Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dreams can come true -- we can get somewhere

I grew up with a New York where it just seemed nothing could get done. There was no money for anything. The crime was the worst in the country. The political process was paralyzed by special interests and a widespread NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) attitude that was so often rooted in ignorance, irrational fears and racism. As a young adult living in Brooklyn and then Manhattan in the late 80s and then the 90s, I sometimes thought of my feelings for New York as an addiction: I so deeply loved the City and was always, as a person who once thought he would become an architect or urban planner, thinking -- dreaming! -- about how it could be even better. This was the place -- maybe the only place in the United States -- set up in such a way that an automobile-free life was possible. The pollution and the sprawl that highways and the cars on them had wrought across the nation -- and the racism and segregation that they helped enforce -- could be countered here. I dreamed of a life full of beautiful public spaces, of streets and plazas without cars and, instead, filled with people of all shapes and colors getting around on foot, on bicycles and on abundant public transportation.  But it seemed like none of those dreams could come true; this "lover" that was the NYC of my young adulthood always disappointed me.

So, riding through the Hudson River Park this morning on a CitiBike
Minna on the CitiBike
was so exhilarating for me not just because of the intrinsic greatness of being able to just pick up a bike anywhere in lower Manhattan with just the swipe of an electronic key. It was the culmination of dreams that I had once thought could never come true. It was hard to even dream that the rotting piers of the West Side could be turned into a park. And not only had that come to pass, but the city was full of bike lanes. And now a bike sharing system, following the incredible example that was pioneered in Paris beginning in 2007.

Today was the first time I've gotten a chance to ride the CitiBike extensively (Minna and I started using it on the program's opening day on Monday, but Minna mostly rode the CitiBike while I rode my old mountain bike).

I love the bike itself. It takes a little getting used to -- especially getting used to how its heavy weight has to be held up when you are stopped at a red light -- but it mostly feels great. And it's so great to be able to ride a bike in New York without having to worry about its getting stolen or about having to fix a flat tire or about locking it up somewhere overnight. You just return the bike to the station nearest your destination and you're done. You don't even have to think about CitiBike until you need it to go somewhere. And going somewhere is what this system is really built for -- it's not just for recreational biking. The stations are everywhere and they're right there on the street where parked cars used to be. You can really use this system to get all over lower Manhattan (and the rest of Manhattan and more of NYC soon as the program expands). It just makes being in New York better -- it feels like the whole city opens up for you. In Manhattan, I'm used to thinking that going crosstown (ie, east-west) is almost always hard -- the Subway pretty much only runs north-south. But with CitiBike, suddenly crosstown trips are just as easy as uptown-downtown ones.

It's awesome!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

When a low profile means a legacy

Tonight we marked 20 years of Clinical Pastoral Education at Reading Hospital -- a program founded by the man who trained me to be a CPE supervisor, the Rev. Gregory Stoddard. People who know  Greg well think of him as a quiet, but highly influential and respected leader, someone who has done much to shape CPE as we know it through his leadership at the national level and through the many students he has trained, some of whom, like me, are now full supervisors in the ACPE. Many others work as chaplains and bring the wisdom they have learned from Greg into their work every day. Quite a few of them came to the commemoration.

Some might think Greg is quiet because that is just somehow his nature. But, as was clear from his words tonight, it is actually something quite intentional. So often religions and educational institutions are founded and maintained on the charisma and the force of personality of one person. While there may be strengths to this approach, if a program is about one person it won't survive, Greg believes. And so Greg has always worked hard -- including at this commemoration -- to make sure it was not all about him. It's part of his commitment to help make sure that the things that he cares about can last, and that other people can find ways to function on their own without needing to be directed at all times by an over-involved leader.

It's a Torah I take with me wherever I go and that I seek to share with my own students. I think we are all enriched by it.

Monday, November 05, 2012

From Sandy to Obama -- looking for hope, being reminded of the past

When I was a beginning chaplaincy student, there was a horrible accident at a nearby farmer's market where many were injured and killed. We student chaplains went down to the ER lobby to just try and be there for people and be available to talk. I was surprised to hear people tell me tales not of this accident they had just experienced, but of past traumas -- sometimes from decades before.

I've since learned that this is a very common response -- current traumas spark memories of past traumas. And sometimes it is those past traumas that people really need to talk about. It's a way people use to recall how they were able to make meaning from loss in the past -- and how they were able to cope and heal from losses like the one that just happened.

For me, personally, all the current images of destruction in New York City have reminded me of September 11, 2001, and of how deep that loss was for me. One way that process of recalling benefits me is that it helps me to realize that my emotional response to this disaster -- the very deep loss I feel even though I, and my loved ones, have hardly been impacted directly -- is a normal one for me, and says something about who I am at my core. The physical spaces of New York City  -- especially lower Manhattan and the beaches of Coney Island, etc. -- are sources of deep meaning for me, and are places where many of the most formative experiences of my life happened. Like other sources of deep meaning, these spaces help ground me -- they help me know what I care about most, what I think beauty is and what I think right and wrong are. When these sources of meaning are disrupted, I am disrupted. It helps me, at this time of disorientation in the wake of disaster, to be able to recall how those places oriented me -- to be able to recall how they came to be meaningful to me and to be reminded about who I really am.

Tomorrow is Election Day. As we search for hope in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, perhaps we can also find hope in our action at the ballot box. I know I feel trepidation about what will come tomorrow, but mostly I am hopeful -- hopeful for four more years of a president who I think is best prepared to lead us towards becoming the nation of mutual caring we need to be, whether in response to mass disasters or just the everyday, normal struggles of the people of America and the world at large.

Vote!

Friday, August 31, 2012

How to make something gold stay -- bicycling education for the 21st century

One of our fun vacation rides
Recently, Wired magazine declared that we live in a golden age of cycling. And it certainly felt that way to Minna and I as we enjoyed the bike paths and lanes of New York City as part of our vacation this summer -- especially using the walkways, some of which had been closed or in serious disrepair for decades, over the East River bridges. But will it last? And are we facing up to the really tough questions we need to if we want to preserve  it?

