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 “Hillel”

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).

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).

No More Nonprofits

Last month a study was released that suggested the majority of the 12 million baby boomer generation would be interested in creating their own nonprofit or socially aware business in the near future.

At first I thought of this as a positive statement, of a generation emerging who want to spent their time and resources creating a better world. I have, over the past two years, highlighted and promoted many non-profits and lauded the commitment of socially conscious business.

But I have to say that this enthusiasm somewhat waned as I considered the implications. I run a nonprofit in San Francisco, Hillel – the Jewish Student Center based by San Francisco State University. Our nonprofit has been in existence for over sixty years and yet we (the national movement) lead the way within the Jewish community. We are innovative and have the trained and committed staff to carry out new initiatives and the experience to analyze what works and what doesn’t. 

I thought that my feeling of so many nonprofits in existence was due to living in the vibrantly conscious Bay Area. But I discovered from The Chronicle of Philanthropy that there are more than a million nonprofits in existence.

Over the last few months, my board of directors has been intensively engaged with recruiting new board members as we go through one of the inevitable cycles of change. When meeting with prospects we do not have to work too hard to establish who we are. Over 90% of Jews participate in higher education and know what Hillel is. Neither do we discover resistance based upon financial constraints because we offer a low barrier in terms of a board member’s personal capacity. We seek commitment and passion.

When we approach these prospects, however, we discover that each is committed to a long line of causes and felt over-extended. Some have generously agreed to join us, others offer an extremely welcomed financial gift, and most suggested we return to them when they term out from some of their current boards.

So I think you can imagine why I am not as enthused by the prospect of a wave of new non-profits joining a market whose resources are already strained in terms of money and committed members.

There is a double-edged sword here. I want to be clear that I applaud the sentiment of these baby boomers, whether to set up a nonprofit or a socially conscious business. It says a lot about their values and the world that they and I envisage. I would be wrong to suggest that the need for such services is not growing.

You have to have been living on another planet to not realize that the poor are getting poorer and that more families and individuals are joining their ranks. The middle class are also struggling as their median income level continues to fall. I am sure that this is what is stirring people to action. Either you are hurting or you know others who are – and this is almost as painful. The top echelon (is it 1% or 5%?) continues to acquire wealth and actually grabbed the biggest share of after-tax income in the last thirty years. As we all know now, the top 5% own 60% of all private wealth.

Many of those in the 1% or 5% are the very people keeping the lights on in the nonprofit world, so we shouldn’t be too quick to bite the hand that feeds. I am impressed and humbled by the time and money that many of these people invest in philanthropic work.

Rather it is the rising disparity that is driving a greater need for the work of nonprofits. However, it cannot be ignored that we (the nonprofits) are cutting our staff and services as we struggle to remain solvent. In such a difficult environment is it not better to consolidate those agencies that have proved their worth rather than set up new agencies that will need to go through the inevitable growing pains at a time when we can ill-afford the luxury?

People enjoy investing in startups and it is the same with their philanthropy. However, the reality is that many of the new nonprofits won’t survive either because of a one-person leadership, a mission that has no depth, or they simply cannot sustain the income that development professionals learn to do over many years.

This might lead to disenchantment from those organizing and those investing. It could actually have a rebound effect on the 12 million who want to roll up their shirtsleeves and get involved. And this could lead to people being turned off from investing their money and time into agencies that can provide, and are providing, the essential services that many of us so desperately need today.

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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).

Marshall Ganz

I ‘discovered’ Marshall Ganz when his work on ‘The Power of Story” formed the basis of the annual Hillel Institute, the professional conference. I wrote about this in an earlier post. Today, I want to focus on Professor Ganz and his own story.

Marshall Ganz

Ganz grew up on the West Coast, in Fresno and then Bakersfield. The first remarkable chapter in his life was when, as a child, his family went to post World War Two Germany, where his father, who was a rabbi, served as an army chaplain working with displaced persons. The impact of meeting Holocaust survivors had a powerful influence on the whole family and Ganz grew up learning about the dangers of racism and Antisemitism.

