Thursday, May 07, 2015
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
So, riding through the Hudson River Park this morning on a CitiBike
|Minna on the CitiBike|
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.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Monday, November 05, 2012
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.
Friday, August 31, 2012
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.
Friday, July 27, 2012
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.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Monday, July 23, 2012
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
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.
Robin and George
Saturday, June 16, 2012
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
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
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 .
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
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.