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 category “Jewish”

Business Mensch

On Monday, I wrote about taking the Mensch Pledge, a desire to see a new code of business ethics which, had they been in place, might have prevented the current, painful recession we are experiencing. The inspiration for this came from the founder of Noah’s Bagels – Noah Alper – and his book – Business Mensch.

What’s important is providing for your family, conducting yourself with integrity, and living a life of meaning. Noah Alper – Business Mensch.

I am somewhat skeptical when I read memoirs of successful businessmen sprouting ideals and values. Probably I feel a pang of jealousy. It’s easy to take a shot at people who have made it financially – they can afford to take the moral high ground.

I certainly have little time for Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) or Ray Kroc (McDonalds). Exploiting workers, abusing animals, destroying the world or creating unhealthy lifestyles just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps working in the non-profit world balances the lack of acquiring wealth with a healthy dose of narcissistic self-righteousness.

Noah Alper began and built up Noah’s Bagels from a single bagel shop in Berkeley. Having read his book, I think he is different. He instilled a code of values that begins with his own actions. Being an observant Jew, Alper anchors his moral business code in Judaism. This certainly excited me as a Jew. In a time when so many people’s lives were ruined by a greedy and unethical businessman who happened to be Jewish, it is important for a few Tzadikim (righteous men and women) to stand up in the business world.

Since coming to the US I have found my managerial style questioned on a number of occasions. Many times in this thin treatise, Business Mensch, I found myself nodding in agreement with his values and principles and remembering similar scenarios.

I found it strangely validating that Alper, an unapologetic entrepreneur, believes in living by such values in his daily practice. And values are only worth something if they are truly upheld on a daily basis.

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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.

Take The Mensch Pledge

For Jews the 10 days between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is one of introspection. We examine how we act, what the consequences of our actions are, and we make vows for the coming year. 

While preparing for the High Holidays at Hillel (SF Jewish Student Center), I have been dwelling on how this painful and devastating recession has been the consequence of actions by very greedy and selfish people. I am aware that some of the worse perpetrators come from my own tribe. Though I lead my life very differently from them, there remains a sense of responsibility. As a Jewish educator, I feel the collective guilt (and we Jews are very good at guilt).

I would like to share and encourage you to join me in taking the Mensch pledge, or at least adopting the principles that Bruna Martinuzzi, the author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow, advocates.

1.   Consistently act with honesty. Watch the small integrity slips. 

2.   When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility.

3.   Are you in the habit of making hasty promises that you know, from experience, you are unable to keep? Think back on what promises you made, to whom, and see if you can fulfill some of these.

Bruna Martinuzzi

4.   Help someone who can be of absolutely no use to you.

5.   The next time something goes wrong on a project, suspend blame and ask: “What can we learn?”

6.   Hire people who are as smart or smarter than you are—whose talents surpass you—and give them opportunities for growth. Not only is it the smart thing to do but it is also a sign of high personal humility.

7.   Improve the way you communicate with people: don’t interrupt people; don’t dismiss their concerns offhand; don’t rush to give advice; don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.

8.   Resolve to do no harm in anything you undertake. If you are certain that you don’t have the competence to take on something that is offered, consider that you might be doing harm to someone by accepting it anyway.

9.   Become aware of your stance at business meetings. Are you known as the devil’s advocate—the one who is quick to shoot down others’ ideas? Jumping in too quickly to negate an idea can derail the creative process for others. Often, valuable ideas are the result of the initial “crazy” thought.

10. Resolve to become a philanthropist of know-how. What knowledge, expertise or best practices can you share with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders as a way to enrich them?

11. At the end of each day, when you clear your desk before you head home, take a few minutes to mentally go over your day. Think about significant conversations you had, meetings you attended, emails you sent, and other actions you undertook. Are you proud? Could you have done better? Getting into this habit of introspection will pay dividends in the long run.

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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).

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).

 

Happy New Year Everyone

Last night and today, Jews all over the world come together to welcome in our new year – Rosh Hashanah. People seem to dig out all kinds of ritual and traditions. It is both a time of introspection (the 10 days leading up to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur) and a tine of hope.

We need both.

