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 “US”

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.

 

Andy Brandi – P.T.S.D Counsellor

Today is Veteran’s Day. I have lifted this post from my friend, Al Levenson, who blogs about his experience: A Year on the Road.Al met a man named Andy Brandi who served in the Vietnam War. Forty years on, Andy is still living the war.

Andy recounted to Al how when he sits in a room, he will always have his back to a wall and be able to see the door. When he crosses a parking lot he will automatically scan the roofs of the surrounding buildings. A car backfiring can make him instantly drop to the floor. 

These stories sent chills through me.When my family first arrived in the US, we visited Chinatown in San Francisco with some friends. As we exited a store someone let off a firecracker. I instinctively threw my son (then 2 years old) behind a parked car and dived on top of him.

I freaked the group out (not least my two-year-old) and we decided to go sit for ice cream and tea. One of our friends asked me about my reaction and my wife told about other behavior traits I have that I took as ‘normal.’ This was the first I heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D). I too hate to have my back to a door and scan around me in unfamiliar urban areas. I have been shot at from roof tops and had rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown from above.

Today P.T.S.D is recognized as a genuine anxiety disorder caused by extreme psychological trauma. In a severe condition, it can overwhelm the person and rend them helpless to deal with it. Symptoms include “re-experiencing the stress through flashbacks, or nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep,anger and hypervigilence to the extent of impaired social function. Most often, they are plagued by a feeling if intense guilt that they survived when so many who were close to them did not.

Andy has written a book meant to serve as a guide for those (and their loved ones) who are fighting a fight they should have left behind in the desert or the jungles. Al says that The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life, “is a book that will haunt you from the first page.”


Al says that the most important message in the  book is that there is help available to the combat vets today.  Although Andy is critical of the level of services, they are vastly underfunded in his opinion, he points out that the Veteran’s Administration does offer counseling, and there is peer support at the posts of Veterans of Foreign Wars. He encourages veterans to reach out to these services.

Finally, Brandi wants to get his book in the hands of elected officials, who need to understand that a war costs more than the weapons and soldiers deployed.

Andy maintains a website (www.sgtbrandi.com) from where he wants to reach out and support veterans. He is also happy to speak to veteran’s groups.

The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life   is free to combat vets and their families and Andy funds his book giveaway from his own pension and disability checks. If you wish to help get his books into the hands of those who need it, you can donate at the following address. Just $20 can help cover the p&p  for a half dozen books to get to men and women who need to read it.

Sergeant Brandi, P.O. Box 574, Cerrillos, New Mexico, 87010.

The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life is also available from Amazon in tree or e-book. Buying a copy will help fund more books going out for free. Put that book in the hands of a veteran that you know is suffering.

Show them you care.

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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).

Germany Going Nuclear Free

Last month, the German government announced that it will close all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. While the rest of the world seems to have just accepted Japan’s nuclear disaster, Germany has declared that it will become the first major industrialized nation to go nuclear-free. Germany has the largest economy in Europe and is the second of the G8 (behind Italy) to take this step.

Are we entering the last chapter of nuclear power?

What i find impressive is that only late last year, the government had declared their intention to extend the lifespan of the country’s seventeen reactors until 2036. It completes a remarkable about-face for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government.

I want to congratulate the Chancellor for making the u-turn. There are not many politicians who are willing to stand up and say they now feel a need to change given new facts or, in this case, witnessing what has transpired in Japan. Ms. Merkel admits that the helplessness of such a technologically advanced nation in the face of the Fukushima disaster was responsible for her rethinking her nuclear policy.

“We want the electricity of the future to be safe, reliable and economically viable,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Monday after overnight negotiations among the governing parties. “We have to follow a new path.”

About 25% of Germany’s electricity was produced by nuclear power at the beginning of the year (the same proportion as the US incidentally) with energy from solar, hydroelectric, and wind producing roughly 17% of the country’s electricity. To wean themselves from nuclear power, the German government aims to boost its share of renewable energy to around 50%.

