Monday, January 22, 2007

Indifference is a Killer

Have you ever wondered if you could be a hero? Generally, heroes are tested in crisis and war. They usually don’t have split level homes, mortgages and RRSP’s.

However, even those of us with boring bourgeois existences can save lives. By taking a simple cheek swab, we can vault into the pantheon of life saving heroes. Registering in the Gift of Life Registry puts one into a database of potential bone marrow donors. These donors can save the lives of patients fighting leukemia and lymphoma for years into the future.

Remarkably, it is a struggle to get people to register in the Gift of Life. Even when presented with an opportunity for effortless heroism, many people still look the other way. And unfortunately, because of this indifference, lives will not be saved. Simply put, indifference is a killer.

What makes people so indifferent? Community does. When more than one person can assume responsibility for something, each one mentally shifts responsibility to the others. The Talmud notes that “a pot of partners is neither hot nor cold”, ( i.e. the pot is neglected) and each partner assumes the other one will take the initiative to heat the food for the meal, or cool the food for storage. In a community setting, it’s easy for each person to dump responsibility on “someone else”.

Sociologists call this type of apathy the “bystander effect”. Good people rely on others to respond, and don’t bother to get involved. The indifference of the “bystander effect” can be deadly. In the famous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in Kew Gardens, New York, Kitty’s neighbors heard her scream for help but did nothing. Each bystander assumed that someone else had already called the police.

The evil produced by indifference is enormous. On the world stage, genocide is ignored, because it’s another country’s responsibility. As Jews, we remember how the allies closed their doors to Jewish immigration before World War II, and did virtually nothing to stop the Holocaust. And today, a genocide is taking place in Darfur, and the world sits by idly. As the English statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke put it: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Heroism doesn’t require a military conflagration or international crisis. To become a real hero, the first thing you have to do is shake off indifference. You have to be willing to accept the community’s responsibility as your own, and step up to the plate.

A Gift of Life donor registration drive is taking place in Montreal on Sunday, February 18th, at the CJA building. Among the patients seeking bone marrow transplants is Amy Katz, a beautiful sweet 13 year old girl from the Pittsburgh area. A few minutes of your time can save Amy’s life.

Will you be indifferent, or will you be a hero? Amy’s life depends on your answer.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time to Dream Again

“Are Quebecois Racist?” demands the newspaper headline. The Leger survey on racism is the talk of Quebec, from coffee shops to the blogosphere.

Political leaders have expressed their shock at this report. What bothers them is that the survey claims Quebecois are more racist than the rest of Canada. (59% of Quebecois, versus 47% in the rest of Canada). Now, this of course gives politicians an excuse to defend Quebec’s honor from the results of a flawed survey. Having done that, they can take pride that their pro forma display of nationalism now qualifies them as “leaders”. Unfortunately, this is political pandering, not true leadership.

I don’t know about you, but my mom always used to tell me that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Does it matter if Quebecois are more or less racist than Ontarians? Fixating on the relative levels of racism in Quebec and Canada is like cancer patient fixating on whether his neighbor’s cancer is worse than his own. Frankly, I consider 47% racism to be an abject failure, one which should spark a great deal of soul searching. If there is significant racism, the exact number doesn’t matter.

What does matter is uprooting racism. Whether or not the results of this poll are exaggerated, all of us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, Anglophone Francophone and Allophone, have to consider how to stamp out racism.

Confronting racism is not that difficult; all it takes is remembering a couple of simple truths. Forgive me for preaching (I am a Rabbi), but let’s remember the idea of the brotherhood of mankind. The Talmud notes that in the Biblical account, God began the world with one human, Adam. This teaches us that all humans are equals, and all humans are brothers and sisters. In the human family, all of God’s children are beloved. Unfortunately, racists don’t see things this way.

Racists love to hate. They excuse their hate by dividing the human family into opposing groups. That’s why racists obsess over differences such as different skin color, religion and culture; it allows them to look down at those people who are different than them.

The 20th century has taught us that if we ignore the brotherhood of mankind, anything is possible, even genocide. Unfortunately, genocide is a big word, and often masks the true horror of what actually occurs; murder, torture and rape on an enormous scale. Samantha Power, in her book on genocide “A Problem From Hell”, tells of an episode in the Rwandan genocide when a 3-year-old boy who saw eight of his siblings hacked to death pleaded for his life. "Please don't kill me," he said. "I'll never be Tutsi again." The racist monsters didn’t care, a murdered the 3-year old anyway because he was Tutsi. Ignoring that each person is created in the image of God leads to tragic consequences.

