Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Being Weary and Wary of ‘Awareness’

As this is a very personal statement, I think it best to post my latest op-ed written for the Jewish Standard myself. It was published in their April 28th issue, the title of the piece is On Being Weary and Wary of ‘Awareness’ and it addresses an issue that particularly hits home here in Bergen County, and throughout Northern New Jersey, as we are ground zero for autism:

April is Autism Awareness Month. As we are close to the end of the month, chances are that you’ve already seen or heard that statement.

So let me ask you: Are you more aware of autism now than you were at the beginning of the month? And what do we mean by this vague thing we call “awareness” anyway?

I looked online and found a “Cause/Awareness Monthly Calendar,” which confirmed my suspicions that almost every month of the year has multiple causes assigned to it. April has six listings, including Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If there’s a cause out there that does not emphasize the goal of awareness, I have yet to come across it.

And yet I don’t see much in the way of assessment of this goal. How is awareness measured? Who measures it? How are the results distributed? I believe that awareness actually refers to attention, which is the basic currency of our electronically mediated environment. The primary question is: Is the cause in question getting enough attention from the news media, the entertainment media, and our social media? And secondarily, are the audiences and participants paying enough attention to these messages?

My daughter turned 21 this winter. When she was 2½ years old, she was diagnosed with autism. Looking back some 18 years ago, I know that what we call autism awareness was not very widespread, not even here in northern New Jersey, where there are the largest numbers and the greatest concentration of children with autism in the United States.

Back then, most estimates ranged from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 500 children with autism nationwide. Increased awareness coincided with increased incidence, and now the estimates range between 1 in 45 and 1 in 68. And given the higher numbers in our region, this means that chances are you know someone with autism, or someone with a family member who has autism.

As the numbers grew, autism advocates began to call it an epidemic. Specifically, they referred to the epidemic of childhood autism. And it was an epidemic that affected families from all walks of life, from every income bracket and socioeconomic status, as well as every race, ethnicity, and religion.

A major turning point in autism awareness came when a grandson of Bob Wright was diagnosed with autism. Wright was the CEO of NBC at the time, and he and his wife, the late Suzanne Wright, founded Autism Speaks in 2005. Through his influence, autism suddenly received much more attention in the news and entertainment media than it ever had before.

It is worth asking ourselves why social problems only receive attention when the rich, the famous, and the powerful are touched by them, when the problem is experienced by someone close to a media professional or politician. Of course we are grateful when someone with a public platform finally speaks out. But why do awareness and attention have to depend on a contemporary variation on noblesse oblige?

And again, what is “awareness” all about? It is certainly a far cry from understanding.

I recently spoke with a friend and colleague whose son, about 10 years older than my daughter, also has autism. And we talked about the fact that our children will never really grow up, be able to live independently, have their own place, hold a normal job, marry, or raise children. About how much they depend on us and continue to depend on us. And about how uncertain their future is as we grow older, grow less and less able to care for them, and eventually will become unable to provide them with a home and necessary supervision.

We talked about what will happen to them when we’re gone.

It is so very hard for us to watch the parents of typical children celebrate the usual rites of passage and talk with mixed feelings about becoming empty nesters, knowing that fate has something else in store for us. Our special needs children require so much more of their parents than typical children as they’re growing up, and their special needs do not magically disappear when they become adults. The pressure never lets up, and it never goes away.

Awareness? Feh! Let’s face it, if you don’t live it, you just don’t understand, just can’t understand, not really. Not fully. So forgive me if I find all this talk about awareness to be awfully shallow, promoting the illusion that something real is happening merely by calling attention to causes on our news, entertainment, and social media.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected president, budgets were cut, policies were changed, and all of a sudden we saw schizophrenic individuals who previously had been institutionalized winding up on the streets, homeless and helpless, unable to take care of themselves. It was a shonda, a national disgrace.

Now think this through with me. For the past two decades, we’ve been made aware that there is an epidemic of childhood autism, with numbers steadily increasing. And be aware that there is no cure for autism. So now, be aware that we are facing an epidemic of adults with autism. And let me ask you, are you aware of what is being done to deal with this ticking social time bomb?


Local school districts are required to provide people with autism with an appropriate education until they age out after their 21st birthdays. After that, services are limited, if any exist at all. And for all but the most severe and violent individuals, we parents will try our best to take care of our children for as long as we are physically and psychically able.

How much longer do you think that will be?

We could have begun to prepare for the problem when Barack Obama was elected president. He had the right outlook. But the economy had just crashed under George W. Bush, Obama understandably was preoccupied with recovery from recession and with affordable healthcare, and he was faced with an obstructionist Congress for most of his tenure. Now that we have a Republican president, House and Senate, our government is back to cutting social services, so I doubt we can expect any proactive measures in the near future.

