Of Strangers and Slaves

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by

On this third day of Passover, I’m thinking a lot about strangers.

I have the great good fortune of being among the inaugural cohort of “community leaders” in the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS)’s year-long Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative. Earlier this month, as a part of this initiative, Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin did a workshop with the community leaders (there are about 25 of us, each of us an early- or mid-career non-profit professional who self identifies with one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths of the ICJS’s name) and then a public lecture. The title of both was “Imagining Justice in Baltimore: A Jewish Perspective.”

Bezalel style seder plate, silver plated brass with scalloped edge, purchased from Rabbi Benjamin Dinovitz of Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, c. 1930. JMM 1994.197.001

Bezalel style seder plate, silver plated brass with scalloped edge, purchased from Rabbi Benjamin Dinovitz of Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, c. 1930. JMM 1994.197.001

In the several hours I spent in Professor Gopin’s presence, he posited repeatedly that the most important commandment in the Torah is to “love the stranger as yourself.” He pointed out that this commandment appears more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Gopin’s framework, the significance of loving the stranger (separate from the “neighbor”), is in connecting with the other, whomever that is. He talked about transgressing boundaries, meeting people where they are, honoring the other human being as a human being, regardless of their behavior. For me, his words gave new resonance to that oft-repeated phrase, “love the stranger as yourself.”

Interestingly, especially with this season’s Seders so recent in my memory, each time we are told to love the stranger in the Torah, it is followed by the reminder “for you were strangers in Egypt” (c.f. Leviticus 19:34 for an example). You were strangers in Egypt it says. But as the Seder artfully reminds us through all 5 senses, we weren’t merely strangers in Egypt. We were slaves.

JMM 1984.023.1047

JMM 1984.023.1047

I haven’t fully teased out this idea, but I am becoming more and more certain that the crux of my imagining justice in Baltimore is in the woefully short distance between “stranger” and “slave.”

I believe empathy is the catalyst through which true change comes to human society. The compulsion to comfort, heal, help the other is, in my view, the way the Divine intervenes in human events. That is why Torah reminds us we were strangers in Egypt. That is why the Haggadah enjoins us to imagine we ourselves left Egypt. We are commanded to remember what it feels like. We are commanded to have empathy.

Love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt. JMM 1995.201.11

Love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt. JMM 1995.201.11

This year, on the fifth day of Passover, the eight-day celebration of our liberation from the land in which we were estranged and enslaved, we will commemorate the anniversary of the moment when individuals and communities who for centuries have been estranged by the system and enslaved by racism, poverty, and mass incarceration, groaned in their suffering and cried out; that stretch of several hours, alternatively called Uprising or Rebellion, when grief and rage erupted in the streets of Baltimore.

As I think about the shifting identity of the stranger and the slave, I cannot help but be struck by the secular drama playing out in the season of our religious-historical drama. Right before Purim, with American electoral politics in mind, I wrote about channeling Esther to find the bravery to stand up to Pharoah. Now that Passover and election day are both upon us, I feel that need ever more strongly.

Photo from one of last year's rallies.

Photo from one of last year’s rallies.

Passover 5776/2016 falls in the middle of an election season in which fear of the stranger, fear of the other, has become a commodity. The lesson of Passover is that we cannot sit idly by while the stranger becomes the enslaved—we cannot allow the oppression we suffered to be meted out on another. And so we are commanded to repudiate the fear of the stranger and to replace it with love.

JMM 2002.111.118

JMM 2002.111.118

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




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It’s Moses in a Landslide

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by

There are those occasions when the secular and Jewish calendars converge in an unusual harmony.  We all remember “Thanksgivukkah” and this year features the equally rare “Hanuyearsikkah”.  But this month my thoughts go to an exceptional April convergence.  Let me start with a question:

Q: When was the first time you could cast a vote for a Jewish candidate in a US presidential primary?

A: 40 years ago, in 1976, and the candidate was Gov. Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Well, of course, that’s if you lived in Massachusetts, Illinois or Shapp’s home state of Pennsylvania.  By the time the primary calendar turned to Maryland in late May, Shapp had dropped out, after taking less than 5% of the vote in his home state.  Another early favorite in the election season with strong ties to the Jewish community, Scoop Jackson, had also pulled out after the Pennsylvania primary.  In fact, out of the 16 candidates who had entered the Democratic race only a handful remained by the time voting took place here.  The winner, by a wide margin, was Jerry Brown.  But Brown and the ABC (“anyone but Carter”) campaign started too late to stop Carter’s momentum.  We may not have voted for the eventual Democratic nominee and president, but Maryland holds the distinction of being one of three states to vote for the only 1976 candidate who is still in public office forty years later.