Another basic idea is to love the stranger. The Bible repeats this one over and over again, perhaps because it is so natural to ignore it. Strangers make us uncomfortable. And when you have immigrants with very different cultural backgrounds, it is easy to feel uncomfortable about accommodating minorities. (It also makes it easy for politicians to score cheap political points off the issue of accommodating minorities).

Yet loving the stranger doesn’t have to be that hard. Take the example of the students of Whitwell Tennessee, a lily white town in the South. As documented in the movie “Paper Clips”, the students embarked on a project to collect a paper clip for each person killed in the Holocaust. This project became an international sensation, attracting media attention from around the world. One of the high points in the movie is when a group of Holocaust survivors visit Whitwell to meet the students. These students, who had never met Jews before, quickly befriend these elderly European born Jews. The Whitwell students had reached out into the world of strangers, and made close friends.

Every schoolchild knows the values of human equality and loving the stranger. Yet, at the same time, these values are ignored all the time. We need to talk about them again and again.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech is “I Have a Dream”. In it, he talks about his dreams for equality one day his children will “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While it was easy for people to be cynical about his dream in 1963, today it has become part of the American reality.

Perhaps it’s time to dream again. Let’s forget the poll numbers and political grandstanding, and dream of a better Quebec and a better Canada.

Let’s dream about a world without racism.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The weather today, (the first winter like weather this year!) reminded me of winters past, and in particular 1998, and our ice storm. Here's a piece I wrote then, which I guess is still just a relevant now.

Taking shelter from the storm

(CJN, January 22, 1998)

I remember once hearing a joke about a rabbi whose synagogue was being turned into a shelter after floods had devastated his community. The local shelter coordinator, trying to assess how many people to send to the synagogue-shelter, asked the rabbi: "How many people can sleep in your synagogue?" The rabbi responded "Well, during my sermon on Yom Kippur, our synagogue sleeps 1,000."

I can't tell you how many people sleep during my sermons; but today, in the aftermath of a disaster, our synagogue is sleeping 180. After a series of devastating storms that have crippled the Montreal area and left millions of people without power and heat, our synagogue, Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, was turned into an emergency shelter. The social hall and several of the nursery classrooms are filled with army cots and are now a dormitory for senior citizens. The library is a nursing unit for Alzheimer patients and the downstairs social hall is a cafeteria and entertainment room.

Keeping a shelter of this size going requires a lot of resources and manpower, and the synagogue's executive director, Lynda Shayer, and the nursery director, Donna Cooper, together with a team of workers from the city of Cote St. Luc are working 20-hour days making sure that everything goes right. This is no easy task. Making sure that everything goes right includes making breakfast, serving 1,000 meals a day, giving baths and shaves to senior citizens, getting donations of clothing for shelter residents, as well as countless other tasks.

Most touching have been the efforts of volunteers who have come from all over to help: a 15- year-old boy who walked every day from a distant part of town; families that took people home to give them baths and a cup of hot tea; volunteers who were available to pick people up at all times of the night; others who prepared and served meals, gave baths and shaves, and sang and danced with shelter residents.

These volunteers were from both the synagogue and the city, Jewish and non-Jewish, black and white. They were here to give of their time and energy to help those who needed it.

I guess if a sermon is a good reason for 1,000 people to sleep in a synagogue, 180 people sleeping in a synagogue is a good occasion for a sermon. And the sermon, on this icy day when we are both synagogue and shelter, is about what a synagogue should be.
The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) says that it is demeaning to call a synagogue a beit am (a house of the people), because it makes the synagogue sound secular, lacking any religious value. This statement is very strange, because the Talmud almost always refers to a synagogue as a beit knesset, (a house of gathering), which seems just as secular!

Perhaps the answer is found in the choice of words. A "house of the people" can sound as if it is relegated to a certain group of people; in short, a country club for members with similar interests. This type of gathering is purely secular and debases the holiness of the synagogue. However, a "house of gathering" includes anyone who wants to come and gather. This type of openness makes the "house of gathering" a place of love and compassion, which is itself a religious value.

There are many things a synagogue can be used for. It can be used for prayers and Torah study, and it can be used for more secular matters such a socializing, eating and sleeping. What I have learned this week is that what makes a synagogue a true place of holiness depends less on what is being done, and more on how it's being done.