No, in all probability nothing will happen until the time when the parents of adults with autism no longer are able to provide them with a home, and the streets again are flooded with homeless people helpless to take care of themselves. When that happens, in the not too distant future, awareness will become more than a matter of news reports, feel-good films and TV programs, and social media memes. Awareness will become a face-to- face reality, an embarrassment, a source of guilt for the more enlightened, a source of fear for others. And only then will the public demand action, and public officials respond in kind. That’s what happened with the schizophrenics on the streets back in the 1980s.

So what does awareness mean to you? I guess it means that you’re aware that it’s Autism Awareness Month. I guess that amounts to awareness of awareness. And maybe, maybe, if you’re really made aware, that can lead to being informed. Maybe.My guess is that how well informed you are about autism depends on how close you are to an actual person with autism. And even then, after all, being informed is a far cry from actual action.

So please forgive me for being weary and wary of awareness. But please be aware of what’s coming down the pike, and when it happens, be aware that you were warned about it. And be aware that it was a failure of understanding, compassion, and foresight, and above all political will, that caused the problem.

That is the kind of awareness that we need to get across right now, in this month of April.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Disgrace of the Western Wall

Following up on our previous posts, Our Letter to Netanyahu and A Response to Our Letter to Netanyahu,we are pleased to share with you an op-ed written by Adas Emuno Trustee Norman Rosen that was published in the April 21st issue of the Jewish Standard. Entitled, The Disgrace of the Western Wall, the piece can also be found online on their Standard's Times of Israel website (just click on the title), as well as here on our congregational blog:

Imagine a place that is the holiest spot on earth for the Jewish people.

Now imagine a place where peaceful worshippers are pushed and shoved, stones are thrown at them, and they are insulted, spit upon, and cursed.

Sadly, the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem—in Hebrew, the Kotel—fits both these descriptions. For literally decades, fruitless efforts have been made by women and the Reform and Conservative movements to remedy this situation, but to no avail. Even the decision of the Israeli government on January 31, 2016, which endorsed a compromise agreement that would have permitted women and Reform and Conservative Jews to pray at Robinson’s Arch, a somewhat removed section of the Western Wall, has been frustrated.

The Minister of Religious Affairs refuses to issue the needed regulation, and the Israeli government has done nothing to enforce its decision.

During a recent trip we took to Israel to see our daughter and her family, who live in Modi’in, my son-in-law described to my wife and me how he was pushed, shoved, and abused by ultra-Orthodox men when he tried to pray at the Wall with a group of other Reform and Conservative Jews. Fortunately, he was not hurt. Next time he may not be so fortunate.

His experience brought back memories of what happened to me in 1996, when I was harassed at the Wall as I quietly tried to do a drawing of it on a Shabbat afternoon. As an American Reform Jew, accustomed to freedom of religion, I was deeply offended when I was forced to obey someone else’s interpretation of Judaism, especially in a holy place that should be welcoming to all Jews, whatever their beliefs.

In December of last year, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, of which I am a member, wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu to express our concern about the situation at the Kotel. The letter very respectfully pointed out that the Kotel was built more than 1,000 years ago, is sacred to all Jews, and as our common heritage does not and cannot belong to any one sect or subgroup within the Jewish people; that it was recovered in the Six Day War in 1967 through the bravery and the blood and sacrifice of soldiers who represented all branches of and approaches to Judaism; that the Israeli government, as steward of the site, has an obligation to insure undisturbed access to all who wish to worship there in peace, and that the government’s failure to do so will damage Israel’s reputation for religious freedom and respect for the rule of law and will undermine the support of the diaspora community.

In January, Congregation Adas Emuno received a reply from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. It said that “The Western Wall is indeed the beating heart of the Jewish people…,” that Prime Minister Netanyahu “… is still committed to finding a solution to prayer arrangements at the site,” but that “…recent steps taken by all parties have made reaching a solution more difficult than it already was.” There was no explanation as to what those “recent steps” were. My Israeli relatives inform me that they know of no such recent steps, and people I have contacted within the leadership of the Reform movement also do not know of any.

A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee and the Jerusalem Post determined that 70 percent of American Jews are in favor of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. It is high time that the Jewish people’s holiest spot on earth becomes a welcoming place for all Jews, irrespective of their gender or denominational affiliation, and that the Israeli government implements the Robinson Arch agreement and protects all peaceful worshippers from interference with their God-given right to worship as they see fit.

Only then will this holiest of sites cease to be a place of discord and division and again become a place of unity and peace for the entire House of Israel.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Happy Passover!

