Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Jewish student center”

Poker Tomorrow Night? A Good Cause

Irwin Bear was a very special  man and a mentor for me. I wrote about him when he passed away. Beyond family and business  Irwin had a passion for San Francisco Hillel and the future of the Jewish people. He also loved poker.41646_1269166167_3876_n

If you knew Irwin, you would not be surprised to discover that he  found an interesting  way to fuse the two.He ensured that sitting around his regular poker table, in addition to longtime friends, were a number of younger, emerging Jewish leaders. They would play, talk, argue, discuss and play some more. The winnings went to a Jewish cause and a powerful legacy of social responsibility passed on to the next generation.

Three of these young poker players now sit on the SF Hillel Board of Directors, in part as a tribute to Irwin and his vision. Following in his philanthropic footsteps, they helped create an annual event that would honor his memory and help raise money for a good cause.

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Tomorrow night (Saturday) we will hold our 2nd annual Casino Night and Poker Tournament. The event is will be held at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center at 3200 California Street, San Francisco, 94118. I would love for you to join us. Doors open at 7pm, and the tournament starts at 7.30. There will be other casino tables too.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Bearing Witness: A Window Closes

I thought it was risky expecting college students to give up a Friday night and come to Hillel, the Jewish Student Center, to hear a Holocaust survivor. We usually invite speakers during the week and had already held two ceremonies, one on the SFSU campus. But sometimes you hold events just because they are popular, and sometimes: something needs to be said.

A student requested that we invite her grandfather, who has a tragic but amazing story. I was stunned to see our small family house fill with over 80 students. People stood along the walls, sat on the stairs and all listened in silence as Herbert Heller told how he was ordered as a boy to take some laundry for a guard’s son, and instead put them on and walked out the camp and escaped.

Herbert Heller talks with a student

Herbert Heller talks with a student

He told us of coming to America and trying to live a fulfilling life without hate and guilt guiding his every step. His voice was quiet and clear. He was not a polished speaker, which only served to make the experience so much more genuine. He was one of our friend’s grandfather. He could have been anyone’s grandfather.

I walked around afterwards asking students if this was their first time hearing a Holocaust survivor and why they had come. I was particularly interested in a small group of students I had never seen; a group that I decided was probably not Jewish. They had been invited by two Jewish students when they had heard these students talking about how important this was to them, they had felt a clear sense of purpose that this was something they wanted to experience.

The common response I received was that a sense of urgency, that a window is closing on the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. There is a genuine concern among millennials, who are fueled by a sense of justice and order, that the Holocaust will become just another massacre of a people in a long historical list of shame on humanity, but a page in a history book, nonetheless.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

I fear for our ability to keep telling the story. I believe we must each find the opportunity to meet and hear a Holocaust survivor, especially if this someone is a family member.

Two 18-21 year old students said to me separately (paraphrasing): You have the opportunity to bring this amazing man to speak to me, but what will I do in order to pass on the story to my children, to my grandchildren?

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We need to hear the story. As Elie Wiesel said: we need to bear witness. When these students sit down with their children and grandchildren, they will begin their story with:

“One Friday night I met this amazing man and he told me his story…”

Yarzheit Candles Hillel

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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Imagine No Religion

I am writing this post on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a festive occasion, but I am having trouble getting in the mood, despite the beautiful service, music and wise words of our leaders.

 Last week was a shitty week. While addressing a group of students on Friday night at Hillel (SF Jewish student center where I work), I found myself talking about the violent events that were still going on as I spoke.

We have enough to worry about in this world – overpopulation, global warming, violence, hunger, natural disasters… do we really need to intentionally add any?

That  a few people made a movie that they knew would be deeply offensive to a large group of the population is plain stupid. It is okay to be controversial if you have a point that needs to be made, but there are some lines that don’t get crossed.  Anyone associated with this movie and intentionally knew of its controversial nature have blood on their hands. I hope they are not sleeping at night. 

I understand that many of those involved did not know what they were participating in. Here is a link to a statement made by actress, Anna Gurji on Neil Gaiman’s website (thanks to reader Christopher Wright).

It is natural to be angry when your religion has been deeply offended and to express that anger in demonstrations, but to take the steps needed to violently attack and kill a fellow person, innocent bystanders who are there to create bridges of understanding with your people, shows a woeful lack of comprehension of your own religion’s teachings. Where were the religious teachers teaching the sin of violence and murder? If religious men were leaving their mosques in an angry and violent mood, bent on murder, what were their Imams preaching? And if they were preaching peace, understanding and taking the higher moral road, why weren’t they being listened to?

Finally, the rumor, no – the lie – that this movie was produced and funded by Jews was not only baseless, but anti-Semitic. It traveled around the Internet at an intense speed, and took a long time to be disclaimed. It was too easy.

Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

In times like this, John Lennon’s lyrics make sense, but it doesn’t have to be like this. I want to live in a world where we celebrate diversity and without everyone being the same. I want to celebrate Chanukah, and join my neighbors for Diwali, and my good friends around their Christmas tree, secure in my own religions identity. I want my Israeli-born son to continue sitting at the same school table with the Palestinian child, and I would prefer that child bring his own food to my son’s birthday party, rather than not come at all because his parents fear offending me.

Last week, Muslims were offended, Christians murdered, and Jews blamed. It is not a question of moving on: we must learn the lessons that have haunted and tainted all our histories.

There is no religious justification for hate, violence and murder.

Wishing everyone of all races and religions, a peaceful and hate-free new year.

Shana Tova L’Kol Bnei Adam.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Back to New Orleans

I arrived in the US in 2005, just 103 days before Hurricane Katrina struck landfall. I left my family in the beautiful manicured suburbia of Ventura, California, and rode the greyhound north to seek my fame and fortune in San Francisco. I had 100 days to find a job that would support a family of four in the expensive Bay Area, and then find a house for us to live in.

I’m still waiting for the fame, but fortune shone on me that summer. While my job will never make me rich financially, it feeds my family and my soul. I have the good fortune to work with Jewish college students, helping them find their individual path in the world and enriching their Jewish campus experience.

Fortune did not shine on others during the summer of 2005, and as  I settled my family into our little apartment in Berkeley, we watched in horror as New Orleans was ripped apart. “Where is this happening? Is this Africa? India?” my then 6-year-old son asked. “America,” I replied. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Our America?”

His America had so far been the beach, beautiful parks and elegantly manicured lawns. “Yes,” I replied and reached for a map to show him.

Another scene – this time of the New Orleans Superdome packed with people. “Daddy, why are all the black people trapped?” my son had asked. “Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why aren’t we helping?”

I silently promised him and myself then that we would do something about it.

Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Those words haunted me as I began my new job as a Hillel director working on the San Francisco campuses.

There is nothing as I work with Jewish students that gives me more satisfaction than recruiting and taking them to New Orleans to volunteer to help rebuild the city and the community. This will be my 6th trip and it never gets old. We not only help physically, but we show we care and that we have not forgotten.

Most importantly perhaps, we bear witness. And maybe, seeds are sown in these students not to accept social apathy and irresponsibility. Social Justice is a central tenant, an obligation, of Judaism – I want my students to experience the responsibility.

On Sunday, I will take 20 students, who will give up their spring break to help the crescent city. Over the next week, I want to share some of the experiences of our group, of groups I have taken in past years, and of the people we meet. Some of these will be posts from past years in case there is no time as this week can get so intense.

A couple of years ago when I went to pick up my son from school after just having returned from such a trip, the teacher stopped me. “He has been telling us all week of the work you do on the Gulf Coast. He is very proud of what you do.”

I thought back to August/September 2005 and the promise I had made to both of us. Seven years have passed, but the struggle of New Orleans goes on, and it is the struggle of American society’s claim to be one nation.

I don’t want the next generation – the millennials – to make the same mistakes that we made. Or my sons, if I can help it. Maybe by being a role model, by each of us doing something, we can change the world – one person at a time.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Millennials – Another Point-of-View

I wrote a post on Friday about how I see the millennials and paid tribute to their parents. A few people have taken issue with me and claim that I wrote a very one-sided article. Probably true. So today I wish to focus on the other side of the coin. Ironically, the Pew report that I referenced on Friday, has something to substantiate this perspective.

Millennials claim that what sets them apart from previous generations is their relationship with technology. I think they mean that they are better connected to their family and friends, more in touch with cultural changes, and genuinely believe that technology unites rather than isolates people. I do not think we should read anything into the fact that 83% of millennials sleep with their cell phones. I know what you’re thinking!

Social historian Neil Howe disagrees. He sees millennials as sheltered by helicopter parents who wouldn’t even let them go unattended to the park to play. With their parents always there, picking them up from school, driving them to play dates and soccer practice, there should be little reason to wonder why the millennial has sought to leverage technology to build community.

While their parents fought for individual rights and boundaries, the millennial seeks community and acceptance. In many respects, they are more conventional with regard to social mores. “Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage; 59% think that the trend of more single women having children is bad for society.”

The study also shows that they tend to see the trend of unmarried couples living together as not the optimum solution. Their desire for inclusiveness is well illustrated in that, though they support the institution of marriage, they believe that gay and interracial couple should share the marital experience.

One final point touches my work at the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. There is a general perception that the millennials are not interested in religion, or as one individual told me: “the millennials religion is themselves.” But what the study shows is that the young generation sees itself as spiritual and do pray. What it reveals is that the millennials are not attracted to institutional religion.

I think we can take great hope out of this study. This generation might not be turning out the way the older members of the community are (but then who ever did?), but this is a generation seeking experiences that are meaningful to them and they want to do this as part of a community.

