Occupy LA’s impact a year on

my latest piece on The Daily Beast:

On November 17 of last year, the two-month anniversary of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I found myself singing and dancing to a Hassidic tune in downtown Los Angeles’s Bank of America plaza. I was among more than a hundred protestors from Occupy L.A., and facing a phalanx of police with riot equipment. Singing and dancing seemed the most appropriate thing to do at that time in that place.

continue reading here.

The Foreclosure Crisis as a Moral Crisis

Yesterday, Sunday, I was privileged to organize and participate in a teach in sponsored by the Interfaith Sanctuary of Occupy LA at Temple Beth Am in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. (This was the second teach-in of this kind that we put on. The first was on New Years Day at All Saints Church in Pasadena as part of Occupy the Rose Parade.)

The first panel was comprised of Martin Berg, longtime journalist and the editor of Where’sOurMoney.org, Carlos Marroquin, a foreclosure activist with Occupy LA, and Peter Kuhns, an organizer with ACCE, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. The panel addressed the questions that many people ask about the foreclosure crisis: Isn’t it the fault of people who just bought too much house and couldn’t pay for it? Why should we pick up the tab for people who couldn’t pay the debts that they had accumulated. In answering this question the panelists talked about the seeds of the foreclosure crisis in the predatory lending practices of the previous decades which overwhelmingly targeted communities of color and low income people. They also discussed the barriers that the banks were putting up so that people who qualified to modify their loans were not getting the loan modifications they should be getting. Finally they talked about the human stories, people who worked hard all their lives, who were caught up in a trap laid for them by banks who were out to make even more money, who were evicted from their homes. But they also talked about some stories of hope, in which the bankers, when forced into the light of day, agreed to modify loans and let people remain in their houses.

The video of this first panel, thanks to the Livestreaming skills of Califather, is here:

The second panel was comprised of faith leaders who addressed the question of the response of the faith communities. The panel was moderated by United Methodist Pastor Paige Eaves of Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church, and included Shakeel Syed, the Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Rabbi Jonathan Klein, the Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice—Los Angeles (CLUE-LA), Rev. Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, and your humble servant. We discussed the religious issues that were raised by the foreclosure crisis, the issue of shame around foreclosures and ways to engage it both pastorally and politically, and issues of the market and materialism.

The video of the second panel, is here.

The teach was brought to a close by Andrea Hodos with a group movement performance that brought a lot of the themes of the day together.

The video of Andrea’s piece is here.


Violence, Nonviolence, Occupy LA and the Law

A very long time ago, at the eastern end of the Roman Empire, in the Land of Israel, two Rabbis were having a political conversation. It was actually more like an argument. We are able to eavesdrop on the conversation because it was recorded (centuries later) in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 61b). The Empire had decreed that teaching Torah in public was forbidden. One of the Rabbis, Pappus ben Yehudah, came across the other Rabbi, Akiva ben Yosef, while the latter was doing exactly that which the government had forbidden. Rabbi Akiva was gathering folks together and teaching them Torah. Pappus was fearful for Akiva’s life. He confronted Akiva, saying: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Akiva responded with a longish parable whose essence was: what can the Romans do to me? They can put me in jail and/or they can kill me. However, if I am not studying Torah it is as if I am dead already. I will not imprison myself. If the Romans want to imprison me that is a choice that they will make and be responsible for.

The end of the story is known. Akiva was killed as a martyr. However, there was one more scene before the end. After the Romans arrested Akiva, as he was sitting in jail, Pappus was also arrested and jailed together with Akiva. Pappus, apparently, had not been arrested for teaching Torah and when he saw Akiva he said: “Happy are you, Akiva, that you have been seized for teaching and studying Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things!”

I have been thinking of nonviolent civil disobedience a lot over the last week or so, specifically in regard to the encampment and eviction of Occupy LA and this story continues to hold my imagination. Continue reading

Sodom or Sukkah

Yesterday, I had the privilege and pleasure of teaching Torah on the streets of Los Angeles. Specifically on Spring Street between First and Temple, on the east side of City Hall, amongst the community of hundreds that calls itself Occupy LA. A coalition of several people with and without organizational affiliations felt the need to be present and to establish a Jewish communal presence among the growing movement of people who were frustrated by and angry at the many injustices that are plaguing this country. We sent out a call and the response was energizing. In five days we had over a hundred people who were committed to attending.

And so, on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, on the eighteenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei, I stood before the assembled crowd and laid out texts and offered Torah. Here is a fuller version of what I wanted to teach.
The Biblical story of Sodom is one of the more disturbing stories in the Torah. Two messengers of God come to Sodom to save Lot, Abraham’s nephew, from the destruction of the town, which they are to destroy themselves—or have some part in its destruction by God. What is the sin of the town that is so great that it merits the town’s obliteration? The opening of the story frames the sin of Sodom as xenophobia. Continue reading