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno, we wish everyone a very sweet and joyful Pesach!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Response to Our Letter to Netanyahu

As we explained in detail in our previous post, Our Letter to Netanyahu, the Board of Trustees sent a letter to Israel's Prime Minister expressing our concern over the situation regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

We did finally receive a response, which we would like to share with you here on our congregational blog:

Our goal was to make a statement, register our protest, and add to the pressure for an equitable solution, and while this response is pretty much pro forma, it does acknowledge the fact that we have added our voices to those of so many others in the Reform and Conservative movement. We hope, and pray, for a just resolution to this issue.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bonds of Faith

Congregation Adas Emuno has certainly been in the news quite a lot recently, and while much of it has involved the controversial resolution to declare Leonia a sanctuary city, Bergen County's monthly 201 Magazine ran a feature about our shul's history in their March issue. Here's how it looked:

And let's take a closer look at those photos:

The color photo is of last year's spiel, and this came out just in time for Purim, which we just celebrated on Saturday evening and Sunday morning! 

We are most certainly the little shul that could!

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Lukewarm Resolution

In a series of posts, we have been sharing the story of the Sanctuary City Resolution proposed by the interfaith clergy of Leonia, and spearheaded by our own Rabbi Schwartz. Here they are in chronological order:

In the end, the weaker proposal to declare Leonia a "welcoming community" was approved by the borough council, as reported in the March 6th issue of the North Jersey Record, in article by Michael W. Curley, Jr., entitled, Leonia Adopts 'Welcoming Communities' Resolution. Here now is how it begins:

The council adopted a resolution Monday night declaring the borough a "welcoming community," pledging to encourage police not to question a resident's immigrant status except if they are charged in a criminal offense.

The move comes after executive orders from President Donald Trump that target undocumented immigrants and seek to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding. Last month, the borough first discussed the possibility of declaring sanctuary city status, spurred by a letter from a resident, and two weeks earlier agreed to vote on a "welcoming community" resolution, drafted by Mayor Judah Zeigler.

Some in the audience at the March 6 meeting urged the Borough Council to include "sanctuary city" in its language, with Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia suggesting the council use the term as a symbolic, if not legal, gesture. The resolution adopted did not use the term.

We are, of course, quite proud of our rabbi's moral and spiritual leadership on this issue. Even though the interfaith resolution he proposed was not approved, an important statement was made. 

The article continues:

Others, such as Marine veteran Richard Lundquist, urged council members not to declare the status, saying it would go against their oaths to uphold the Constitution and would violate federal law.

Zeigler said that while he believed the president's executive order would not stand up in court, he was not willing to gamble Leonia's tax dollars in a legal battle. He added that although the borough does not receive a lot of federal funding at the moment, it may need it in the future.

"We don't want to put ourselves in that kind of harm's way, but we should stand up and say that we cherish our diverse community, and we're committed to making sure that all who live here are welcome, feel safe and know that this is their home," he said.

Council President Maureen Davis said she had done research on the issue and Leonia's own practices, as head of the police committee, in preparation for the vote. She said it is current practice by the department not to ask immigration status except in the case of an indictable offense, citing then-Attorney General Anne Milgram's directive 2007-3, which advised police departments to ask only in that circumstance.

She said she wanted to put residents' minds at rest that the practice will not change unless the law changes. She added that Chief Thomas Rowe has advised that the borough not participate in the president's directive to have Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputize local law enforcement, even if grants are offered as incentive.

Before voting on the resolution, Councilman William Ziegler presented three amendments. The first was to include a paragraph saying that undocumented status is not a crime, and to substitute the term "undocumented" where the draft used "illegal"; the second, a paragraph endorsing the Leonia Police Department's current policy of not asking for immigration status except in the case of a criminal indictment; the third, a paragraph affirming that the borough is duty-bound to cooperate in criminal investigations and to share relevant information with local, state, county and federal authorities to keep the borough safe.

"I think that a symbolic reinforcement of the welcoming resolution and the amendments that I'm going to offer — did offer — are important, because they reinforce a value statement we need to make," he said. "I think they define and further clarify our conduct as a municipality consistent with our borough's values and our obligations."

Mayor Zeigler said he agreed in principle with the second suggested amendment, but recommended a change in language, as the police do not have a written policy but are following the attorney general's directive advising the practice. Councilman Ziegler accepted this modification.

The mayor objected to the first amendment, however, as undocumented status is a violation of federal law. Ziegler said he felt it was important to distinguish that undocumented status is not an indictable crime that would, by itself, warrant asking about undocumented status. After some discussion, Borough Attorney Brian Chewcaskie offered the distinction that while undocumented status is a violation of federal law, being of undocumented status is not a crime punishable with imprisonment, which Ziegler accepted.

Councilman Pasquale Fusco said he agreed with the mayor's suggestions, adding that the policy of the Leonia Police Department is one of support and the department should be commended for its behavior.