A solar energy tower in Spain

Germany boosts a significant grassroot organization of activists opposed to nuclear power since the Chernobyl disaster sent radioactivity over the country. After Fukushima, there has been a swell of people (quoted at tens of thousands of protesters  repeatedly taking to the streets  to urge the government to shut all reactors quickly.

Last week, Switzerland which relies on nuclear power for 40% of its electricity, announced that it will take its last plant off the grid in 2034.

Europe is making changes while America, ravaged by natural disasters, remains silent. Will our visionary leaders please stand up?

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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).

Memorial Day – Another Perspective

When I first came to the US, I asked a colleague how one behaves on Memorial Day. She looked at me in surprise. “Fire up the barbecue and chill the beer.” Allowing for the disturbing thought of chilling beer (I am a Brit and newly arrived in the US), I was surprised at her response. “What about the memories of soldiers?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said, creasing her brow. “There’s some of that on army bases and at cemeteries, I guess.”

Today, I would like to share how Memorial Day is observed in Israel, where everyone serves in the army and so everyone knows someone who lost their life in uniform. This is an excerpt form my next novel, Unwanted Heroes.

At 11am, a siren is sounded and the whole country comes to a stop.

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James sighs. “I served in the marines in Vietnam. Jane knows I was an officer, a decorated officer. There are five medals in a case in my den. My unit was honored by President Johnson and he spent some time visiting us.”

He pauses, staring into a distant past. “Jane knows that while her friends’ families organize barbeques on Memorial Day, her father disappears. She knows that in the days leading up to Memorial Day, he secludes himself in his den when he’s not at the office, and that he doesn’t share jokes or listen very well to his little girl’s stories.

“Maybe she sees him drinking more during this time, though I hope not. Perhaps she sees that her mother is uncharacteristically understanding and supportive, stealing worried glances at her husband, knowing she is powerless to help.”

James stops for a moment and takes a long, contemplative drink and a deep breath before continuing with unconcealed venom.

“I hate Memorial Day. I hate that it’s a national excuse to party. You know, I went on a business trip once to Israel and the middle of the trip coincided with their Memorial Day. Every man serves in the army there and many women too. Everyone has lost somebody. I was being driven from Tel Aviv to Haifa on their equivalent of Highway 5. At exactly eleven in the morning the driver pulled over. My host had forewarned me that this would happen, but I was still astonished at what I saw. We all got out of our cars, I mean everyone. The whole highway stopped; six lanes of traffic. People stood in silence by their cars, heads bowed, as sirens wailed from car radios.”

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Now I enjoy a barbecue just like the next non-meat eater, and I have even learned to drink my beer chilled. But can we not find 60 seconds in the day and bring the whole country to a stop: to remember, to reflect, to honor?

Just 60 seconds.

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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).

May 1st – This Year More Than Ever

The workers fare better in times of economic growth and are most vulnerable during a recession. This is probably not anything new to us. Short-sighted business executives, when faced with a down-turn in the market immediately go for cost-cutting measures and in any organization, the biggest line item is labor.

This has not been a great year for the trade union movement. The assault by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) – I can’t think of another name for it – is stunning.What is even more difficult to understand is that many of these workers actually voted him into power. The US has never polarized along class lines as we have seen in the UK and other European countries. 

But then American politicians (and their aides of course) understand so well how to manipulate the media (which is only worried about ratings not content) and to avoid discussing the major issues. How were Republicans, just months after losing the Presidential election, able to get away with criticizing Obama for the ‘economic situation’?

So for those of you who wonder, here are 10 reasons why we need Trade Unions, courtesy of Union Solidarity:

10 REASONS TO JOIN A UNION

(there are more than 10 – just ask a union member)

1. People who belong to unions have better wages and conditions than non-union members: – Did you know that union members on average earn 15% more than non-union members!

2. Unionised workplaces have better health and safety conditions and are more likely to elect representatives who are then legally entitled to monitor health and safety at work.