The biggest threat to cycling in New York is the backlash from drivers and some pedestrians -- most prominently evident in the constant stream of stories and editorials in the NY Daily News and Post that condemn cyclists as dangerous transgressors of both traffic laws and common sense. The Daily News recently, for example, sent reporters out with radar guns to clock supposedly speeding cyclists in Central Park.

What’s interesting, and terribly mistaken, about most of these articles is that they lump all cyclists -- whether they’re commuters, restaurant-delivery men or just people out for some exercise -- together. Even bicycling advocates tend to make this same mistake -- declaring all use of bicycles to be universally good.

But not all cyclists are the same. And not all cyclists violate traffic laws -- and basic etiquette -- with the same frequency. The most dangerous, although common, cyclist violation is what David Byrne calls salmon cycling -- riding against the direction of traffic and thus surprising pedestrians and others who rightfully expect traffic to be moving in only the legal direction when they step out into the street. Close behind in the practices-of-shame is riding on the sidewalk. Based on my anecdotal experience of walking through the area around NYU the last few years, both practices are especially common among people delivering restaurant food.

Now I know that the delivery people -- especially the middle-aged, immigrant men who are extending their working opportunities by using electric bicycles -- are just trying to me make an honest living. But I also know that efforts at public education have to start somewhere, and that the restaurants that employ these delivery people are already in the business of having to comply with municipal regulations like the health laws that put letter-grades on their windows. What if their delivery people were required to take a basic bike safety course, and what if their employers were penalized if their employees violated laws? Could that be an important part of starting us on a path towards safer streets?

The thing is that I’m not just a cyclist. In fact, more often, I’m a pedestrian. So a part of me understands the backlash. If we’re going to keep things moving in the right direction -- with a municipal government that continues to support accommodation for  cyclists -- we’re going to have to convince pedestrians that cyclists are safe to live with.

So far -- witness a NY Times study that found 66 percent of New Yorkers think bike lanes are a good idea -- bicyclists seem to be doing an ok job of that. But it may not be good enough going forward. Education about safe bicycling practices is an important part of ensuring that the golden age of cycling does not come to a crashing end. Bicycle advocacy groups, in particular, need to shift their focus from just pushing for legislation to also create increasing opportunities for education. And we need to recognize that not all cyclists are the same, so that we can best focus educational and law enforcement efforts.

Minna on a trip we took to Coney Island
But, whatever happens, I’m so grateful to have been able to witness some of the blossoming of cycling in New York. It’s especially heartwarming to see how cycling in New York has moved beyond just being for a hardened core of messengers and spandex-wearing athletes to
normal people wearing normal clothes -- Williamsburg, in particular, is a spectacular place to witness all kinds of people (yes, including, hipsters!) getting around on bicycles. And kudos, especially, to efforts like this one called WeBike, to move cycling beyond being a male-only endeavor. I won’t have as much chance to be in New York over the coming months  as I did this summer -- I’ll miss the cycling there!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Turning your laments into prayer: thoughts -- and voices -- for the 9th of Av

The 9th of the month of Av -- Tisha B’Av -- is the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar. It marks a host of calamities for the Jewish people -- all of which are said to have occurred on the 9th of Av -- including the destruction of both the first and second great Temples in ancient Jerusalem. Yet it can be hard for the contemporary Jew to approach Tisha B’Av as a spiritually meaningful day of mourning. After all, Judaism as we know it -- rabbinic Judaism -- only emerged as a result of the loss of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. And, as much as we might yearn deep in our souls for a messianic redemption where all the people of the world acknowledge our God as The One, few of us are interested in working practically for a rebuilding of the Temple and a reestablishment of the sacrificial cult with its bloody burning of offerings on the altar.

But -- in a lecture as part of the chaplaincy training program I’m teaching in this summer at the Jewish Theological Seminary -- Professor David Kraemer helped me see that Tisha B’Av is not just a day of mourning -- neither in contemporary nor in ancient times. Kraemer’s genius is to step back and look at the ritual practices in our tradition without all the overlays of meaning we have associated with them over the centuries. By looking at the practices afresh, we are able to get new insights into their meaning, he teaches us.

Regarding Tisha B’Av, Kraemer compared its core ritual practices -- like fasting and avoiding washing -- to the core ritual practices from two other key elements of the tradition: one that is clearly about mourning -- shiva (mourning practices after the death of a loved one) -- and one that is not so clearly about mourning -- Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement). From this comparison, it became clear that although Tisha B’Av is partially about mourning (as it shares practices like a ban on Torah study with shiva), iit also has practices -- like fasting -- that link it more closely to the themes of atonement.

That leaves us with the question of what the nature of atonement -- and its central practice of fasting -- really is about. I’m reminded of the Talmud’s entire tractate about fasting  when there is a drought (תענית/taanit). That bit of Talmud makes me think fasting is not just about atoning for sin, but also about praying for release and relief. In that sense, fasting is anything but a mournful act -- it is a hopeful act of prayer for better times. But, nonetheless, mournful lament is indeed also clearly part of Tisha B’Av. Perhaps the one is not possible without the other. That is, perhaps one must first lament -- to cry out in pain to God -- before one is ready to ask for release and relief.



I am reminded also of the incredible lessons of the work Minna has been doing writing  Songs of Laments with mental health patients and others. She shared some of this incredible work with some chaplaincy students from our program and others last Thursday. You can get a taste of it too! Just watch this video excerpting the highlights of the workshop she did. It was truly an incredible experience.




May your fast be easy, may your Tisha B’Av be meaningful . . .  and may it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you should find your way through lament to be able to pray with hope.

And may your prayers be answered.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Coney and back!

Minna loves her work as a congregational rabbi, but it is the nature of her work that sometimes unpredictable and intense experiences interrupt one's normal schedule -- especially one's schedule of "rest and restore' time. That's what it's been like lately with multiple funerals in her congregation. So we both felt that this noninterrupted scheduled day off had to be made to really 'count' as fun and relaxing. Well, I am happy to say that I think we really did succeed in making it count, today. We rode our bicycles from a place we're staying at in Soho to Coney Island and back. Our approximate route of some 32 miles is displayed on the left.

It was a fun time that twice included the thrill of being high above the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge (and the non-thrill of having to dodge throngs of tourists up there) as well as a trip to the Coney Island aquarium.