Students are looking for community

Above all, the millennials are incredibly optimistic. This study has left me feeling optimistic too.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Happy New Year

Tonight Jews all over the world will come together to welcome in our new year – Rosh Hashanah. People seem to dig out all kinds of ritual and traditions. My new experience is only four year old but already part of our Jewish Student Center tradition.

We will meet for dinner and then some students will go to the various synagogues who have generously offered them free tickets for services. Others will stay with me at the Hillel House for an alternative ceremony to welcome in the new year with a discussion, a chance to blow the Ram’s Horn (the shofar) and to set goals and aspirations for the new year.

Like Michelle Citrin, I love Rosh Hashanah

Wishing all my Jewish friends a Shana Tova, and to everyone a year of health, happiness and peace.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Inspiring Visit to Egypt

I first saw this on the Contra Costa Times website reprted by Josh Richman this past Thursday. Samuel Vengrinovich, a former San Francisco State University student and participant at the SF Hillel Jewish Student Center where I work, recorded his experiences visiting Cairo, Egypt, just one week after President Mubarak was forced to resign by a popular, peaceful uprising.

Here are a few of his choice quotes:

“I get asked all the time why did I want to go to Tahrir Square? And I think, who wouldn’t? I’m sure there are millions of people around the world who would have loved to experience and witness what I saw. I made this documentary video to share that experience, to provide an opportunity for people who were less fortunate like me of being so close to Egypt, or daring enough like me to even go to Egypt, to experience the Egyptian revolution.”

“Before my trip materialized, the Egyptian protests that were happening in Tahrir Square mesmerized me. I knew this was big. I was watching live footage morning and night, following the ebb and flow of the tug and pull between the regime and the people.”

“I witnessed the physical and emotional release of decades of pent up emotions by Egyptians under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, their desire to guard and protect their revolution from being hijacked, and the sensitivity Egyptians displayed about their revolution being positively viewed by the international community.”

“I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a nation breathe democracy and freedom for the first time in their lives. I was so close, being here in Israel. I knew I had to get there.”

Thanks Samuel. You captured something that I never saw on the TV or Internet. It is the natural exhubiance and optimism of the Egyptian people. This is a great video.——————————————————————————————————

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

 

Does College Make You Smarter?

Professor C. Kent McGuire, the former dean of the Temple University College of Education, is the president of the Southern Education Foundation. He recently wrote a piece in the New York Times that caught my eye. Actually what caught my eye was the more sensationalist heading that I borrowed above. I believe Professor McGuire used a much more accurate title: “A Different Type of Student”, but I, like the NY Times, wanted to catch your eye.

“We should be careful about reaching definitive conclusions on the quality of undergraduate education from a study that uses a single outcome measure, the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Our diverse higher education marketplace claims to produce a wide range of outcomes which in fairness, require multiple forms of assessment. That said, “Academically Adrift” is in fact, a story about the slow pace of curricular change, a story about the status of teaching in higher education and ultimately a story about today’s college student and there is a lot to this story.

College curriculums need to adapt to today’s students, who have competing responsibilities and receive information in many ways.”

This quote just about sums up his article in which he recognizes that the millennial student is very different to the student of even two decades ago. He goes on to explain:

A bigger challenge is the nature of teaching in the academy. Today’s student lives in a world of hyper-connectivity and information exchange. They receive their information in five-minute episodes and it comes in many modalities — sound, text, video. The typical college classroom is a stand and deliver environment that does not foster engagement, interaction or exchange. We might wish today’s student could tolerate this dated approach to instruction. But even if they could, the lives many lead do not conform to our conception of the traditional student. Setting aside the most selective schools and colleges, many fewer students are full-time. Many more are financially independent, work while attending school and have competing responsibilities at home. This is just to suggest that we are working increasingly with students who face competing demands for their time and attention.”

I understand the professor’s point. I work with students at the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. We have spent the past few years seeking creative ways to engage students and have done this successfully with rising numbers of Jewish students and their friends attending events. However, we have clearly fed off of their “five-minute sound bite” expectation. Today we are seeking ways in which to add “depth” to the “breadth.”

The question is, can we teach higher learning in such a form? And should, in fact,  academic institutions adapt to the students or the other way around? Love to hear your view.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com



 

 


A Tribute to Debbie Friedman

Debbie Friedman passed away 30 days ago today. In Jewish tradition, the shloshim (thirtieth day after death) marks the end of the mourning period. I would like to pay tribute to a musical icon in the Jewish and interfaith world.

This past Friday night, our Hillel Jewish Student Center lit up to the voices of students singing a song she wrote – Miriam’s Song. It is a empowering song for Jewish women and, in particular, the female students were in full song.

I am not sure that any words can pay better tribute than the vibrancy of young Jewish women as they put their arms around each other and sang the words of Miriam’s Song. Debbie – you will be sadly missed, but your songs will continue your legacy for generations to come.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com

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