On the way to Sinai (on racism and economic justice)

We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks,  the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.

Africa shootingWe are on a journey—but where are we going? Continue reading

A Lament for Eric Garner

Eric Garner is the unarmed 43 year old black man, who was killed by the NYPD in Staten Island in July. The whole incident was recorded. He was placed in a choke hold and can be heard saying 11 times: “I can’t breathe,” before he died. The officer who killed him was not indicted. The coroner had ruled it a homicide.

Then the Lord God fashioned the human,

dust from the earth,

and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

and the human became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7)

I can’t breathe.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

into that dust,

like a female impregnated by a male,

for they join and this dust is filled with all.

With whom? Spirits and souls. (Zohar 1:49)

I can’t breathe.

Dust from the earth,

this dust is the holy land

and it is the place of the Holy Temple.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

this breath of life is the holy soul that is drawn from that supernal life. (Zohar 3:46)

I can’t breathe.

Dust from the earth,

from the lower realms,

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

from the upper realms. (Breishit Rabba 12:8)

I can’t breathe.

Thus the dictum of Scripture, By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, is analogous to its dictum, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth, in the same verse. For the terms His word and His saying are used figuratively in the same way as the terms His mouth and the breath of His mouth, the intention being to signify that the heavens have come to exist through His purpose  and will. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:65)

I can’t breathe.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment I know

this is the only moment. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace)

I can’t breathe.

At the core is the breath, instinctive, not given

not taken, it is not a privilege or a right, it is

even independent of oneself, even on those

dark nights when in the loneliness of an empty bed

you try harder than you ever have not to breathe

you do, and the breath breathes you, and you are


I can’t breathe.

I hate, I despise your feast days,

And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.

Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them,

Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs,

For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.

But let justice run down like water,

And righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5)

I can’t breathe.

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow.

Alas, she has become a harlot,

The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt—

But now murderers. (Isaiah 1)

I can’t breathe.

The violence then of the decreation

of the moment when the breath no longer

comes. What did that feel like? What

unearthly panic? What desperate rage

and struggle brings to the surface

the cry for the basic elements of life.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

Sit down to stand up

One of the earliest recorded labor actions occurred in Biblical Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites slaves go into the desert to worship their God. Moses, in other words, demanded that Pharaoh treat the Israelites as people with spiritual and physical needs, rather than as construction machines, useful for the raising of royal cities and monuments.

Pharaoh, as many a tyrant after him, refused to see the Israelites as full people worthy of respect and dignity. The only thing he could see was that they were “shirkers” who didn’t want to do a good day’s work. Pharaoh never dreamed that a rag tag people with a leader who stuttered and claimed to be speaking for an invisible God would ever be a threat to his rule and his country.

We all know how that turned out. Continue reading

Mitzvah Day 2.0 (on Walmart)

In many Jewish communities in the United States, Mitzvah Day is celebrated annually. Mitzvah (literally: commandment, colloquially: a good deed) Day is a day on which Jewish communities come together to perform all manner of community service. Atlanta’s mitzvah day announces that it contributed 570 hours of service by 190 volunteers at 10 project sites. At Temple Emmanuel in New York City people made totes for women undergoing chemotherapy, sandwiches and 300 meal bags to combat hunger, and baked fresh cookies which were packaged with organic milk boxes for children at the local day-care and after-school programs. In Los Angeles, (which seems to have been the originator of the concept) Mitzvah Day outgrew the Jewish community and was adopted by the whole city as Big Sunday.Nov 13 2014 Save the Date Flyer

All the Mitzvah Day projects seem to be well-intended and worthwhile (at least the ones I’ve seen). However, I want to suggest that the vision of Mitzvah Day is too narrow. There are some commandments which are not included in any Mitzvah Day or Big Sunday I’ve seen. These are the commandments to protest against injustice, and to treat workers fairly. Therefore, I would like to think that this Thursday, (November 13) in front of the Walmart in Pico-Rivera, will be Mitzvah Day 2.0. Workers, clergy, and community members will be protesting against Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers and demand that Walmart pay its employees at least $15 an hour, and that they have access to full time employment. Continue reading

Why I Got Arrested

Photograph by Zachary Conron

Photograph by Zachary Conron

This past Thursday night I heard the following story from a man in his mid-twenties who had worked for Walmart in their Duarte, CA store for two years before finding a better paying job elsewhere. While at Walmart he was one of the first members of the workers’ group OUR Walmart. One of the “greeters” at the store, he said, was an elderly woman with bladder control issues. As there were two entrances that needed greeters, one near a bathroom and one not, she had asked several times to be stationed at the entrance closer to the bathroom. The manager consistently refused her request. Eventually she was fired for abandoning her post because she had had to leave to use the bathroom. When she was fired, she broke down and cried because she desperately needed the money.