Here's Minna when we got to Coney Island:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Won’t it just happen again? -- silence, Penn State and the exclusion of Jews in CPE

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be one of the powerless dwelling among the powerful. At Penn State, Jerry Sandusky was among the powerful. When accusations of him abusing powerless children started to surface, his fellows among the powerful at Penn State spoke about the accusations only in whispers. They wanted to handle it quietly without risking a public discussion. And, so, amid the secrecy, the abuse went on for years.

Silence stifles change and perpetuates damaging uses of power. Dialogue and discussion make change and healing possible. Leaders have an ethical obligation to hear the voices of the minorities among them -- not just in private, but in public forums so all among the majority and minorities can participate in a dialogue.

I am proud to be a member of the ACPE -- the Association for Clinical

Pastoral Education. We are the leaders in educating clergy and chaplains about how to provide spiritual care and comfort for the ill, suffering and dying. It’s holy work sustained by holy values. But we are not living up to those holy -- and ethical -- values when we exclude a minority among us from the table.

That is what the ACPE has done by scheduling its next annual conference on the holiday of Shavuot -- it has excluded Jews from the table by making it impossible for many of us to attend the conference.

And this exclusion is not some isolated error. It is a repeated event: Three out of the last seven conferences have conflicted with Jewish observance.

And -- perhaps most egregiously -- the ACPE proposes to deal with this violation without dialogue. They have sent out a statement that essentially says, we apologize and now let’s just move on. There is no invitation to dialogue about this, either with with the Jewish members of the ACPE or among the wider ACPE membership. Nobody came to talk to us -- us Jews -- before this statement apparently ending the matter was issued.

Nobody came to talk to us. Nobody came to talk to us about what it means to us to have a conference scheduled on one of our Holy Days. Nobody came to us to ask us what Shavuot is or how we observe it.

The statement (which I have included in full, below) seems to indicate that its writers think they know what Shavuot is about. They write:

For this particular time of Shavuot we are thankful for the revelation of the Torah and the Moses Sinai experience.  We are also grateful for the rich lessons afforded to us at the readings about Ruth and the reciting of the Ten Commandments.

If somebody had come to talk to me -- a Jew, a rabbi ordained in the Conservative movement, a certified full ACPE supervisor and the designated convener of the Jewish Supervisors Network in the ACPE -- and asked me what it meant to have a conference scheduled on Shavuot, I doubt I would have mentioned Ruth or the Ten Commandments. It is, frankly, deeply insulting to see others reducing a holy part of my tradition to a few things one could have found out simply by doing a Wikipedia search.

If they had come to me, I probably would simply have expressed shock that the conference had been scheduled in a way that I could not attend. In no way is it a salve to my hurt to know that the majority religious culture knows I also have the Book of Ruth and the Ten Commandments somewhere in my tradition. Following ancient practice, I am one of the Jews who -- as a central part of my spiritual practice -- does not travel or perform work on Shabbat or biblically ordained holidays. When you schedule a four-day conference hundreds of miles from my home that conflicts with three days of holiday and Shabbat then there is no way I can be there. It only adds to my pain for you to say that my holy tradition provides some “rich lessons” related to Ruth and the Ten Commandments.

The Jewish Supervisors Network has written a letter to the ACPE leadership expressing outrage and asking for action. The letter asks for a meeting with the ACPE leadership, and, perhaps more importantly, that the leadership share the letter with the full ACPE membership. We need to have a discussion about where we want to be as an organization. Are we living up to our values? What do these repeated dynamics say about us? Do we really practice multicultural competency when we fail to ask the ‘other’ about his or her own experience, beliefs and practices? Are we following our founding doctrine of treating the ‘other’ as a living human theological document?

We Jews are a very small people. In the entire world, there are only maybe 13 million of us. We are small, but we share many ideas and texts with two very large religions, one of which -- Christianity -- is very much the majority religion in the United States. Our shared links with Islam and Christianity can be a source of pride for us, but can also a source of anxiety. There always lurks the possibility of supersessionism -- the possibility that the majority culture will take some elements of our tradition, make them their own and then claim there is no need for the Jews to remain as a distinct people and faith. My fear of being swallowed up by the majority was raised by the ACPE’s statements about valuing the lessons of Ruth and the Ten Commandments. I am not just a source of lessons for you. I am an individual. I come from a particular faith tradition. I am among those from my faith tradition who are committed to preserving it as a distinctive and particular religious expression and community -- even as I seek dialogue, engagement and fellowship with other people of faith.

I am sure that some who read this may think it was a stretch for me to mention the Penn State abuses in this blog post that is primarily about the experience of Jews in the ACPE. But I underscore again what the point of connection is -- silence is what allows oppressive power structures to continue. It -- whatever “it” is -- is just going to happen again and again if we do not have broad discussions about the uses of power and the role of minorities and the powerless. I certainly do not accuse any leader in the ACPE of intentionally oppressing the Jews -- but I do want to bring to the broader awareness of the full ACPE membership that this is indeed what the result of ACPE policy and practice is.

The leadership claims the meeting -- a full 10 months away -- cannot be rescheduled. Really? Isn’t making it possible for the Jews to attend worth it? Or are you just going to acknowledge the role of the absent Jews by reading the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the meeting?

***********************

Here is the full text of the ACPE statement, which went out to the membership by email on July 11:

Dear ACPE Community--particularly our Jewish ACPE Members,

The National Conference Committee of the ACPE has just been alerted to the fact that our annual meeting to be held in Indianapolis during May 15-18, 2013 has been regrettably scheduled during the Holy period of Shavuot.  It is with great sadness that this has occurred.

Year in and year out we work with multiple dates and multiple schedules of hotel availability all the while doing our best to avoid sacred dates and other holidays. We then field bids from the hotels before deciding on a site. This particular conflict during the 2013 meeting slipped by us.  The sincerest apology to our community is not enough.  We hope to learn from this unintended mishap and be better persons and planners going forward.

While we cannot at this time change our mistake, we are hopeful that we can draw positive attention to this particular religious holy day and to accentuate other holy days when they come into close proximity to our meetings.  Religious traditions are the roots of our movement.  We enjoy the rich blessings of growth and support because of the courage of others to bring holy living into our cultures.  For this particular time of Shavuot we are thankful for the revelation of the Torah and the Moses Sinai experience.  We are also grateful for the rich lessons afforded to us at the readings about Ruth and the reciting of the Ten Commandments.