So what makes this Maryland primary night different than all other Maryland presidential primary nights?  Well, by my count it is the first time that Passover and presidential primary elections have converged in this state.  From the 1960’s through 1984, Maryland Primary Day was in May, too late for Passover.  From 1988 through 2008 Primary Day moved around between mid-February and early March, too early for Passover… even in 2012 when it was pushed back to late March it was still too early to overlap that year.

But this year the match between the Jewish festival of freedom and the secular exercise of liberty is “just right.”

Now Moses did not need to run in a primary, this didn’t mean he was immune to politics.

One of the earliest references I could find to political selection was in the Parsha Yitro in the Book of Exodus.  In that section, Moses in the wilderness is overwhelmed by the burden of adjudicating every dispute in the community.  He gets advice from his father-in-law Jethro (the first political consultant?) that he should appoint a system of judges to handle lesser cases.  Jethro goes on to tell Moses “But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.”

I make no claim to Biblical scholarship, but I find it interesting that the subject of the appointment of judges comes one chapter ahead of the delivery of laws on Mt. Sinai.  This sequence – officials first, laws second – suggests to me an awareness that even the most noble and principled law can be perverted by unjust or corrupted men.

Today each of us plays a bit of the role played by Moses in selecting leaders for our community.  The scale may be different, but as we go to the polls to choose a leader for the three hundred millions, I think Jethro’s advice about seeking people of substance, humility, honesty and financial integrity still applies.  Let’s follow the example of Moses and choose wisely.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Baltimore Helps Elect a President

Posted on November 7th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

As I write this post the results of Tuesday’s election are still unknown.  Rather than join the crowd that’s trying to speculate on this year’s contest, I turned my gaze to an election that was resolved on this night (November 5) one hundred years ago.

The outcome in the electoral college was a landslide for Wilson, but closer examination reveals that Wilson actually took only 42% of the popular and much of that related to 2:1 margins in the Deep South (though we associate Wilson with Princeton, he is in fact the only US president to have spent his childhood in the Confederate States of America in a slave-holding family).

The election of 1912 was a spirited three-way contest among President William Taft (running for re-election), New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt (seeking to reclaim his office on the “Bull Moose” ticket).

1912 was also the last time a national political convention was held in Baltimore.  Baltimore was the dominant host of political conventions from their inception in 1832 through the mid-1800s.  But by 1912 it had been at least 30 years since Baltimore served as host.  Wilson’s 1912 campaign manager, William McCombs of Arkansas, claims to have engineered the selection of Baltimore over St. Louis (home of Wilson’s chief rival House Speaker “Champ” Clark).  His plan was to fill the streets outside the convention hall with supporters from Wilson’s home states (Virginia and New Jersey).  Baltimore was also familiar territory for Wilson who had earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins while living in Bolton Hill.  The convention was held in the Fifth Regiment Armory  at the intersection of Howard and Preston.

Seeing the potential of a Baltimore connection, I asked Jobi if we had anything in the collection from the 1912 convention.  She was understandably dubious, but jumped in to make a search of our Past Perfect database.  To our mutual amazement, among the hundreds of items connected to the word “convention” there was one prospect that looked promising.  We grabbed the call number and headed for the basement.  There in the Robert Weinberg collection we found a small booklet/ travel guide rich with photographs simply labeled “The Baltimore Book”.  It became clear on closer examination that this was a book the organizers of the convention distributed to delegates to orient them (and brag about) the city.  The book touted Baltimore’s thriving industries (including straw hats), its low crime rate and excellent schools.  It made special note that Baltimore was home to “450 churches of all denominations”.  It contained photos of at least six houses of worship.  Not surprisingly neither the Lloyd Street Synagogue nor any other synagogue was featured.  Though there was a sizable Jewish community in the city in 1912 – for convention delegates we were simply invisible.

Wilson was nominated in this contentious convention after Williams Jennings Bryan decided to swing his support to the New Jersey governor, denouncing Champ Clark as “the candidate of Wall Street” (apparently this expression is at least 100 years old).  The election of Wilson would also mark a shift in Jewish-American politics.  While Wilson’s academic writings reveal a man deeply ingrained in repugnant ideas about race and ethnicity, Wilson as president supports the Balfour Declaration, the rights of Jews in Eastern Europe and, perhaps most famously, appoints Louis Brandeis as a justice of the Supreme Court.  All of these measures were factors in a shift to support of the Democratic party within the Jewish community.

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