The resolution passed unanimously, with Councilman Greg Makroulakis absent from the meeting.

Of course, we all know that our congregation has always been a welcoming community, and one that is not afraid to take a stand when it comes to social justice! 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Politics and Religion

 From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Politics and Religion

It used to be said that you should never talk about religion or politics, at least not in polite society, or mixed company. And maybe many still consider it rude to do so. Of course, these are topics that were never entirely taboo, but rather reserved for private conversation among intimate associates, confederates, that is to say, like-minded individuals.

Of course, within the confines of our houses of worship, congregants have no compunctions about engaging in conversation on the topic of religion. As Rabbi Schwartz has so eloquently explained, discussion and debate for the sake of heaven is central to the Jewish tradition. And anyone familiar with Jewish culture would find it hard to imagine us refraining from voicing opinions on matters of mutual concern.

But the rule regarding politics is another matter entirely. Members of our shul who share the same religious heritage may differ significantly in their political views, and the clergy and temple leadership generally try to respect those differences. We do not want the temporal issues that may divide us to overshadow the essential, ancient, spiritual relationships that bind us together with one another.

At the same time, as a religion, we are asked to adhere to a set of moral and ethical standards, and to speak out when they are violated. Leviticus (19:16) famously admonishes us, "do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." And our tradition also includes the Kabbalistic notion of tikkun olam, the repair or healing of the world, as our central obligation. This is a precept that has become central for the Reform movement that we are a part of (a movement that is sometimes also referred to as Liberal or Progressive Judaism).

And we well recall the words of Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?" We recognize that Hillel's three sayings represent a call to stand up for ourselves and our principles, to seek justice and compassion for others, and as a call to action.

Last year, one of our Trustees, Norman Rosen, voiced his concern over the way that the Israeli government has handled egalitarian worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, which represents the holiest site in Judaism. This is a longstanding controversy, and the Reform movement has been especially supportive of and involved in the Women of the Wall movement. The Knesset approved a compromise regarding the site, which has been under Orthodox control, but the Israeli government has failed to enforce the compromise.

Norm was deeply disturbed by what he had witnessed firsthand at the Wall, and asked the Board of Trustees to send a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following in-depth discussion by the board members and clergy, the proposal was approved, a letter was drafted, signed by the vast majority of the board, and delivered to the Prime Minister's office. [Editor's note: See out previous post,
Our Letter to Netanyahu.] No reply has been forthcoming so far, long delays are commonplace, but the Jewish Standard will be publishing an article based on Norm's experiences that led to this effort.

Equal rights for women is, of course, a political issue, as is Israel's governmental policy regarding administration of the Temple mount. But the subject of our letter is also a religious issue, and the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism have long been fighting for official recognition by the Israeli government, for example in regard to marriage, conversion, etc., and egalitarian worship at the Wall is another issue that directly concerns our standing and legitimacy in the Jewish state. In this instance, we are standing up for ourselves as much as for others. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

At our February board meeting, Rabbi Schwartz brought to the board a resolution crafted by Leonia's interfaith clergy in response to Donald Trump's January 27th executive order that barred people from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and stopped all refugee admissions. In addition to criticizing the ban, the resolution asks the Borough of Leonia's Council to designate Leonia as a sanctuary city. Just as his colleagues were doing with their own church leaders, our rabbi asked the board if we would sign onto the resolution on behalf of our congregation.

An in-depth discussion of the legal and moral considerations ensued, followed by a vote in which the rabbi's request was approved by a supermajority of over ¾ of the board members present. This was a rare instance in which the board was asked to take a stand on a political issue, and most felt that the actions of the government were so extreme as to merit making a statement, even if it is only symbolic. If I am only for myself, who am I?

One of the questions that came up in our discussions was whether getting involved in any kind of political issue would endanger our 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Here is the explanation that board member Michael Fishbein provided: "The activity that could jeopardize tax exemption is essentially taking sides against or in favor of a particular candidate during an election. Commenting on social issues or issues of human freedom is not barred. So, for example we could advocate in favor of gay marriage, just as another religious organization can advocate against gay marriage. However, we cannot endorse a particular candidate because he or she is pro gay marriage."

Personally, I usually favor having our congregation avoid political controversies, whether it has to do with Israel or the US. What makes any given topic an issue is the fact that there are pros and cons, reasons for and against. Not everything is an issue for that reason. No one is really pro-illness for example, or pro-poverty. But there are reasons why some favor apply Orthodox strictures to the Kotel, and a strict ban on immigration to the US.

But there are times when it is difficult to stand idly by, and I believe that these two instances are exceptions to the rule about not speaking out when it comes to politics and the polite company of our congregation. They are two instances in which the board felt it important to stand up for ourselves, to stand up for others, and to take action and make a statement. If not now, when?