For this upcoming meeting and going forward the National Conference Committee will redouble our efforts to make religious traditions a critical center of our activity and where we can, we will become even more sensitive to the needs of our community in relationship to religious schedules.

Sincerely,

Robin and George

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Small deaths in the little, big city


She was only three years old when a hit-and-run pickup truck took her life on Thursday. After Shabbat services today, Minna and I went to the corner where she died -- 10th and Cotton here in Reading, PA. It was overwhelming to see the dozens of candles and stuffed animals that people have left there in sympathy for the family's loss of little Ja'Lexy Bobet.

I don't know the details of why the pickup driver apparently ran the stop sign at that corner. But I do know that pedestrian safety provisions are almost non-existent here in Reading. Dozens if not hundreds of people -- including children (and sometimes, me) -- walk every day across the Penn Street bridge over the Schuylkill river. At the busy highway ramps for the Rt. 422 cloverleaf by the bridge there are neither stop signs nor traffic lights of any kind -- nor are there crosswalks or even "watch for pedestrian" signs. Pedestrians are expected to scramble like rats to avoid being killed. Is it a coincidence that most of those pedestrians are people of color from the impoverished neighborhoods of inner-city Reading? Would we allow this "rat scramble" if these were white, middle-class kids crossing busy highway ramps? Would little Ja'Lexy be alive today if there was a culture of pedestrian safety in Reading instead of the car-is-king -- at least for those who can afford to own them -- culture that we do have?

Reading, amid its decades-long economic decline, has become something of a forgotten city, but recently even the New York Times has started to recognize that the plight of Reading's impoverished is emblematic of wider problems across the nation. The lastest is the layoff of around 200 teachers because of cuts in funding from the state government. We are so quick today to brand inner-city schools  like Reading's as "failing", but how can they be expected to succeed when we starve these most needy districts, while students in wealthier areas can enjoy small class sizes and access to computers?

Poverty, which is so common in this small city that has been labeled the nation's poorest, can affect people in so many ways, even leading to death. Ja'Lexy is not the only child whose life has been lost recently. About a month ago, a Reading High school student -- Jamie Escobar --  followed his best friend in leaping off a pedestrian bridge over the Schuykill. The friend knew how to swim, but Jamie did not. His drowned body was not found until two weeks later.

Every time I bicycle around the Schuykill in warm weather these days, I feel a pain in my heart when I watch people splashing in its rapidly moving waters. I want to yell at them: Do you know how to swim? Do you know what happened to Jamie Escobar? Why don't you go to a swimming pool?

But I say nothing. Unlike in my neighborhood, inner-city Reading does not have a public swimming pool. And many people do not have air conditioning. Or cars to go out into the countryside. And so they splash in the Schuykill.

Are these just "small deaths", the loss of Ja'Lexy and Jamie, not worth caring about? I think not. These are preventable deaths. Deaths of people who were loved. Deaths that left people behind in tears.

The truth is that poverty kills -- and there are things we can do to prevent that. When we think of addressing poverty in this country, we usually think of big government programs like welfare and food stamps. But we should not forget that even many small things can address the ills of poverty. A public pool, or even just painting a crosswalk on the street. But the biggest change must come in our hearts. When we drive by something as clearly deadly to human life as the unmarked pedestrian crossings by the Penn Street bridge, we should see the walking humans there not as mere obstacles in our paths, but as humans just like us and the people we love.

We just have to stop just driving on. Ja'Lexy and Jamie deserve that.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Two bridges!

I, unfortunately, have not been doing much bike riding, lately. But this afternoon I got out my NYC bike and took it for a pleasant spin over the Williamsburg Bridge and then back over the Manhattan and NYU. It was my first time riding over the Manhattan, I believe. Very fun in the cool spring weather (=no sweating) and with the bright sunshine gleaming off the East River.

While in one of the Hasidic neighborhoods in Williamsburg, I spotted this building. At first, the V-shaped pattern looked to me like the fire escapes on the outside of the old, giant movie houses of lore. Then I realized that these were balconies, not stairs -- and that they're staggered pattern is almost surely so each is exposed to at least some sky (which means that a proper sukkah -- they have to be exposed to the sky -- could be erected there).

Of course, we are quite a way to Sukkot! Pesach is much (much!) closer.

Hope you are enjoying the spring and that you will have a great -- and kasher! -- Pesach.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bringing a craftsman into the Huppah

A week ago past Sunday, I had the great joy of becoming married. But – as is so often true at times if joy – thoughts of those who could not be there arose as well, especially of my father, Bernard Abrams of blessed memory, and his sister, Bryna Krakow of blessed memory, both of whom we lost to cancer too young.

The Torah portion the day before included a description of the construction of elements of the Mishkan (or Tabernacle) – the great portable shelter the Israelites had for their worship during their time in the desert. As I prepared to speak, I looked up at the talit in the air that had been made above us into another form of portable shelter – a wedding huppah – by wooden poles and the four friends we had holding them. Inspired by the holiness of this special, yet temporary, shelter, I talked of the Mishkan's menorah, beaten of a single piece of gold by the quintesential craftsman of the Jewish tradition, Bezalel.

My father had also been a craftsman, although of a different sort than Bezalel. He was trained as a mechanical engineer (at RPI and MIT), but worked most of his career as a software engineer. He was fascinated by how things work, and was especially curious about systems of human cooperation and interaction. He loved technology, a love he has passed onto me.

He would have been fascinated to watch Bezalel work on the Menorah, the great candelabra of the Mishkan. The Torah (Ex. 25:31) tells us that, while it was made of a single piece of gold, it had many elements – including its base, its seven branches, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms. That is, while it was made from a block of one thing, it looked like it had many separate things.

Issac Luria, the great kabbalist, wrote about the Menorah in a text I was recently studying with Minna (and that was assigned in a class I'm taking with Elliot Wolfson). Luria understands Bezalel's means of constructing the Menorah as a metaphor for how God constructed the world: That, while the world appears to be constructed of many separate things – and this indeed is true! – it is also true that everything in the world is not only connected, but is, in fact, constructed of one thing.

