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 people”

Open Letter to Hillel Students and Alumni

Dear Students & Alumni,

As you have probably heard by now, I have left my position as executive director of San Francisco Hillel. After nine amazing and challenging years, I am moving on to new challenges, heading the Western Region of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that, inspired by Jewish commitment to social justice, works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.

I want to take the opportunity to share a few thoughts. For many of you, I was a familiar face at Hillel, working behind the scenes to raise the funds necessary to run the organization, and often dealing with managerial issues and politics, whether on campus or in the Bay Area Jewish community.

For some, I had the honor to lead you on birthright trips, alternative breaks, and to conferences such as AIPAC Regional and Policy Conference. These were the times when I had an opportunity to cultivate a deep relationship with many of you, one that stretched over several formative years for each of us.

I treasure the conversations we had as we grappled with our Jewish journeys, our relationship to Israel, and our shared desire to strive for a more just world for all. You helped me form and change my opinions, and create a personal values-based platform with which to lead my life. I thank you for this and hope that I was there to help you grow as well.

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For many we bantered about the Warriors .v. Lakers/Clippers, or my beloved Arsenal (English soccer team), and I hope I enriched your language levels with my British English.

For others, I was that crazy bloke who rapped his speech at the Final Shabbat dinner, the guy who joined conversations about politics, campus life, relationships, or whatever you wanted to share around the coffee machine. I truly treasured those moments and will hold them forever in my heart.

 

I wish you the best as you continue along your chosen life path. Last month I turned fifty, and want to share that we never stop exploring our values, beliefs and life dreams. I hope you grow, seeing Hillel as a positive and integral part of your life. I hope you will continue to explore your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, to the State of Israel, and to strive to create a more just society in the US and the world.

If you are still a student, please continue to take advantage of the opportunities that Hillel provides, to help create a vibrant Jewish campus community, to stand up for Israel, and enjoy the alternative breaks, conferences, and birthright, with the wonderful staff that continue to work at Hillel.

If you are an alum/na, I hope you find your place in the Jewish community and continue to be an activist in whatever cause/s resonate with you. I hope you can take the values you honed at Hillel and integrate them into your own life. Please join and support the alumni network so that those who come after you will be able to enjoy the same benefits that you had. No one appreciates the value of a Hillel more than alumni. Become a mentor for a current student, help them to negotiate college life and prepare for graduation. Stay involved, even if it is only a $5 monthly gift, it is important.

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I want to thank the wonderful staff that made my time at Hillel so special. In particular, Rachel, Shushannah, Sima, Charlotte, Heather, and Yochai, all of whom helped make Hillel a family, not a place of work. Please welcome Ollie, my replacement (also a Brit, sorry!), and Omer, the amazing new Israel Fellow, and help them grasp the complexities and the vision we share for Jewish campus life.

Finally, thank you for being such an exciting part of my life. Please feel free to stay in touch via email (alshalev@yahoo.com) or look for me on Facebook and Twitter. I am sure our paths will cross again.

Good luck in all you pursue for a happy and meaningful life.

L’shalom (to peace),

Alon

Masada 2014

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more Wycaan Master books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com.

 

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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A Place At The Table – David Waksberg

Tonight is one of the most powerful nights in the Jewish year. The Passover Seder is traditionally seen as a family event. David Waksberg, CEO of  Jewish LearningWorks, offers a beautiful, universal perspective.

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God created humans, Elie Wiesel suggests, because God loves stories.

At no time do we tell more stories than at the Passover Seder, and above all, the story of the Exodus, the master narrative of the Jewish people.

All of us are commanded to participate in the telling. Everyone who tells the story is praised. And each of us is commanded to make the story our own – as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. In making the story our own, each of us is invited to make OUR story part of the master story, to fit our unique puzzle piece into the great jigsaw puzzle of the Jewish people.

There is a place at the Seder table for all of us. No wonder more Jews gather for a Passover Seder than for any other Jewish activity. 

 “Let all who hunger come and eat,” we say. Everyone is welcome.

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Never before have so many Jewish leaders voiced the desire to “reduce barriers to participation” in Jewish life. And yet, so many feel left out, as if their puzzle piece can’t fit. Jews with learning differences that are not accommodated in schools; LGBT Jews who don’t feel welcomed in some institutions; multi-racial families, told they don’t “look Jewish;” interfaith families, seeking inclusion.

And the list goes on – Sephardi and Ashkenazi, observant and secular, Russian, Israeli…so many ways we can divide ourselves and so many ways we’ve found to feel alienated, uncomfortable, “other” in Jewish settings.

Most everyone means well, one parent told me, “but good intentions are not enough.” If we wish to reduce barriers to engagement, we need to let go of the notion that Jews must look or sound or act in accordance with a set of images we grew up with.

