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 “SF Hillel”

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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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).

 

The Menorah and The Xmas Tree – The Perfect Opportunity

Last night was the first night of Chanukah, a Jewish festival celebrating freedom. Since the Jewish calender is lunar, this year Christmas and Chanukah fall at the same time. Even when they are not close together, these two highly visual festivals throw up many challenges for children of Jewish parents – decorations, gifts, commercialism, I’m different from my friends etc.

But with half American Jewry in mixed marriages (only one of the couple is Jewish) this offers different challenges. I meet a lot of students from mixed marriages as well  as members of my synagogue community, and I hear the stories. Such couples really have three options:

1) to follow one religion.

2) to follow no religion.

3) to celebrate both religions.

It is not for me or you to pass judgement on any of the three options. Each couple or family have their own unique factors to consider when deciding. I am not going to talk about how a Jewish couple deal with their child wanting a Christmas tree because his friend has one. This is all about Jewish identity and I feel that the stronger the family’s Jewish identity, the less threatening such discussions are.

I want to strengthen the families who offer both religions. The child will decide when they grow older which spiritual path they choose to walk. These couples offer knowledge and experience in both religions and often have a richer spiritual household for doing so. As this winter semester ended and Christmas decorations were springing up all over San Francisco, I participated in a number of discussions with students at San Francisco Hillel (the Jewish student center) and heard some wonderful and some painful stories.

I wish every couple who must deal with the dilemma of the menorah and Christmas tree will be empowered to enjoy the freedom of however they choose to express their spirituality. I hope those of us who light the menorah will invite our non-Jewish friends to join us. In a couple of days, I will drive my family to join dear Christian friends who have invited us to share their joy. We go as proud Jews: proud of our heritage and proud of our friendships.

Most of all, I am feel blessed to live in the Bay Area and proud to live in a society that can celebrate diversity. The Irish comedian, Dave Allen, who sadly passed away a few years ago, would conclude his TV show for years with the word: “Good night and may your God go with you.”

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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).

Sushi, Nargila and Social Justice in Israel

While this title looks more akin to a program that we offer at the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, it is actually an association that has been going around the Internet with regard to the Tent Revolution in Israel. 

The phrase came from controversial politician Avigdor Lieberman, who claimed the economy can’t be that bad because he couldn’t find a free table in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Carlo Strenger sums up the movement in an article in the Jerusalem Post.

 

Tel Aviv - camping with purpose

Unlike the uprisings in Israel’s neighbors, this is not about toppling an autocratic political system. Whatever your view of Israel and its politics (and there is a lot to criticize), Israel is a democracy. In fact, one of the biggest problems in the Israeli democracy system is the low threshold that allows many people/parties to get a a few seats in the Knesset (Parliament) and hold the bigger parties to political ransom.

Ironically, the tent cities that are appearing all over Israel reflect this problem. There is no central leadership, no specific demands. This is a plethora of single-causes and grievances expressing their frustration. This adds an awareness of social injustices inherent in Israeli society, but it is difficult to bring them together in one thread.

The sushi analogy reveals something that we should take note of here in the US. Both countries have a growing gap between the working class and the wealthy, but the new recession has hit the middle class hard.

Strenger explains the growing frustration of the middle class and the young professionals in his excellent article by highlighting on the exploitation of graduating psychologists who will work for many years just to bring themselves to a financial position where they can save for their future.

Tent City in Tel Aviv

While I don’t want to belittle their individual grievances, I can’t help feeling that the lack of strategic focus and leadership means that the Israeli tent movement will prove unsustainable. While there are many differences between Israel and the US economy and class structure, a middle class that cannot flourish means an economy that only allows for the rich to get richer at everyone else’s expense.

In this Israel and the US are very similar. Perhaps it is time to begin erecting tent cities over here.

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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).

A Man Who Won’t Give Up

Every year since Hurricane Katrina I have taken students to New Orleans to help rebuild the community smashed by a natural disaster, exacerbated by human negligence, and compounded by government disorganization (you can just tell that this is an objective post!). I have blogged about this a few times, but since returning this year, I have not done so.

This January, I met an amazing man. Ward “Mack” McLendon lost his house and his antique cars that he renovated in the Lower Ninth Ward. While he fought to keep his property in an outrageous bureaucratic battle (Mac has still not moved back into his house), Mac put a down payment in 2006 on a hangar-like building on Charbonnet Street. His plan was to have a place to revive his hobby with the antique cars. But Mac soon had another vision, one that involved using the building to bring the community together.

Mac addressing SF Hillel students outside the center 01/11

“When I got the keys in my hand and stepped inside the building, I started thinking about a community center that I came up in (in the Upper 9th Ward). A little voice came to me and said, ‘You didn’t lose your life, you didn’t lose your immediate family, you lost things. You can replace things.’ That was the beginning of me finding my purpose.” Source

When our SF Hillel student group arrived, there were beautiful murals around the building, but the main area was full of junk and garbage, Mac had no problem motivating us to empty the area, filling our ears with his dream of a summer camp so that children will find protection from the rough street environment. In a day and a half, we had emptied the hanger, and helped shlap planks to a group of volunteer carpenters.  While we were ready to congratulate us, Mac sent us out to the neighborhood. “Knock on doors and ask what people need,” he said. “We gotta help everyone.”

One of the inspiring murals.

Today, Mac’s building is a community center called The Lower 9th Ward Village. Neighbors are invited to use the computers, children have a nurturing environment to do homework and a safe space in a tough neighborhood.  There are plans for a recording studio as many young people are imbued with the music culture of the Crescent City. There is also a lending library, basketball hoops and now a stage.