My father would have loved this beautiful metaphor. He loved to try and break down the things we see in the world into their component pieces so he could better understand how they worked and fit together. He loved the technology that gives us the modern life we enjoy. But there's another thing he passed down to me – that it is also true that there is a higher truth. A truth that involves the holiness that God has given us. A truth that helps direct us to the things that are truly of most importance.

Certainly, under that huppah with Minna as I spoke, I was reminded of how she is the most important thing in my life and that the bond between us is connected to that higher reality of which we are all part. And I was reminded of how I miss my father.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that you should find love – and wholeness – wherever you go.


**************

PS If you want to try and learn the Luria text (challenging!) see the arrow on pg. 257 .


What to do when we know -- the cry of Florida, the cry of Cumru

As our great holiday commemorating our release from slavery in Egpyt approaches, it is a good time to ask ourselves what freedom means in our time and where can we find the struggle for it. Of course, there are no shortage of places around the world where people are struggling against violence and oppression. We read about Tibetians in such despair over Chinese government oppression that they are setting themselves on fire. A viral internet video raises our awareness about the enslavement and murder of children in Uganda. And, of course, it is impossible to turn on the television news right now without hearing that we may have come to a time in this country where a certain group of people can't walk to a convenience store in the rain without being pursued like an animal and killed by someone supposedly charged with protecting others.

But just as the Haggadah of our Passover seder challenges us by asking us to imagine that it is not just the distant Israelites who were redeemed from Egypt – but also our very selves – we must challenge ourselves to wonder whether there is oppression much closer to home than Florida or Uganda, oppression that it might be quite challenging for us to acknowledge and to do something about.

The biblical account (Ex. 2:23-25) tells us how God comes to choose the time for the redemption. It's a three-step process. First, the Israelites cry out to God from the pain of their bondage, and God hears this groaning. Second, God looks upon the people and sees. Finally, God knows (ויידע אלוהים).

It is only after this third step – the knowing – that action happens. I am not sure whether we – as a nation – have reached the state of knowing with the Trayvon Martin case. But we have certainly entered the states of hearing and of seeing in an extraordinary way. When people of all ages and colors express solidarity with the cause of a young black man by donning hoodies as part of an 'I am Trayvon Martin' campaign, we can see that something unprecedented is happening. We may be moving closer to being able to see everybody around us as human beings – and not to segregate some of them as merely dangerous animals just because of how they appear to us.

But I'm not sure that even those hearing and seeing steps are happening in Berks County, Pennsylvania where I live. Less than two months ago a 65-year old man used a “stand your ground” law similar to the one in Florida to claim self-defense when he shot and killed a 16-year old not far from my home. But unlike in Florida – where there has been a mass outcry to investigate the actions of the shooter, George Zimmerman – there has been no such outcry in the killing of Julius Johnson in a little patch of Cumru township by a fishing dock. The authorities haven't even seen fit to release the name of the shooter, not to mention release details of why they accepted his account. I don't know what to call it but a coverup.

But what really breaks my heart is that there has been no one in the community who has risen up to demand justice in the Julius Johnson case they way people are demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Quite the opposite, with one newspaper columnist, for example, defending the shooter's actions and the “stand your ground law by concluding a column with these words:

"Thankfully, in this country you have the right to bear arms and defend yourself."

Where are the community leaders in the city of Reading and in the surrounding Berks county? Who will cry out for justice? Who will help us hear and to see? Who might lead us even farther – to know?

And it's not just young men in hoodies who might be subject to vigilante justice if they're out walking. Shockingly, an innocent 58-year old man was assaulted less than a week ago in nearby Exeter township while out for his nightly walk by some neighborhood men under the impression – like Zimmerman was – that they were making their neighborhood safer. In this case, it was rumors posted on Facebook about a man stalking their neighborhood that sparked their attack (it turned out that the person who actually led to the suspicions was a man in his 70s with a tendency to sift through his neighbors garbage).

Luckily, there were no guns on either side in the Exeter incident and nobody died (although the victim did suffer broken ribs and had to go to the hospital).

The “stand your ground” laws are a unnecessary tragedy. Up until 2005, almost every place in the United States had the same standard for self-defense in public – if you felt threatened, you had a duty to retreat before using deadly force to protect yourself. It worked. There was no need to change it.

But ideology can lead to bad decisions. Powerful gun manufacturers and gun rights groups were looking for another victory in their ideological struggle to turn American into an armed camp no matter what the cost in human life. And so now we have these terrible laws in states across the country. Trayvon Martin might be alive today if George Zimmerman did not feel so empowered by the “stand your ground” law in his state.

The real problem, however, is not about guns. It's about attitudes. We live in an us-and-them culture. If we think someone is not part of our 'us' – maybe because they're wearing a hoodie or because of their skin color, or maybe because of something we read on Facebook – we dismiss them as other. We think we don't have to care about them. We think we don't have to do anything to help them or protect them. We just want to be safe in our own castle or our own gated neighborhood.

It has to stop. We have to start listening and seeing. And once we've done that, we need to move onto knowing. We need to fight to bring all our people out from the enslavement caused by hate and make this one country that serves all its people.

Do you know?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NYU student leaders oppose NYPD surveillance of Muslims

The following email went out to NYU students, today:

TO: Members of the NYU Community

FROM: Albert Cotugno, Chairperson, Student Senators Council

RE: NYPD Surveillance of NYU Students

Recent news reports have revealed that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been engaged in the prolonged and secret surveillance of Muslim college students for the past several years. In these reports, New York University was listed as one of the schools targeted, although specific details as to the nature of the surveillance at NYU have yet to be released.

The SSC echoes the concern of many New Yorkers about the existence of this surveillance program. We acknowledge and share the rightful outrage that many of our students have expressed. We strongly oppose both the invasion of an individual's privacy based solely on his or her religion and the violation of constitutional rights under the guise of national security. The SSC stands united with our fellow students against this breach of their rights to freedom, security, and safety. Students should not have to live with the fear that forwarding an email, inviting other students to club events, attending social events, or participating in legal protests will be cause for police suspicion. NYU must remain a safe place where students feel free to learn, grow, and express themselves freely.

