A letter to my 5-year-old

Posted on February 9th, 2017 by

This post was originally published at Huffington Post via a special series from the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. For more information on this please see the statement at the bottom of this post.

Protest sign from a march/rally/protest held on May 1, 2015 in response to the ongoing uprising/unrest in Baltimore after the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray.  Rally organized by Baltimore United for Change, SEIU, and CASA. These signs were printed up and made available to protesters who did not make or bring their own. JMM K2015.2.1

Protest sign from a march/rally/protest held on May 1, 2015 in response to the ongoing uprising/unrest in Baltimore after the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray. Rally organized by Baltimore United for Change, SEIU, and CASA. These signs were printed up and made available to protesters who did not make or bring their own. JMM K2015.2.1

Dear Daughter,

I know sometimes it feels like I’m always away at meetings. For three nights this week alone, I will not be home for dinner with you.

When you get a little older, perhaps I will bring you with me to some of my meetings. For now, I want you to know that even though it means I am not always with you, I do what I do for you. I do it because you deserve everything the world can offer; because you deserve to inherit a just world.

One day, I will have you read the open letter I wrote to God in which I describe the moment that changed the course of my life–our lives–and started me on this specific journey.

Until then, as you watch the work that I do—the meetings for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, for Jews United for Justice, with The Open Church, and the Institute for Islamic, Christian, & Jewish Studies—the persistent, incremental, often thankless time I spend thinking, talking, reading, planning, calling, and crying for justice and fairness, I hope you are learning what it means to be a citizen; I pray you are learning what it means to be a Jew.

I want you to know that I do what I do because I am Jewish, because I feel that God and the world demand it of me. And even as I teach you what is precious to me about our inherited tradition, I want you to know others who work for justice.

I want you to know them as Muslims, Christians, and Unitarians, as Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists. I especially want you to know the Atheists, and yes, the other Jews. You need to understand why I do what I do, even as you see that the Jewish framework that motivates me is not the only one.

When you begin to see what we have in common, and just as importantly, what is distinct for each of us, I believe you will begin to see, as I strive to, what is beautiful in all of us. You will feel what is beautiful in yourself. Our capacity to see the beauty–and pain–in others and feel it in ourselves is the divine working through us; empathy is a gift from God.

God gives us this gift to help us to fulfill God’s command “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20). Justice, My Love, is fairness, but it is more than that. Justice is balance. It is the state of affairs in which everyone gets what they deserve.

Sadly, it is a rare occurrence for far too many people. You will learn, Sweetheart, that it is easy to see when justice is denied to you (even now, you already complain to me when you believe you are the victim of injustice). It can be harder to recognize injustice when it doesn’t affect you directly. What’s worse, sometimes even justice is difficult to recognize or accept if its manifestation means the loss of some privilege.

And that is why God has granted us empathy. The capacity to feel another’s pain is an important step toward recognizing, embracing, and pursuing justice when that justice is not for you.

Do not misunderstand my words. You know, Little One, that I am precise with my language. When I say “empathy,” I mean empathy. I do not mean pity. Pity is not an equitable emotion. If you are feeling pity for someone, you need to examine your heart and do what you can to move past the judgment inherent there. Pity is an emotion based on unequal power, and it does not bring the world closer to the world I want for you.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

President Obama wisely reminded us of the nature of empathy when he invoked the words of To Kill A Mockingbird in his farewell address. He said:

“Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”

This is what I want you to remember from the President’s Atticus-advice: you will never completely understand what another person is feeling, but you must try. To do so, you must believe people when they express their lived experience even when it doesn’t match yours. When you do, you will be practicing empathy, and I believe it will lead you toward justice.

In a very old book known as the Wisdom of the Fathers, or Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon is reported to have said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.” (2:21)

For Rabbi Tarfon, and for me, “work” is the repair of the world. The truth of his pronouncement–both that I cannot expect to complete the task and that I cannot shirk my responsibility to try–resonate for me and through me. It is the wisdom of these words that guide me, day after day, as I grapple with the enormity of the world’s grief and the limits of my own power.

Especially in the face of injustice, in the shadow of bullies, abusers, and bigots, it is easy to feel powerless. The brokenness of the world is daunting. It is overwhelming. But Sweetheart, do not be misled. I am powerful. You are powerful. We are powerful.

I have seen change happen–not earthquakes, but small shifts in attitude, in posture, in acceptance. I have felt the cumulative energy of a room full of people willing to embrace the suffering of others; embrace it and say, “I see that you are in pain and I am diminished by it.”