Courtney Miller and Erin Pellebon, who live next door to each other in a shotgun double across the street, said their kids throw their backpacks on the porch when they get home from school and run to the center to play basketball and get help with their homework. “There’s nothing really around here for the children to do,” Pellebon said. “I really appreciate those volunteers.” Source

When Mac talks about his vision, he is simply inspiring. You truly feel in the presence of a spiritual man. When he started the Lower 9th Ward Village, “the most beautiful light in the world popped on,” he said. “It never felt like a job. It can’t be a job, because I don’t get a paycheck.” He believes most people die without ever finding their purpose in life. “I guarantee you, if you find a purpose, it will be serving people some kind of way,” he said. Source

Every day when we finished our work, Mac has us sit together and ‘invites’ everyone to share a reflection. You can’t refuse Mac, and even the shyest find their tongues. Mac says: “This place is like magic.” Source

That is because this is a man who is passionate, humble, appreciative and willing to dream in the face of adversary. He is the epitome of why people lie myself can’t help but return year after year.  When New Orleans gets under your skin, it is not just the beauty or the music, it is the magical people like Mac.

In August/September 2005 we failed the people of New Orleans. They are rebuilding their community. We cannot fail them again. America will be forever stained until New Orleans is rebuilt, until people like Mac have their houses back and until their communities are again thriving.

Please consider joining me in giving a small gift to help the completion of the community center and the summer camps. You can donate by clicking here.

The Community Center logo

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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).

 

Proud to be Jewish and not Jewish

This January, I took a group of students to New Orleans for a week. We volunteered with the Jewish Funds for Social Justice which is affiliated with the American Jewish World Services.

This is an amazing relief organization. If you don’t believe me, ask these guys. They are celebrities, and some of them are even Jewish. (BEWARE: some of their endorsements are rather irreverent).

But it sure makes you proud to be Jewish … even when you’re not!
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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 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

Mikey Pauker – Sim Shalom

Mikey was a student at SFSU a few years back and very involved at our Hillel Student Center.

Today, down in SoCal, he is more widely known as a folk singer. His first two albums are firm favorites in my iTunes. He now has a third album out that is reconnecting to his Jewish roots. The album Sim Shalom has some excellent songs on it. Compass is a solid opener and the title song, Sim Shalom – Make Peace - seems so relevant today as Israel and the Palestinians begin negotiating (we all hope) a sustainable peace.

But my favorite is Wicker Man. Check it out along with a cool video below.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/12111344

Mikey Pauker – Wicker Man from Eli Green on Vimeo.

His album can be heard on his website: http://www.myspace.com/planesoverbridgez/
If you are down that way, he has a live performance coming up on October 10, at The Mint in LA.

Good Listening,
Alon

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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.

"For The Times They Are A-changing" (Bob Dylan)

Firstly, thank you to those of you who connected to my blog (see last entry) and helped to get the blog recognized by Facebook. Not sure yet how this will affect my blog, but any exposure helps.

And thank you to those of you who offered words of support and encouragement when we heard that Unwanted Heroes didn’t make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel semifinal.

Oilspill dotcom has been selling despite my relative inactivity. There is a possibility of the novel being picked up by an independent publisher. Exciting! If this goes through the book will be released with a new cover and title. It is also undergoing a round of editing.

Part of these changes will include a change of direction for this blog and that I hope to outline in the next posting. But the overall concept is to reach out to people interested in the book world, rather than just in me.

And the book world is certainly changing. I am sitting in a Starbucks on the corner of Sansome and Greenwich, under the shadow of Coit Tower. I have a meeting in another hour for Hillel. Looking around, this is a young business crowd. Though clothes are relatively formal (this is California), people are groomed and sharp.

It is, however, early. Another hour before they must enter their offices and cubicles. Time to unwind, read a book or newspaper. But as I look around, I feel a thrill. An elderly gentleman with graying curly hair has the large kindle. I remember reading how older people are buying the bigger model, the 9.7″ version (don’t be impressed, I looked it up). They are not techno-geeks, but enjoy the option for bigger font.

Near this man, someone has another white tablet, but I can see it is different. Perhaps it is the Barnes and Noble nook. A woman with a bright read umbrella has a matching device, which I can’t help laughing at. Did she really color coordinate her accessories? Was this the Sony Reader? Alas, I never saw an iPad, which would have rounded off the experience. Still last Thursday, after a meeting at the Boudin café in the Stonestown Mall, I had slipped into the Apple shop and fondled one of their new, shiny devices. Quite a thrill.

The world is changing. And I am excited about the change, excited for the environmental impact, for no longer having to schlep books in your bag, the ability to lower prices and therefore make more books more accessible. I am also upset that the book I have been carrying around for the last week, brought brand new, is now creased and bent.

But I haven’t bought a device. It is partly financial, partly that I am sure the models in a year’s time will have ironed out the kinks, but also that I love holding a book and browsing a bookstore. And I love the bookshelves in my house (and other peoples). It is hard to explain. Financially, while I do buy books, I also lean heavily on the public library to satisfy my literary thirst.

Still the times are changing and I am feeling the pressure to change with them. So here is my question:

Do you have a kindle, nook, sony reader or iPad (or another model that I am not aware of)? Please let me know if you do, when you use it, how happy you are with it and whether it has really replaced the physical page.

Also, do you take it with you into the bath?

Good Writing,

Alon

Update 07/01/2010: Oilspill dotcom is currently selling on Amazon’s Kindle for $3.19.

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