Five  years ago, we began a new tradition (can a tradition be new?) that has become a part of the SF Hillel Jewish Student Center year. We meet for a festive dinner and then many students take advantage of the generosity of local synagogues who have offered students free tickets for services. Others stay at the Hillel House for an alternative ceremony one that focuses on goals and aspirations for the new year.

By nature, I am an introspective person all year round.  So I think this is why I am drawn towards the need to set new goals, dream new dreams, hope for a better future for all.

Like Michelle Citrin, I love Rosh Hashanah

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

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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).

 

Real Men Don’t Cry

This is how we are brought up. Men used to wander around with a club, bringing down mammoths and dragging a female back to the cave. We have progressed a bit since then, what with vegetarianism and on-line dating, but there are certain mores that we don’t expect to cross. 

I’ve done the ‘man’ things – play and watch sports, hit the gym, enjoy beer, fish, served in a combat unit, wooed a beautiful woman, and fathered two wonderful boys. I have a good job and plenty of friends.

Last month, my eldest son had his bar mitzvah and put on a flawless display of teaching, chanting, and schmoozing. He stood before our community and talked about the need to educate and not punish, to pursue social justice, and his desire to make the world a better place.

He was great and I am very proud of him. He worked very hard for two years to reach the level in which he could achieve this. Then it was time for his parents to bless him.

My wife won the toss (soccer reference) and chose to go first, knowing that I am confidant and used to standing before an audience and speaking into a microphone. Her blessing was modest, genuine and heartfelt, a reflection of her as a mother, wife and friend.

Over the hump, right? Wrong. I had written my blessing for him a while ago. I told him meaningful the project we had pursued together (we wrote the first Wycaan Master novel together) and then imparted how I saw him as our coming-of-age protagonist. And then I choked up…and cried. When I stopped and stole a sip of his water bottle, he leaned over and gave me a hug.

The first thing that went through my mind was shock. I hadn’t expected this, even though I have been known to cry at a Simpson’s episode (another story). I actually wasn’t embarrassed for myself: I was embarrassed for him. I struggled through and he still talks to me. Moreover, many people came up to me and gave me loving reinforcement.

But it was the comments from the men that I remember. There were some who admitted to shedding a tear themselves, others who said that I had done something they would like to be able to do. Some admitted they could never allow their mask to come down like that in public, or maybe any time. 

In the struggle for equal rights between the sexes, we have seen a necessary push for women – equal opportunities, equal pay, and legal protections. All this stems from societal mores that favored men and allowed us to exercise a ‘power over’ that is unacceptable in a modern society.

But we, as men pay a price. Most of us still shoulder most of the burden of material provision, or at least feel we should even when our partners are better qualified and can pursue better jobs. We are mostly the warriors from defending our country to our family,

We all respected George Bush for shedding tears at 9/11 but we still expected him to go blow someone up as a consequence for us being attacked. President Obama’s status rose when we took out bin Laden. He did not gather the intelligence or undertake the mission, but in making the decision, he became a warrior chief.

I have worked closely with my son over the past few years, preparing him for this rite-of-passage, and I will continue to work with him, preparing him to enter society as a man.

To ignore our role as the hunter/gatherer would be foolish. To ignore our rights as men to be sensitive and nurturing would be sad.

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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).

Tomorrow – My Son The Man

They grow up so fast!  Why I remember when…

Tomorrow morning, my son will stand before our family, friends, and the Jewish community. He will fulfill a 700-year-old rite of passage, as he declares himself a man in G-d’s eyes and the eyes of the Jewish community. He will take on the responsibility to be counted as one of the 10 adults needed for community prayer, lead prayer and study, and will be accountable for his actions before G-d and the Jewish community. In fact, Ariela and I will actually renounce our responsibility for such actions as part of the ceremony.

Rites-of-passage mean a lot for me and I have enjoyed ceremonies at every junction of my life. Some are fictionalized in A Gardener’s Tale. But as Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Britain: “This is not the end. Neither is it the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”

Changing diapers, making egg-in-a-nest and nursing scraped knees are behind us. Discussions on the fairer sex, fashion, image, values, and politics, have replaced them and I have learned to embrace the change. But the responsibilities relinquished are replaced with the responsibilities of cultivating a young man who will be a kind and generous person, an activist, a philanthropist, a world-changer.

I have tried to be a nurturing father, a supportive husband, a fair boss, and an inspiring leader. My son has seen me succeed and fail. He has seen me address crowds as an author, rap my annual speech to students, celebrate my friends and students successes, and cry at their failures and losses.