A synagogue filled with prayers that makes people feel excluded is still only a beit am, an icy cold religious country club. A synagogue that serves as a shelter, a place of food and lodging, but does so out of a sense of inclusion, out of concern and compassion, is truly a beit knesset, a warm and holy place of gathering.

I guess sometimes it takes an ice storm to learn what a synagogue should be.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

This post was published a few years ago, but I think it makes the perfect follow up to "The Greatest Story on Earth"

In Defense of Insanity

We demonize irrationality and insanity; “irrational exuberance” makes the stock market crash, and temporary insanity caused the poor Menendez boys (in the opinion of their defense attorney)to kill their parents. But frankly, I think insanity gets a bad rap.

Insanity helps cut through all the politically correct “naareshkiet” that is part and parcel of any society. A 19th century Rabbi once asked why in every small shtetl there was an odd and neurotic person who was the town’s “meshugenah”. What purpose, he wondered, could God have in creating the “town meshugenah”? The answer, he said, was that there are times when an injustice is perpetrated, but because it involves respected and important personages, everybody is too tactful and discreet to say anything. At that point, the town meshugenah, completely lacking in social graces, will be the only one to speak honestly about the scandal. It is for this moment of inspired insanity that God created the town meshugenah. Rationality is a wonderful thing most of the time; but sometimes insanity is our holy obligation.

I would respectfully submit that the Jews are meant to be the “town meshugenah” of world history. We have constantly challenged the assumptions of the world around us; like the Midrashic portrait of our ancestor Abraham, we have smashed many idols (and in the process, earned the enmity of their worshippers) . In Egypt, where owning a slave was as natural as owning a pet, Moses demands the freedom of slaves. In contrast to Sodom and Gomorrah, where xenophobia reigned, the Torah obligates us to love strangers. In the war torn Middle East, Isaiah preaches peace. In medieval Europe, a society that prized brutality and strength, the Jews prized learning and education. For generations, we have looked at world very differently than everyone else, and paid dearly for being the town meshugenah. But over the years, we have transformed the world with our insanity. As the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi once wrote “the Jew ..... is the ..... spring and fountain out of which the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions.”

Indeed, insanity is the only explanation of Jewish survival. Was it sane for a group of downtrodden exiles to persist in their religion despite persecution and discrimination? Was it rational for a people who endured endless expulsions and pogroms to dream of a return to their homeland? Of course it was insanity; but luckily, we had many Jewish meshugenahs to guide the way.

We endured because of insane people like Jeremiah, who purchases a field in Jerusalem just as the Babylonians are about to destroy the city. He is a buyer during a horrible bear market, because he knows that God will ultimately redeem the Jews. Theodore Herzl dreams of a Jewish State in “maybe in five years, certainly in fifty” when the prospect of one was as likely as a colony of Martians descending on earth. Unsung heroes like Yaakov Birnbaum and Glenn Richter, founders of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), ignored the naysayers and cynics, and singlehandedly establish a movement that freed hundreds of thousands Jews from the former Soviet Union. Jewish History is one long story of insanity.

But I’m not writing this article so that we can pat ourselves on the back because of our previous accomplishments. I’m writing this because insanity is our daily obligation.

A few weeks ago, I was walking with my seven year old son (who was wearing a Batman T-shirt) in downtown Montreal. As we walked, we passed a long-haired young man in his twenties. Noting my son’s T-shirt the young man said to him “you like Batman...I’ve got something for you”; and he opened his backpack, and inside was an entire collection of buttons, attached to velvet backing. He found a Batman button, gave it to my son, and just walked away. Ever the New Yorker, I thought to myself, “boy, this guy is crazy”; you just don’t walk up to total strangers and give things away. But then I realized that this young man’s craziness was a blessing. His generous, unexpected gesture had put a great big smile on a little boy’s face. It was precisely for this type of inspired insanity that the Jewish people came into being.

There are many opportunities for us to practice inspired insanity on a daily basis. Prayer and Torah study are often considered to be, well, “too intense” or “too demanding” (read; “too insane”) for people to do on a daily basis; but this "insanity" is the very backbone of Judaism. Ordinary people don’t tell their spouses, parents and children how special they are on a daily basis; it’s the loving lunatics who add those few special words. The average person answers a charity solicitation with a reasonable sum; only a select few give crazy contributions. To be a holy meshugenah, you need to care like crazy, love like crazy and give like crazy. And of course, if you happen to see a little kid wearing a Batman T-shirt, and you happen to have a Batman button in your pocket, give him the button, because that’s what a holy meshugenah does.