While the specific details of surveillance of NYU members have yet to come forth, we encourage any students with knowledge about specific incidents of surveillance to report them to the University immediately.

We call upon our elected officials to take steps to safeguard the fundamental rights of every New York resident and especially our students. Further investigation into the details of the surveillance must be undertaken.

In the interest of transparency and justice, we also call on the NYPD to release all documents related to the unjust surveillance of NYU students.

Finally, we call on the NYU administration to continue its support of the NYU community by actively working to uncover the extent of the surveillance conducted on its students and standing aggressively and publicly against these shameful practices.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Revisiting parallel process – a “hidden curriculum” in pastoral education?

One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog is one I wrote in 2006 about something called parallel process. It's one of the most mysterious and yet most powerful concepts we have in pastoral education. Even though it's not part of our official educational outcomes, I think it's so central to our field that it's impossible for our students to understand what we do without having some kind of idea what parallel process is. Yet, we only rarely try and explain it to beginning students. I'm starting to wonder if that's a huge mistake that explains why our students sometimes find pastoral education to be so mysterious – or sometimes even intrusive and hurtful.

Let me explain. As Kathleen Pakos-Rimer points out in her excellent 2005 study of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, our students know from the moment they look at a standard CPE application that self-awareness is an important value in CPE. The application, for example, asks them to write essays that “provide a reasonably full account of your life, including important events, relationships with people who have been significant to you, and the impact these events have had on your development” (pg. 48). And, the student, if they should read our official, hoped-for educational outcomes for CPE, might even learn that we in CPE think that the reason it's important to build this self-awareness is so we can understand how our background and key life events affect how we act with patients and other suffering people. But what the student could never figure out from the written standards alone is why we think building self-awareness – and being able to share that awareness in the moment with others – is so important that we spend more time on it in the seminar room than anything else, and we evaluate students on it (we call it, “being present” or “being engaged”) when they appear before committees. This is where parallel process comes in.

On the broadest level, parallel process simply means that what happens in one relationship in a person's life gets reflected somehow in other relationships. Think of the old story about the man who gets yelled at by his boss and then comes home and kicks his dog – the abuse in the boss-man relationship gets acted out in the dog-man relationship. This doesn't just happen with bad things like abuse. As Care Theorist Nel Noddings argues, children who are treated in a truly caring way by their teachers and parents tend to grow up to be caring and moral adults.

In CPE, we use parallel process to assess some of the pretty demanding ideas we have about how our chaplain-students should act with patients. That is, supervisor-educators like myself want our students to take on the incredibly demanding task of forming deep relationships with patients amid the challenges of encountering the scariness of death, suffering and pain, as well as the challenge of having limited time to form those relationships. And we think that some of the toughest issues students have with forming relationships with patients will also show up somehow in their interactions with us, their teachers – that's parallel process.

It's also something that might be called part of a hidden curriculum of CPE – things about our educational process that our students might not be fully aware are a part of this game. That's unfortunate because students who feel like we're involving them in a game where they don't know the rules are likely to feel that they are being treated unfairly and that the education we are offering is not serving their interests. Worse, they may experience us as a bunch of intrusive emotion voyeurs – who just want them to share the most intimate details of their lives because it entertains us.

So, it's imperative that we raise our awareness about what parts of the CPE curriculum might seem hidden to students – and to find ways to explain those things so they are no longer hidden (assuming, that is, that we decided we want to keep these once-hidden things as part of CPE).

Parallel process may be one of those hidden things. But, unfortunately, it's not the only one. Pakos-Rimer identifies five implicit – or hidden – outcomes in CPE including the “ability to engage the person in the patient without violating professional boundaries.” But what does that mean to engage the person? We who are steeped in the hidden curriculum of CPE have a fairly well developed idea about what engagement means, but do our students share this? When, a few years back, I was sitting before a committee of veteran supervisors for an hour asking to be allowed to begin the first steps towards joining their ranks, I was nervous for many minutes and was desperately trying to give them the 'right' answers to their questions. If I had stayed in that nervous, desperately-trying-to-say-the-right-thing state, the committee would have failed me for sure. But, then came a time of dramatic shift – I started to talk about one of the greatest fears in my life and tears came to my eyes.

In another field, showing emotion in an interview-type setting like this probably would have been a disaster for me. But in CPE we value engagement in an interview (because we understand that good pastoral care is about true engagement and because the doctrine of parellel process tells us that if a person can engage before a committee he or she can also probably engage with a patient). I knew about that value when I was before the committee shedding tears, so I realized in that moment that I had moved from failing this committee appearance to succeeding at it – not because of the tears alone, but because I was no longer afraid of what these people would think of me. I already then knew enough about the CPE hidden curriculum to know how the committee would experience this – they would see my as engaging them with my genuine person.

Parallel process is why this makes sense – if you believe in parallel process than what the committee saw happen between me and them in that moment tells them something about what I was capable of being with students and with patients. That is, if I could show them I could experience intense emotion with them – and yet still be able to retain enough control and self-awareness to be able to rationally discuss with them what was happening for me – than that indicated I could also experience intense emotion with patients, but still have the control of a skilled professional. (This is closely related to something that Pakos-Rimer calls well-bounded empathy – where you can, to paraphrase Carl Rogers, enter the experience of the patient as if you are in his or her shoes, without ever forgetting the as if condition.)

Of course – as many a student has complained – sitting with a patient is not the same thing as sitting before a committee of veteran professionals. But we supervisors in CPE – rightly so in my view – believe that the basic issues of entering into and maintaining relationships will be largely the same wherever the student finds opportunity for relationship. And, most importantly, we believe that the essence of pastoral care is about entering into relationship with the person we are caring for – genuine relationships that are deepened because we are able to share some fundamental part of our core being amid them.

But it's not enough to just tell the student that this is just the way it is and get used to it. We have to explain for them as best we can how we believe our educational process works. And before we can do that, we need to be able to be able to explain it to ourselves. Here is the opportunity – and need – for research. We need to define our terms in a disciplined way. Pakos-Rimer has contributed to this by exploring, for example, what we mean by empathy and why we might think it needs to be well-bounded. Another excellent work – Judith Ragsdale's 2008 study of the education of CPE supervisors like myself – made another important contribution: providing support for why a program of continuous spiritual and professional self-examination might be particularly important in our field.

