific as we made our way through Michigan. I had known that the Detroit area had one of the largest Arab American populations in the country, and it was not until this trip that I was able to visit and experience it.

As we were making our plans to stop in Ypsilanti, MI–near Ann Arbor and outside Detroit–to visit with more family, Yohanna’s aunt suggested visiting the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, where the Arab American population was centered. It was a beautiful and well-done museum, with exhibits first on Arab history and culture, and then moving to the Arab American experience including topics like immigration and settlement, challenges and successes, and contributions by Arab Americans to the American experience.

There was also examples of contemporary Arab and Arab American art, including a photo series titled Magnetism I-IV by the artist Ahmed Mater, which recreates images of the Hajj in Mecca using magnets and iron filings.

The exhibits were informative, thorough and engaging. I learned a lot, and, without discounting the specific experience documented, was also struck at the parallels to the Jewish American experience. Some of the exhibits, with some change of detail, could have been found in a museum about American Jews. A display about Arabs immigrating to the US and becoming peddlers, for example, roaming the west and eventually settling down and opening shops, could have just as easily been about Jews. (And we Jews love holding up other Jews who have made contributions to America.)

But it wasn’t. And the Arab experience has its own narrative which is important to learn. Yes, it is important to find similarities among experiences, that is how we develop familiarity, empathy, and compassion. And at the same time, it is also important to hear the individual stories and honor the differences among us. That is also how we develop appreciation for diversity, for others, for new ideas that challenge our preconceived notions.

Another learning point for me was how the museum told the story of Palestinians in the US, recognizing the displacement of Palestinians after the establishment of the state of Israel, of activism among Arab Americans on behalf of Palestinians, and, at the same time, noting how Palestinian immigration to the US began earlier under the Ottoman Empire.

Museums exist to educate and inform, and if we are willing to enter into them with a spirit of inquiry and openness, then we are able to be changed for the better.

It prepared us for the next stop of the day, Shatila Bakery. After driving past Arab groceries, mosques, and real estate offices with Arabic on the signs, we arrived at the bakery and cafe with a large central seating area and display case upon display case of sweet and savory treats.

For me, this was a greater learning experience than the museum. Here we were immersed in it, not knowing what many things were, or what they were called, or even the ingredients. We asked questions, pointed to the case, and tried new things. We sat down with a pot of Turkish coffee and a variety of treats to taste and enjoy.

At the end of the episode of the Hidden Brain, the host Shankar Vedantam says,

Consider this. The United States, a country that accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, has won about 60 percent of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. From the motor car and the airplane to Facebook and Google, from the telephone and the Internet to Hollywood and Wall Street, scientists, entrepreneurs and entertainers from the United States have powerfully shaped the world in which we live. Could some of this outsized creativity have to do with the extraordinary diversity of America, the waves of immigrants who arrived here over the centuries? I’d like to think the answer is yes.

I tend to agree. And especially if we put ourselves in uncomfortable and vulnerable situations, and not be afraid to ask questions and point to a display case, then that’s how we grow as people and draw closer to one another.