I do not know if the world I want for you will exist in my lifetime–or yours. I pray that it will even as I fear that it will not. Nevertheless, for your sake, for our neighbors’ sake, for your grandparents’ and your children’s sake, for God’s sake, for my sake, I may not desist.

 

My deepest love always,

Your mother

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

 

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.

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A “Children’s Playground” and “Centre for Adults:” The Story of Baltimore’s Jewish Educational Alliance, 1909-1952 Pt 4

Posted on December 14th, 2016 by

Article by Jennifer Vess. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part IV: The Infant Is Safe

Missed parts 1 – 3? Start from the Beginning.

From the moment of the institution’s founding, the JEA staff focused much of its energy on the children of East Baltimore. Children could learn quickly and were often more willing to learn than their parents. As one historian put it, “not only were they captivating and genuinely responsive, but they were the best candidates for the primary settlement purpose of shaping character through personal influence. The children also offered the most important entrée into the life of the neighborhood.”[1] They were also a source of great concern because they were subject to the influence of people and activities that the JEA board and staff considered disreputable. The JEA’s leaders prided themselves on providing a positive environment, which kept kids off the streets, and more particularly out of jail.

Attention to the needs of children began in infancy at the JEA with a nursery and kindergarten. Before JEA leaders had even settled on an official name, they established a committee for the Kindergarten and the Day Nursery. The nursery cared for children under school age. While the middle-class ideal of the early 1900s painted a picture of men at work and women in the home, both fathers and mothers in East Baltimore often had to work outside of the house to provide for the family. As Lewis Putzel, JEA president, explained in 1913, “The burdened mother will leave here her infant for the day, and know the infant is safe.” For the children, the nursery offered an environment for early learning, including art and Jewish culture among all of the other lessons.[2] The JEA nursery, one of the first in Baltimore, functioned from 1909 until 1952, when the JEA closed.

Mary Roten teaching at the Jewish Educational Alliance nursery school, c. 1930. JMM 1992.231.234

Mary Roten teaching at the Jewish Educational Alliance nursery school, c. 1930. JMM 1992.231.234

Kindergartens were an important innovation championed by reformers and progressive educators in the early twentieth century, and the JEA opened one almost immediately. The goal “throughout the kindergarten term was not to instill knowledge in the child as much as to lead him to observe and think,” the staff explained in 1917, when the school year opened with an impressive 120 students. That year the teachers introduced the idea of adding Montessori materials. Despite the success of the JEA kindergarten, the ultimate goal was to transfer it to the public school system. Progressive-era reformers strove to offer essential services to the working poor, but they believed that the government should eventually take over the running of these essential activities. In 1921 the public school system did take over the administration of the kindergarten though it continued to be operated at the JEA.[3]

As children became older, the JEA endeavored to draw them away from the temptation of less reputable entertainments, especially game rooms and dance halls. The settlement workers took two approaches – providing similar but more wholesome activities at the JEA, and shutting down or cleaning up the neighborhood’s more objectionable enterprises. Though the JEA’s list of committees did not initially include entertainment, by 1911 they had added one. As an alternative to rowdy dance halls, the JEA held dances for neighborhood teenagers and young adults starting in 1909. The JEA offered its own game room where children could play chess and checkers or carom pool, a version of billiards played on a smaller table.

As with settlement houses across the country, the JEA worked to extend its influence throughout the neighborhood, launching campaigns against area bars, game rooms, and dance halls. In 1913 the board formally thanked the liquor license commissioners for closing the Hotel Theodore. Seven years later the JEA aimed its sights at the dance halls. In December 1920 the JEA director proposed that the Association of Neighborhood Workers set out to “devise means of influencing Orchestra Leaders thruout [sic] the City to modify the exceedingly jazzy mode of playing. The Association attributed disorder, in many cases, to the music.” The JEA also campaigned against “disorderly houses” – that is, brothels. JEA director Max Carton organized a community meeting at the Eden Street Synagogue in April 1912 to create a formal protest to present to the Supreme Bench and State’s Attorney of Baltimore in order to have local brothels shut down.[4] The board and staff of the JEA pushed the boundaries of their work beyond the brick walls of their building, trying to create a better environment on a large scale.

The Jackson Club practicing basketball in the JEA gymnasium, c. 1935. JMM 1992.231.146

The Jackson Club practicing basketball in the JEA gymnasium, c. 1935. JMM 1992.231.146

The JEA clubs were perhaps the most popular and frequently remembered of all the activities for children. Under the supervision of an adult advisor the children set up the clubs themselves and ran their meetings according to standard business guidelines, electing officers and keeping minutes. The names of the clubs tell us little about the character of each group though they must have meant something to the boys and girls, names like the Aetna Club, Olivet Club, Champion Club, Harvard Club, Sunshine Club, Harmony Club, Puritan Club, and more. Each club, usually separated by gender and age, organized outings to the country, formed sports teams, and sought to improve its members through literary reports and debates. Long after children became adults, in fact long after the JEA ceased to exist, club members continued to meet in alumni gatherings.