And other terms that we professionals in the field throw around as if they are clear need to be more carefully defined (like integration). We also have expectations that may be culturally determined – like our expectation that chaplain-students develop a greater sense of autonomy and personal/professional authority so that they are more able to engage in what we call self-supervision, self-assessment and self-care. When students come before us for evaluation, we expect them to be able to demonstrate a strong sense of their own authority – and to be able to even take charge with us in discussing their learning. We might even expect them to resist being interviewed – to resist just providing answers to our questions – and to, instead, engage us by sharing their own deepest, unanswered questions about their own work and to try and use us as resources in wondering about how those questions might be answered.

Not everyone believes that all the self-examination CPE professionals engage in is actually necessary to become a skilled spiritual caregiver. I am not sure that everyone in the Jewish Healing movement, for example, believes in the necessity of the level of self-examination we do. And there are alternative training models in the Jewish world, certainly, for students to learn pastoral care. At Yeshiva University, for example, there is an emphasis on what is called positive psychology – an approach that does not call for either the chaplain or the patient to explore their emotional and spiritual wounds. If CPE is to remain the dominant spiritual-care training model we must answer the questions and challenges raised by these alternative approaches and perhaps, even, adopt aspects of them.

I believe that we can meet these challenges. And parallel process is at the core of what we have to contribute to the world of spiritual care and beyond. By forming model relationships of true caring and compassion with ourselves and our students, we can – through a giant chain of parallel processes – affect nothing less than every other relationship in the world. Like ripples in a pond from a single pebble, we can spread peace and wholeness one relationship at a time. This is what we hope to prepare our chaplain students for – not just so they can learn to minister to individual patients one at a time, but so that they can become forces for greater caring and compassion everywhere they go.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that we shall all know peace, soon, speedily and in our days.


********

Parallel process, by the way, is not an invention of pastoral educators – but, rather, something we borrowed from the filed of psychoanalysis. One interesting question is why the concept of parallel process has remained so central in the field of pastoral education while it has become less important in the field of pscychoanalysis.


Monday, March 05, 2012

Cargo dream ride

I spotted this Trek Transport on the streets of Manhattan on Friday. Note the huge, built-in front rack and the side cargo "wide loaders" on the rear that fold up and down. Very cool. I didn't know Trek had got into the longtail business.

I want one!

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creation in education, creation in faith -- a paradigm shift

Our stories -- the stories we choose to tell -- make us who we are, and the way we choose to tell stories tells others who we are and who we most hope to be. The Jewish tradition has two great central foundational stories -- 1) the inspiring tale of redemption from bondage that is the Exodus from Egypt, and 2) the creation of the world (and humankind) from the formless and void. Both foundational stories have God as a central actor -- either God as redeemer or God as creator. In the Jewish tradition, we understand both of these roles as involving -- at their most fundamental level -- God's compassion for the human being.

But one of these stories can be more troubling in our globalized, technological world which features both the deadly high tech of atom bombs and the deadly low tech of suicide bombers. We hope for a world where a sense of what is in common between all of us will lead us closer to a world of peace. But the Exodus story, and the subsequent giving of the Torah at Sinai, emphasizes difference -- how God loves the people Israel in particular and how God gives them this particular book that is their own very special text.

So, while the Exodus story continues to inspire, I think that -- in the Jewish world and beyond -- it is the story of creation in the book of Genesis that is becoming a more central text for religious leaders and thinkers who are interested in peace and who are interested in battling hate. The story there tells us that all humans were created in the image of God. From this, thinkers learn not only of the infinite value of each human life, but also of the seemingly paradoxical concept that each human is unique and that each human is somehow the same as all others (as we all come from the holy mold, and we are all in some way a reflection of The Most Holy). The later paradox -- the fact that we are all each completely unique, but somehow also very much the same -- is at the heart of this Creationist paradigm shift: to embrace our commonness, we must embrace, and seek out, how different we each are from each other.

Although I know this kind of message most from the Jewish world -- I heard a wonderful lecture on the human as created in the image of God from Yitz Greenberg at a retreat a few Shavuots ago -- I was very pleased to hear it also from a Christian leader who addressed a pastoral care (and diversity) conference I was at last week. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, a professor of pastoral care and theology at Emory University, said "the Church is born diverse" in framing his keynote address at the annual ACPE conference last Thursday. That is, Dr. Lartey was holding up the image of creation in the Book of Genesis -- an image where God brings forth every kind of living creature -- as the central one, both for his theology as a whole and for his understanding of how we should cope with difference. For Lartey, difference (or diversity) is not just something to be tolerated. It is something to embraced. It is something to be moved towards with passion and energy: "It's not enough to have multiculturalism," he said. "Often we are satisfied if there are representatives of many" different types of people in a gathering we are at, he said. He continued, by saying that we might think "it's sufficient to pat ourselves on the back and say there is a person of color there." But, he went on, "we need to push beyond that . . . to a deeper sense of interaction. . . . In this struggle, we must recognize and pay attention to differences in our styles of learning and our personalities."

As an inspiration for this vision of embracing, not just tolerating, diversity, Lartey cited in particular a Jewish thinker -- Emmanuel Levinas, who presents a particularly powerful articulation of the paradox in creation (of the human in the image of God) I cited above. Levinas speaks of our alterity -- of our fundamental otherness and understands ethics as being rooted not in thought, but in relationship, in the 'face-to-face' relationship possible between two human beings.

Lartey -- in line with a lot of the relationalist thought about personality from contemporary psychoanalysis -- says that the diversity we should embrace is not just between us and others. It is also within our own selves -- "within us and not only without us is diversity," he said. "We ourselves are complex mixtures of heritage . . . this too is normative."

As educators, Lartey says, these kinds of ideas command us to do anything but form our students into our own image. "I should not try and make them me -- they should try and be the best" that they can uniquely become.

Education is at the heart of my own interests and my own hopes for contributing towards moving us to a world of peace. The two basic themes of 1) the centrality of relationship, and 2) the necessity of embracing the uniqueness and difference between us are key to everything I've been thinking about.