Jewish peoplehood does not mean we are all the same. It means that across a wide spectrum of diverse culture, language, ethnicity, politics, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and yes, even beliefs, we share a common bond. How wonderful, and how much richer is that bond for the diversity that informs it?  Jewish comes in many flavors and until we truly understand, celebrate and institutionalize it, those barriers to participation won’t come down. 

Next week, the multi-hued mélange that makes up the Jewish people will gather around Seder tables around the world to celebrate our story of liberation and redemption. The Seder exemplifies our diversity, both in the story we tell and in the multiple ways we tell it. At our Seder table, an array of customs and practices – melodies from Poland, Lithuania and Turkey, customs from Iraq, Afghanistan, and North America, recipes from Syria, Spain, and the Bronx – coalesce around a common theme, story, and set of rituals and symbols.

Twelve tribes left Egypt. Twelve tribes remained, and, paradoxically, one people emerged. 

Not every Israelite left Egypt. But all were invited to make the trip.

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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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A Rude Intrusion

During our trip to New Orleans we had a day of storms that prevented us from working. We took advantage of the time, frustrating though it was, to visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

Walking around the incredible displays, watching the otters, seals, penguins, sharks and albino alligator, I imagined sharing this with my boys and how much they would enjoy it. My frustration for not being able to work (we were extremely motivated having come all this way from San Francisco), coupled with seeing all these eager parents showing their kids some nature, while mine were thousands of miles away, began to rise.

My highlight!Since there was little point taking my frustration out on either the weather or these families, I needed to direct it on something else…I got my wish.

I was drawn to the section about the wetlands. On this trip, I have learned that the disappearing bayou had served as a natural defense to surge water, what essentially destroyed much of New Orleans. For a great documentary on this, check out Hurricane on the Bayou. Had we taken care of this beautiful natural ecosystem, it would have protected the people of NOLA from a Category 5 hurricane.

And in case you are wondering, we are still destroying the wetlands, as incredibly an area the size of a football field is vanishing every 38 minutes.

Back to the aquarium and I discover that the wetlands and ocean ecosystem presentation is sponsored by several huge multinational oil corporations, including my old nemeses – British Petroleum – who famously tried their best to silence Left Coast Voices and others who weren’t impressed by their spewing oil into the Gulf Coast.

I browsed through their presentation that firmly told children how important the contribution of the oil companies are to the area, how they are courageously fighting pollution and ensuring the energy needs for the next generation.

There is a great Yiddish word – Chutzpah! It means audaciously outrageous – but chutzpah just says it better (for best results focus on the ch and bring up all the phlegm you can manage). This is the Jewish People’s gift to the world!

I cannot believe that BP and its friends would dare to put such an exhibit in New Orleans, when it has ruined the lives of many of the people who come to the aquarium – actually they probably don’t, since they most likely can’t afford to pay the admission into the place.

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas claims to be an educational institution for primarily young people. So why does it allow the rich, multinational corporations to rewrite history on its premises? Doesn’t it understand the legitimacy it is giving the oil companies by allowing them to tell their story under their auspices?   

The answer is, of course, money. I am sure that BP paid more than 40 pieces of silver, but the value of the transaction hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. Planet Earth, however, has, and dangerously so.

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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 Place For The N Word

Last month I listened to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Two factors were involved in this decision. Firstly, having been educated in the land of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I am woefully ignorant of classical literature in the country I now reside. Secondly, I was about to travel to Louisiana and work a stones’ throw from the banks of the Mississippi.

Just when I began the book, the N-word controversy exploded. NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, announced it plans to release a new edition in February wherein the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave.”

The word appears 219 times in all, it is hard to miss. I was listening when my 12 year-old got into the car and the word was spoken twice. My son, a proud product of Berkeley tolerance, was shocked. We had a long conversation about literature and artistic license. We have already had a number of discussions as to why I can write swear words and have them published, words that he is not allowed to say.

JULIE BOSMAN in an excellent New York Times article – Publisher Tinkers With Twain – explains that the idea came from Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery.  The professor has been teaching Mark Twain for decades and talked about always feeling uncomfortable when reading out loud a common racial epithet.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

Mr. Gribben, believes that Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have dropped off of many reading lists and wants to make the books more accessible.

“I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,” Mr. Gribben said. “The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.” (The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”).

Does he have a point? While my ancestors were enslaved in Egypt a few centuries ago, it is not part of our scarred psyche – there are far too many more recent acts that scar the Jewish  people. So I am unclear whether I should have a say in the debate.

I would love to hear from people of color whose ancestors were slaves in America. Would you share your opinions in the comments?

Either way, the special relationship that develops between Huck and Jim is what makes this novel so special. It is a timeless lesson in companionship, as relevant today as ever before.

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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


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