Sports featured prominently in the lives of JEA children. They participated in wrestling, track and field, baseball, and perhaps most important, basketball. JEA teams competed against one another and also against teams citywide. The Alliance Citizen and the Baltimore Jewish Times often followed the JEA’s sports activities, reporting on wins and losses and posting schedules for the community. Games were well-attended, with spectators sometimes running into the hundreds. Reminiscences suggest that everyone had the opportunity to participate, whether they were accomplished athletes or not.  The JEA boys and girls prided themselves on their successes (which were many) on the field or court, but they participated in athletics because they loved them.[5]

Continue to Part V: End of an Era

Notes:

[1] Mina Carson, Settlement Folk, 62.

[2] JEA meeting minutes, November 7, 1909, and November 16, 1921, MS 170, Folders 212 and 213.

[3] JEA meeting minutes, June 5, 1917 and April 6, 1921, MS 170, Folder 213, JMM. On the Progressive goal of expanding government services, see Davis, Spearheads for Reform.

[4] JEA meeting minutes, April 14, 1913, MS 170, Folder 212; resident director report, December 7, 1920, JEA meeting minutes, MS 170, Folder 213; “East Enders Protest,” Baltimore Sun, April 8, 1912, p. 9.

[5] Jobi Zink, “Amateur Jewish Athletes, Then and Now,” Generations (2004): 84-87.

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Another New Year

Posted on October 5th, 2016 by

There are so many ways to count the year. Each of us celebrates at least a half a dozen new years every year. There’s January first, of course. But there’s also a fiscal new year (at the JMM, that is July 1). There’s also your birthday (mine is February 14, in case you were wondering). For folks in school or who teach school or who have kids in school, there’s the first day of the new school year. And then there are the Jewish New Years. There’s the first day of the year, in Nissan (the same month as Passover). And there’s Tu B’Shvat, the “new year for the trees.” And, of course, there is Rosh Hashanah.

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

The “head of the year” is actually the first day of the seventh month. So though we refer to it to our non-Jewish neighbors as the “Jewish New Year,” it’s more nuanced than that. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in his book Seasons of Our Joy speculates, “perhaps it is the head of the year because it is raised toward heaven, away from the earth–while Pesach [in the first month of the year] celebrates a more earthly liberation, the freedom of our bodies” (1-2).

That distinction between the heavenly and the earthly is interesting. Unlike our secular New Year, when we all make resolutions to lose weight or quit smoking or eat healthier, at Rosh Hashanah, we are expected to make a different kind of resolution. Instead of more trips to the gym, we aim for fewer trips to judgement; rather than counting calories, we are meant to count blessings.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a new year, and about human capacity for change. Whether the resolution is to lose 10 pounds or to be kinder, we humans seem nearly incapable of making true and lasting change. On January first and on the first of Tishri, each year, we find ourselves in nearly the exact same situation as the year before. Even as we make the resolutions (or the confessions), we do so knowing that we will falter again–we will be right here next year. We do a dance with ourselves and with the Divine, but in the end, we always fail.

It is a depressing thought as I sit here writing on the third of Tishri.

And yet.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I had the honor of the third Aliyah at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, chanting the blessings before and after the third Torah portion was read. I delivered the blessings as intended, and received greetings from my fellow congregants and the clergy. It was lovely, and I felt truly grateful. But it was a moment as I returned to my place in the congregation that truly dispelled my recent feelings of hopelessness: my four-year-old daughter met me in the aisle, and jumped into my arms, smiling ear to ear.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

As I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, now carrying 36 pounds of joy, love, and limitless potential, I felt something even before I had words for it. Yes, I am in the same place I found myself last year. I am confessing the same sins; mourning the same injustices of the past year; committing in the same way to nearly the same actions as last year. But I am not the same because she is not the same.

I intentionally brought that 4-year-old to the “grown-up” service, because I wanted her to see me fully engaged in synagogue life. I wanted her to see that striving that brings us all back to that place of commitment, year after year.

Seeing the service, the holiday, reflected in her eyes reminded me powerfully of the importance of the journey. I was mourning the destination and lost sight of the beauty of travel. That small voice in my ear “Mommy, I love you!” reminded me that while the destination is worth striving for, if I forget to notice my traveling companions, I can never reach it.

With gratitude to all of you on the road with me, I wish you a Shanah Tovah u’Metucha, a good and a sweet new year.

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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