This story, in short, explains why at the time of the telling I was sitting in a holding cell in Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Detention Center. Fifty four women and men, workers, labor and union activists, and a rabbi (that would be me) were arrested for sitting down in front of the new Walmart store in Chinatown and refusing to move when asked to disperse by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. We were there to focus attention upon Walmart’s egregious history of paying poverty wages (about 750,000 Walmart workers make less than $25,000 a year), not providing benefits or, alternatively, not giving workers enough hours to qualify for benefits or paying them enough to afford the benefits. On top of all this, and perhaps worse, is Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers as exemplified in the story above. Walmart also has a long history of combatting organizing and retribution firings of workers who protest against the company. Continue reading

“Awaken Sleepers!”: Wal-Mart and Non-Violent Resistance

One of the reasons that we sound the shofar during services on Rosh Hashanah (the income-inequalityJewish New Year) is, to quote the great Jewish jurist and philosopher Maimonides, to announce: “Awaken sleepers from your slumber … search your actions and repent and remember your Maker.” This Thursday hundreds of people will begin a process of trying to waken Wal-Mart from its slumbers—from its denial of the welfare and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of its workers who are paid poverty wages. We will also be trying to awaken the customers who go to Wal-Mart for cheap products, but either don’t know or don’t care that those products come at the expense of the Wal-Mart workers who sometimes cannot afford to buy those very products. Continue reading

Practicing Democracy with Carwasheros

Democracy is a practice. And like any practice, whether praying or playing an instrument, social interaction or legislation, you have to work at it to get it right. In an early celebration of Independence Day, I joined about 30 carwasheros, organizers from the CLEAN car wash campaign, CLUE-LA, and community folks, walking a picket line in support of a boycott of Aztec Auto Detailing in Century City. 

Many of the workers at the carwash are recent immigrants who came to this country for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but had found themselves in jobs in which they were neither treated with dignity, nor given adequate safety and health protections, and were not adequately compensated. And yet, they still remained faithful to the vision on which this country was founded—a vision which is ever in the process of fulfillment.

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago this country was founded on the principle that people, as a result of all being created equal, were granted certain unalienable rights, among which were the above stated “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is for this reason, according to the Declaration of Independence, that government exists. Continue reading

Celebrating Justice

It is also good to celebrate.

Three years ago on a hot July day I, along with 50 other hotel workers and clergy sat down in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and when told by police to move we refused. The point of our civil disobedience (and subsequent arrest) was to protest the belligerently intransigent stance of the Hyatt Corporation toward their workers. This was part of a national action at a low point in a long-running campaign for dignity, just compensation, and a healthy work environment for hospitality workers. Despite the fact that people demonstrated across the country and in Canada; despite the fact that people were arrested across North America, Hyatt was seemingly unmoved.

But the workers were also strong, and persistent. It took another three years, but today the Hyatt Corporation and Unite-Here, the union representing the workers, announced an agreement. There will be a contract. Continue reading

The economics of values (On Immigration)

On Sunday I hit the road with my daughter Shachar, Jonathan Klein (the Executive Director of CLUE-LA), and Gina Palencaar (Campaign Communications Director at LAANE). We drove up to San Francisco to bring a message to Senator Feinstein from the Jewish community. We were joined at the Senator’s office by Rabbi Heather Miller who had done much of the organizing and was representing Beth Chayim Chadashim representatives of the JCRC of San Francisco and Bend the Arc. We had a rally outside the office building and then met with the Senator Feinstein’s representative. Continue reading

Muslims, Jews, Friends, Politics

I have always been terribly moved by the signs that some Israelis and Palestinians carry at nonviolent demonstrations against the occupation which read: “Israelis and Palestinians refuse to be enemies.” The power of this statement is in the recognition that there is a choice to be made. Instead of staying in the entrenched narrative, which might lead to winners or losers—at least temporarily—but will never lead to peace, they chose to change the narrative itself.

Nonviolence is about putting pressure on change points, forcing oppression out into the open, or forcing the agent of oppression (the State, the police, etc.) to choose between good and evil. Nonviolence is also about changing the narrative. Nonviolent resistance, as Martin Luther King taught us, focusses the struggle on good and evil, on right and wrong, rather than on black and white or Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.

The Israelis and Palestinians who “refuse to be enemies” refuse the narratives that are supposed to be written into their DNA.

How does one educate to this? How does one instill in one’s children, the next generation of Jewish and Moslem young adults, that they do not have to be enemies? Continue reading