I have written very little on this blog since October when a long, arduous process to becoming certified as a full supervisor in the ACPE came to an end (successfully, I'm happy to say). I haven't been sure how I wanted to use it (or if I should transition to another means of publically sharing thoughts, like Twitter). But I've decided to re-embrace this blog as a kind of public journal about the reading and thinking I am doing about what I might do for my dissertation (I'm in a PhD program at NYU in Education and Jewish studies).

This week, I'm reading a bit about the Ethics of Caring as articulated by Nel Noddings, a feminist and philosopher of education who is often compared to Carol Gilligan, a groundbreaking feminist psychologist and researcher who is now a professor at NYU and who was the teacher of one of my favorite NYU professors, Niobe Way. I haven't read Noddings before, but I hope I'll find something there that speaks to me and that I can write about here.

It's good to be writing and sharing again -- now to the reading!

____________________

On this issue of creation (as opposed to the redemption from Egypt) it is interesting to note, by the way, that Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) has always had creation as its central image. . . . It's interesting to wonder whether the growing interest in Kabbalah is connected to the trends I identified above about the pursuit of peace as creating a greater interest in the creation story as a central spiritual image.

I have been studying Kabbalah here at NYU with Elliot Wolfson. Yesterday, while studying a 16th century Lurianic text on creation, Wolfson introduced an interesting idea to me: It is not so much that the Kabbalists -- in spinning their intricate visions of the creation process -- were trying to describe creation itself. Rather, what they were really trying to do was explain the world as the saw it -- a world that is full of difference and diversity. How could such a world exist if it all came from the absolute Oneness that is God?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Blood covered up -- a death in Cumru Township

His name was Julius Johnson. Other than the fact that he was only 16 and that he was clearly a boy in trouble we know almost nothing about him. The local newspaper has never run a picture of him. They have never talked to his mom or his friends or anyone else who might be grieving for him. They've never asked what he might have done that was good in his short life.

Every time I pass by the riverfront spot where he died on a bike trail less than a mile from my house my heart breaks. It's not that I defend what he did that day. As a not-so-young bicycle rider, it's very disturbing to me that a trio of teens would attack people like they assaulted the 65-year old bike rider who shot Johnson dead and wounded a 15-year old companion of Johnson in the neck. (A third, unwounded, teen is currently incarcerated.)

But a life was lost that day. The local paper – the Reading Eagle – has not seen fit to ask any questions about that young life. The local authorities quickly ruled the shooting justified – so quickly that they could not possibly have done any investigating besides just deciding to believe the shooter's account. And then the authorities took the very unusual step of withholding the shooter's identity. The paper – forsaking their duty to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” – has not asked any questions about why this unusual step was taken. Was the shooter a relative or a politically connected friend of the legal authorities? Did he have a history of using deadly violence? Was there any kind of delay after the first shot was fired – a delay during which the (unarmed, by the way) teens would have had a chance to withdraw? I don't know the answer to any of these questions – because the paper not seen fit to ask them.

The only kind of questions the paper has chose to ask could be paraphrased as "how come the authorities didn't make sure those young animals were caged up that day." One columnist for the paper wrote in his column:

You live by the sword, you die by the sword. When the teens decided to attack that man, they put themselves at risk.
Maybe, but I'd like to point out that these kids were not carrying any swords that day. Or knives. Or guns. Or any weapon of any kind.

The attitude of this columnist illustrates what's most wrong with America today. It's what's indicated when the words "I don't care about the poor" can so easily roll off the tongue of a presidential candidate. It's the belief that there's a "us" and a "them", and I don't need to think about "them" very much, especially if they're poor or a different color than me. It's the opposite of thinking we're all in it together.

Julius Johnson may very well have been a dangerous criminal. But he was also a boy. He was also a son. He had a mother (one who had called the authorities on the day of his death because she was concerned he was not in school). It's not right to treat the loss of his life like it was nothing more than the disposal of some unwanted garbage.

We should, instead, understand that loss as a tragedy – one that should cause us to ask some deep and troubling questions. We should stop covering up what happened. We all need the truth.

May the Holy Blessed One comfort his mourners.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Still broken -- too many seeking certification as chaplaincy educators are turned down

Less than a month ago, I had reason to celebrate when I was approved as a full supervisor in the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, something I had spent years working hard for. But tonight I feel sadness in hearing that some of my colleagues were turned down for certification at a meeting of this association -- the leading American group for the training of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers -- in Atlanta.

Any healthy education and certification process is designed for its members to move in an orderly and predictable way towards completion. There will always be some who are not able to finish and drop out for one reason or another. But they should be a small minority; sadly, this is not true in our association. Too many are turned down. The pain of this experience -- of working so hard to prepare and traveling to a distant city to appear in person before a committee -- is substantial for most who are turned down. It's a suffering that is unnecessary; it does not help us create better supervisors.

I pray that those who were turned down in Atlanta will find healing and the strength to "get back up" and continue to pursue their professional goal. And I pray our association will find its way towards collectively seeing the wisdom in reforming this broken certification process.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Filling the gaps -- the essence of Midrash

A couple of quotes from Daniel Boyarin on the nature of Midrash:
The text of the Torah is gapped and dialogical, and into the gaps the reader slips, interpreting and completing the text in accordance with the codes of his or her culture. . . . Midrash is a portrayal of the reality which the rabbis perceived in the Bible through their ideologically colored eyeglasses.
What I like about these quotes (from pg. 14-15 of his seminal Intertextuality and the reading of Midrash) -- despite the fact that they're just plain wonderfully clear! -- is that it opens the way towards an understanding of Midrash that can span both the ancient product of our rabbis and today's efforts to create contemporary Midrash. It puts the text of the Torah at its center and characterizes an important key aspect of that text that has shaped the way the Jews have related to their Holy texts through the millennia -- by charging into the 'gaps' to (incredibly!) both preserve the integrity of the ancient words, while also infusing them with free and contemporary meaning.

I am grateful to have been assigned to again read these words of Boyarin. One of the great gifts of this semester of my doctoral work is that I am privileged to study with two of the greatest contemporary readers of ancient Jewish texts -- Jeffrey Rubenstein and Elliot Wolfson. I'm enjoying it!