Ganz began his undergraduate degree at Harvard but left the year before he graduated in 1964 to volunteer for the Mississippi Summer Project, where he worked in a freedom house in McComb and helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. He also joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America and over the next decade and a half gained experience in union, community, issue, and political organizing and became Director of Organizing for the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA).

The Union of Farm Workers is smaller today, but its significance has not lessened.

He left the UFWA in the 1980’s and began to focus on political organizing for a number of candidates including Nancy Pelosi for Congress, Alan Cranston for Senate, Tom Bradley for governor, and governor Jerry Brown.

Twenty-eight years after leaving, Ganz returned to Harvard where he finished his undergraduate degree, received an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government in 1993 and a Ph.D. in Sociology in 2000.

Since completing his doctorate in 2000, he has been a lecturer in public policy, teaching courses on organizing, leadership, civic engagement, and community action research at the Kennedy School for Government

While preparing to facilitate the workshops at the Hillel Institute, I learned that Ganz offers a unique perspective on community organizing and activism. In contrast to institutional mass mobilization, Ganz stresses the need to tell the story/

He stresses the need for personal investment through what he defines as “the story of self.” Here the individual shares something of him/herself, something that offers a moral or insight to whatever the message is. This can then be fused with “the story of us,”which is essentially the party line or goal that the activist is trying to suggest. Finally, Ganz concludes that there must be a call to action, which he encapsulates in “the story of now.”

Activism Is About Telling the Story

Finally, Ganz stresses that the communication cannot be one-way, but must involve genuine listening to understand the other person’s perspective through their own personal narrative.

Ganz illustrates this through the famous three questions of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Please click here to vote.

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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).

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).

The Power of Story

I have just finished attending the annual professional conference for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the organization for whom I work in San Francisco.

The theme of the conference was Collecting & Connecting Stories and I was honored to be one of the facilitators for the 5-workshop seminar that unfolded throughout the conference.

Marshall Ganz - his own story is a powerful lesson

The workshops began by focusing on why we tell stories, focusing on the work of Marshall Ganz. While there was the obvious and sometimes surreal fusion of my life as a ‘Jewish professional’ and as a social activist writer, I was just as struck by how much you learn from a person when you listen, really listen, to their story, including the spaces between the words.

I remember a writing coach saying that the reader not only learns from the words on the page, but from the white spaces (what we don’t say). For example, when someone tells you a story about their children, they are telling you how important their family is in their lives. They are sharing their values and priorities.

We learned how when you share a personal story with someone you are making a commitment towards friendship as you share a piece of yourself and you are honoring them by offering a level of exposure. Likewise when people share their story with us, they are inviting us to get to know them on a deeper level.

In a conversation with a colleague at the conference I explained that I write novels that highlight social injustices and promote individual empowerment to create change,  and she tied this into a model of how I envision my work in the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center.

My biggest takeaway from these workshops was the realization that to compartmentalize stories within the pages of a book is only one facet of storytelling. We use our personal stories to reach out to others and offer an insight into our character, a lesson from the moral of our stories, and the opportunity to bear witness to the stories of others, validating their experiences and values. Stories are all around us. They form an integral part of the fabric of social interaction.

Stories are all about delivery, but they are also about listening. How much better can we make our world if we can find the comfortable space to tell our stories and learn to truly listen and learn from those of others.

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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).

The Orange: A Woman’s Issue

Last night millions of Jews and their friends sat around the Passover Seder table. At the center of the table is a Seder plate. Jewish tradition is very particular about what one puts on the plate

However, Judaism has survived (I know there are many who I’m about to annoy) because even our traditions have evolved. In the 1980’s, a certain famous Israeli Orthodox rabbi was asked what he thought of women becoming rabbis. His response was that there was as much chance of this happening as an orange appearing on a Passover Seder plate.


An Orange on the Seder Plate

Since then, the orange has become a symbol of woman’s rights and equality within the progressive Jewish religion. The rabbi of my congregation is a woman and I work in an organization that embraces women rabbis, many of whom serve as role models and sources of inspiration for me.

The orange has made our world a richer place…and don’t get me started on the benefits of Vitamin C!

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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).

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