3. Unions have a long and proud history of defending the rights of working women, part timers and casuals. It is much more difficult for employers to discriminate against women union members who are aware of their rights. Anti-discrimination laws, paid maternity leave and family leave was won by unions who continue to fight for improved conditions for part time and casual workers.

4. Overtime rates, annual leave, rostered days off, redundancy agreements, long service leave payments – these are all conditions fought for by unions. Employers do not just hand out entitlements.

5. Unions collectively and individually support education and training for employees and lobby for on-the-job training for members. The benefits flow onto everyone.

6. The Union movement has successfully lobbied state and federal governments for better laws to protect low paid workers such as outworkers.

7. People who are active in their unions learn heaps about their working environment and how it can be improved – they can help fellow workers and have fun at the same time.

8. In tough economic times, employers will try to cut jobs and increase productivity – it is unions who make sure that big companies don’t put profit before people.

9. Unions help to break down barriers in workplaces – they unite workers and create a community so workers don’t feel isolated and fearful of employers.

10. Unions are involved in important social and community issues. The environment, women’s movement, Aboriginal reconciliation, rebuilding East Timor and other overseas aid and rights for refugees are just some of the social justice issues unions become involved with.

I would like to add one more that I saw on a car bumper sticker:


Actually the one I saw said: God gave us the Sabbath, but the unions gave us the weekend!

Happy May 1st.

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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).

Great News Day

Great news today out of Washington DC: We are hearing first reports of a marathon meeting between republicans and democrats. They agreed on 10 points:

1)    Democrats agreed not to raise taxes while republicans promised that everyone would pay taxes proportional to their income – no tax shelters, no acceptance of ways to ‘save’ on taxes. The additional funds raised will pay for the following:

2)    Cars which do not run on alternative energy or hybrid consumption will cease to be produced in the US as of the end of this year and cease to be imported by the end of 2012.

3)    Non-organic produce will be taxed to pay for all toxic waste disposals. This cost will be shared between consumer and farmer.

4)    Every child in America will receive a personal laptop on entering elementary school. This laptop will have wireless capacity and come packed with educational and fun games as well as e-book capacity.

5)    Teachers will receive salary increases to a mid level company managerial equivalent, along with bonuses for working in low-income areas.

6)    Every young person who finishes high school with university grades will receive financial credits that will cover their tuition at a state university.

7)    Each freshman will receive a hand-held tablet with a yearly credit to buy academic books in electronic form.

8)    Personal finance will be taught in high school, including budgeting, the dangers of credit card abuse, and long-term saving benefits.

9)   America will no longer finance or do business with countries where basic human rights are not observed. These rights include no institutional discrimination based on gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation.

10) Every US citizen will have access to medical treatment without fear of bankrupcy. Every US war vet will have full access to psychological help.

This program will come into effect on April 1st, a day that will hereafter be celebrated as April Future Day. Anyone who objects to the aforementioned may continue to celebrate April Fools Day. These people will not be discriminated against, merely pitied.

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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).

My Heart is an Open Book

Staying with the romantic theme for another day, searching on-line for one’s partner is on my mind. No, no, Mrs. Blog knows I am writing this.

I remember the first time I heard from friends who were open about using on-line dating services. Until this point I had  a very negative, stereotypical profile of such people. Watching these two young, successful and charismatic people at their wedding, proudly encourage anyone who was single and seeking a partner to take the path that brought them together.

Now, five years later, as I pack up my papers at the end of a business meeting, three young men share their experiences using different websites. It is a serious conversation and I eavesdrop on them as they talk. All three are socially competent, communicative, nice young men.  All three have the financial means to cruise the bars and clubs, and would probably enjoy themselves whether they met future spouses or not.

They do not see on-line dating as a last resort. On the contrary, they allocate their time and resources in this respect, as they do in the rest of their lives, with efficient and effective strategy. It makes total sense to them, products of the technological age that they are, and they harbor no doubts that they will achieve their goals.