Tomorrow, I will offer words of wisdom, hugs of love, and nods and thumbs up of support. Tomorrow, I will relinquish my responsibilities as a father, and take up my responsibilities as a friend and companion. In a world where so many young men are denied the positive role model of a father walking alongside them, where masculinity is ensconced in the unforgiving rule of law, the scavenger economy, and the uncompromising street, I have nothing to offer but myself and my example.

I can only hope to be worthy of the task ahead.

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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).

Everyone Needs A Passover

Tonight, Jews all over the world will sit around the family table (possibly an extended table), recount the story of how our people were emancipated from slavery and eat a meal full of strange dishes. In case it sounds too hellish – we also drink four cups of wine.

While Others Are opressed, The Matzah Should Be Broken

Passover is all about freedom and, as such, has a universal message. It is difficult to celebrate your own freedom when you know that there are others who are still denied theirs. Though it seems to be happening in faraway lands, the interconnectedness of our world makes this premise inaccurate. Many of the clothes and shoes we wear, perhaps even the fancy electronics we need, are made by children, women and men who are little more than slave. Even close to home, human trafficking is happening in each of our cities.

This makes Passover a challenge. It is bittersweet, like the Hillel sandwich that we will eat (a sweet charoseth mix of fruits and honey together with bitter horseradish between two pieces of matzo), and we must strike a balance, remembering those who still strive for the victory and emancipation that we celebrate while enjoying the family-orientated festival with joy, appreciation and laughter. Here is my offering:

Every year, as Passover approaches, we Jews promise not to buy too much matzo. We have to eat it for a week, we don’t want any left over. And every year as Passover comes to a close, we stare at several unopened boxes that sit on the shelf taunting us.

There are, however, plenty of creative solutions. Don’t believe me? Ask talented singer, Michelle Citrin:

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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).

A Prayer For Social Action

This is a poem/prayer that I want to share by Jack Riemer. It is as much a call for social action as a prayer. Whether we are believers or not, we each need to find what it takes for us to stand up and do something to make a better world.

A Prayer for Social Action

We cannot merely pray to God to end war;
For the world was made in such a way
That we must find our own path of peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to God to root out prejudice;
For we already have eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to God to end despair;
For we already have the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to God to end disease:
For we already have great minds
With which to search out cures and healings
If we would only use them constructively.

Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely to pray
To become instead of merely to wish;
That our world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.

Habitat For Humanity - people spending their Sundays helping give others a roof over their heads.

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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).

Urban Adamah – Farming and Learning in Berkeley

Urban Adamah is a Jewish urban farm walking distance from my house. I have been there a few times for events and my eldest son goes regularly for a workshop.

As urban as it gets

Adamah is hebrew for earth and when the group received permission to develop the land, earth is one thing they did not find. Instead, the land was full of chemicals and metals from past construction projects. Today, only a year later, there are proud boxes straining with vegetables.

Urban agriculture has been discussed in this blog and I have highlighted another project nearby – Spiral Gardens. I want to share something special at Urban Adamah, an opportunity to participate in a three month fellowship.

For anyone in between jobs, taking a gap year, or needing sometime to reassess, this is a great program. I have spoken with a number of fellows and am profoundly impressed by the depth of their knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment to continue their eco-Jewish journey.

This pretty much reflects the goal of this program: “The Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month residential leadership-training program for young adults that integrates urban organic farming, direct social justice work and progressive Jewish living and learning. The fellowship curriculum is designed to equip fellows with the tools to become agents of positive change in their own lives and in their communities.”

Down on the farm at Urban Adamah

There is a similar program at my kibbutz in Israel, Kibbutz Lotan. This is not an urban program (the kibbutz in situated in the Afro-Syrian rift, desert country), but teaches many techniques that can be used in the city.  You actually reside in an eco-campus that previous students built and receive US university credits, and there is an element of conflict resolution built into the program.

The Kibbutz Lotan campus where fellows live and build.

Back to Urban Adamah and they have just opened applications for the next fellowship (I believe there are three a year). I suspect that places fill quickly, a sign that many Jews, myself included, are finding their way back to Judaism through environmental and social justice. And this is good news all round.

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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).

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