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 “Jews”

Why Me: First Speech For Global Justice

This week I passed the 100-day mark as executive director of American Jewish World Service, San Francisco and the Western Region. To officially welcome me, the community held a meet-and-greet reception at Perry’s in the City. I want to share the text of my speech (though I probably didn’t keep on script as I spoke) as it felt like an opportunity to tie a number of loose threads from my life into an order. It is also a genuine expression of my love for the work and the organization I represent.

MeetandGreet Use

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After I told my mother-in-law that I had accepted a position with the American Jewish World Service, she went online to see what this organization was all about. She later told me that she felt as if someone had created this organization specifically for me.

I have been deeply involved with social justice all my life. I made my first political protest and speech at age eight when a teacher told me to remove a Free Nelson Mandela sticker from my pencil-case. When I refused, and I was a well-behaved student, she said I could keep it provided I stand in front of the class and explain who Nelson Mandela was and why he should be freed. I probably described him in superhero terms, but I hope for all of us that my oratory abilities have improved since.

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I am 100 days into this new position and feel deeply privileged to have such an exciting responsibility. What I am most proud of is the principle by which AJWS does not tell people in developing countries what they need, what we will build for them, but listens to and guides grassroots organizations who understand the needs of their own people. As you can hear from my accent, I herald from the most colonialist country in history, so you understand why I find such a principle most refreshing. 

I just returned from a Study Tour to India with a number of our donors and our president, Ruth Messinger. I was proud to present to a group of Muslim girls and women in Calcutta, most of whom had never interacted with Jews, how it is our Jewish values that compel us into action against injustices: how we believe all people are made in the image of God and that every person has the right to live in freedom and dignity.

AJWS has committed itself to help a broad coalition end child marriage. In India it is against the law to marry before the age of 18, yet 48% of girls reach that age already married, often with terrible consequences. Throughout the world, there are over 10 million child brides a year… 10 million…a year. Such statistics seem daunting that there is so much injustice in the world and it is so easy to burn out and walk away.

child-marriage-banner

But our Jewish sources also teach that while it is not for us to finish the task, neither are we free to desist from it. 

If you are new to the organization please take an annual report from the info table. It is the most concise and up-to-date reflection of our work. If you are interested in getting involved as an activist, please join Erica and our Action Team at 7pm in our office next door.

Thank you for the taking the time to come tonight and welcome me into the AJWS family as we strive together to create a better world for all people. But more important. thank you for supporting AJWS with your financial generosity and your precious time. Each and every one of you make all that we do possible.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flamethe fourth in the series.

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 and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

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Wake Up!

Today is Yom Kippur, possibly the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. But there is a clear message for all peoples.

Over the 10 Days of Repentance (and sometimes for the whole month preceding), Jews close their eyes and blow the Shofar, the ram’s horn. The ram’s horn comes from the Biblical story – the Akedah – where Abraham almost sacrifices his son, Isaac, to show his utter faith in Gd.  

During this intense period of retrospection, Jews are commanded to judge themselves and their actions, to make amends to both their fellow humans and Gd, and to commit to leading a better life.

The ram’s horn wakes us from our complacency and pushes us to step outside our comfort zone. This is a universal message. We are destroying the earth, using chemicals on fellow humans, allowing children to go to be hungry, women in fear for their safety, and people denied basic rights.

Take a moment and listen to the shofar (ram’s horn) being blown around the world (from Africa in this case) and wake up!

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. 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 and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

A Year of Peace

Tonight Jews all over the world will come together to welcome in our new year – Rosh Hashanah. It is a sweet occasion and we eat apples and honey to celebrate. But Rosh Hashanah is also the start of 10 days of introspection that culminate in Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and supplication that climaxes with the final blow of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, that signifies the closing of the gates of Heaven.

Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah

Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah

There are three levels of sins and forgiveness: the sins against G-d, those against our fellow humans, and those against the world.

Heavy stuff, but it is a great time for some soul-searching and an opportunity to mend bridges with people we care about. But what I love about this period is that, no matter how badly you have sinned against G-d, if you are genuine in your repentance, then you get a clean slate to start the new year.

However, you cannot ask G-d’s forgiveness for sins against your fellow men and women. Only the person you have wronged can forgive you and you need to approach them with a genuine desire to confess and be forgiven – tweets don’t count.

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Finally, a person cannot find peace with G-d unless it is found with our fellow humans, and peace cannot be attained within, unless there is peace in the world. There is something very humbling and holistic here. Above all, it is something very powerful.

There is so much to learn from this period of time. But it is also a time to simply celebrate life and our relationship with one another. Michelle Citrin, a great singer, sums it up in her song: Gotta 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 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. 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 and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Lighting A Candle For Freedom

Tonight Jews around the world will light the third candle of Chanukah. For a description of the festival please click on the link. The purpose of this blog is to focus on the theme rather than the ritual. But what I found fascinating is that American Jewry identify and celebrate Chanukah more than any other Jewish festival by a huge margin. The statistics buck the doom-and-gloom fears of assimilation and I believe there is a good reason for this. Chanukah is the Jewish festival of freedom. And freedom, while something the Jewish people have often struggled for, is a universal theme.

This year, I would like to dedicate Chanukah (not that I own any dedicating rights!) to the Egyptian people, who after demonstrating so bravely to overthrow a dictator, find themselves in Tahrir Square again only a year later. Freedom is worth fighting for … and coming back to fight for it again.

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Tahrir Square this past Friday.

The fact that many religions have a festive holiday deep in the winter is another bond that binds us. Here is my offering to kick off the festive season. It is one of a series of cool, hip Jewish songs for different festivals by a great, rising star.

Michelle Citrin has an amazing voice, an amazing personality and deserves so much more success. So please check out her music here.

Happy Chanukah to All People – Let’s all light the way to freedom.
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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, 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).

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).

 

To Our ‘Gay’ President

Dear President Obama,

I have to admit you are full of surprises. As I am sure you are aware from your daily perusal of our humble blog, I am critically supportive of you. I worked for your election, cried when Jon Stewart called the election for Obama as part of The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s special live coverage of Indecision 2008, keeping the live show going a few more minutes in order to announce your/our victory, and praised your Obamacare, even if it was far from perfect.

I didn’t expect you to be so deadly cool and take out bin Laden like you did, when many hawks would be squawking at their roosts deciding if to or not.

Still, you will excuse me if I don’t jump up and down on your decision to support gay marriage, or the tribulations that have followed. You see, Mr. President, you simply did the right thing. That’s it.

I appreciate you having the guts to do it in an election year, but the President should do the right thing. You are the President of everyone – the blacks, the Jews, the Hispanics, the whites, the card-carrying NRA members, the religious and the secular. And you are the President of the gay community. You did the right thing.

So to thank you, here is a song that was brought out when it was difficult to come out as gay in Britain, sung by a singer who is not (I think) gay. But Billy Bragg wanted to be a representative of all progressive people and so he challenged us all with this song.

By the way Mr. President, I chose this version because it features the late Kristy MacColl who tragically died 12 years ago.

Thank you for reading this, sir. Always a pleasure. Here’s to another four years.
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. 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).

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).

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