How does one choose which site to use? Well, I know of on-line dating sites that use religious, geographical, sexual preference and other parameters, but I was surprised to discover that you might want to consider a potential partner by the books they read. As an author, this perked my interest.

Alikewise is “a dating site that allows you to find people based on their book tastes.” We often ask a potential partner what books they read, essentially perceiving this as a way of further understanding them. So why not save time and have this discussion on-line? In fact, why not use it as criteria? Alikewise is already spreading its wings to the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel.

So next time you sidle up to someone in a bar/party/club and need to yell into their ear: “so watcha reading?” and then strain to hear his/her answer, maybe consider Alikewise instead.

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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/

Banker to the Poor

In earlier posts, I shared a number of books on micro-lending. I want to share with you another important one I just finished. Banker to the Poor is authored by Dr. Muhammad Yunus who is seen by many as the first initiator of such a system.

Dr. Yunus is a professor of economics. He studied at the Vanderbilt University in the US before returning to Bangladesh and slipping into life as a professor. But in 1974, a famine ravaged the country, sending millions of rural Bangladeshi to the cities to beg on the streets.

“What good were all my complex theories when people were dying of starvation on the sidewalks and porches across from my lecture hall?…. Nothing in the economic theories I taught reflected the life around me.”

Dr. Yunus began to experiment with what we now know as micro-lending and lent $27 to 42 women who could buy bamboo to make and sell stools. This was the first step that a few years later saw the creation of the Grameen Bank. He created a system whereby loan recipients were grouped into cohorts of five. Only two of the five received their money up front. As soon as they were paying back their loans, the other three received theirs. Yunus sought to create more than individual business initiative, he sought to create a community of entrepeneurs who gave each other support. 97% of loan recepients repaid their loans.

Today the Grameen Bank is a $2.5 billion banking operation in Bangladesh. The micro-lending model has spread to over 50 countries worldwide, including the U.S. to Papua New Guinea, Norway to Nepal.

Dr.Yunus continues to  travel around the world spreading the belief that poverty can be eliminated: “…the poor, once economically empowered, are the most determined fighters in the battle to solve the population problem; end illiteracy; and live healthier, better lives. When policy makers finally realize that the poor are their partners, rather than bystanders or enemies, we will progress much faster that we do today.”

This book is a great read, particularly the first half, where Dr. Yunus shows his personal evolution into this idea as well as his life in the US as Bangladesh goes through its political upheaval. He shows a passionate love for his country and great courage in his willingness to offer the loans to women, who were held back by tradition and strict male domination.

In 2006, Dr. Yunis was recognized for his life’s work and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This could be seen as recognition not just an award for the work of a visionary, but recognition that there is a sustainable solution to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty. I’ve never met Dr. Yunis, but I bet he also sees it this way.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

A Sustainable Chinese Future

In the last month I have posted three times regarding China, whether to protest the imprisonment of Shi Tao or the sad debacle of Liu Xiabo, the Nobel prize winner, currently also incarcerated.

I have heard from people who feel that I am anti-China. I am not. In fact, I spent years studying Tai Chi Chuan and Traditional Chinese Medicine. I embrace a lot of the lessons that emanate from Chinese culture.

In particular, I Look China has posted several times criticizing my choice of  contention. I will agree to disagree. Doing sometime illegal is exactly that and the proponents know what they face. However, non-violent protest is a mark of a society’s maturity and its own personal comfort level with itself.

There are two aspects of China that I feel critical about. The first is human rights and democracy as these previous posts make clear. But I am also worried about the growing and (so I thought) unchecked industrial growth, and in particular, the impact on the environment.


So I was really excited to hear that there is a thriving Greenpeace in China. It is an organization facing a massive expansion, one that dwarfs the industrial United States. I am also quick to recognize that the steps taken here in the US are clearly not enough, and fighting the small rich oligarchy here is incredibly frustrating.

But the knowledge that Greenpeace is established and respected in China offers hope not only for the environment, but also that it is possible to be critical in China.


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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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