Friday, January 24, 2014

A Plea for the Ukraine

Dear Friends,

Jeremy Borovitz is a remarkable young man. In 2009 he received his BAR from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He then joined the Peace Corp and was sent to a small town in the Ukraine, where he taught English, music, ecology, as well as Jewish history and culture. He founded the Jewish Heritage Council of Peace Corps, to develop Jewish themed lesson plans and projects for Peace Corps volunteers and to create a community for the celebration of Jewish holidays. He then went on to become a Jewish Service Corp Fellow for the Joint Distribution Committee in the Ukraine, researching local Jewish history in Ukrainian villages with local students and organizing local festivals of Jewish Culture. He also engaged young adults in the Kiev community through conducting Shabbat dinners and teaching classes about Judaism. Jeremy recently went to Israel to begin a program of Jewish study there.

This plea on behalf of the protesters in the Ukraine, written on January 12th was sent to me by his father, a friend and mentor of mine, Rabbi Neal Borovitz. I was very moved by this letter. Please take a moment to read it.

Shabbat Shalom,

It was exactly four years ago this month when I first got that big white envelope in the mail, informing me that I was to spend the next 2 and a half years of my life as a Youth Development Volunteer in Ukraine. I was excited, and nervous, and scared, and shocked that I had actually followed through on my threats to join the Peace Corps.

Over the next three and a half years (I decided to stay a bit longer) I grew to love this beautiful, complicated, and at times harsh country. The winters made me freeze and the bureaucracy drove me insane. But the people whom I met and worked with were, for the most part, strong, brave, and prideful.

And last week, their government sold their rights down the river. The Senate waved at the raft as it floated by.

When protests broke out in late November against the government’s decision to not sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, I couldn’t pull myself away from my computer. My deep concern for my friends who were shivering on Independence Square, and the very real violence some of them faced, encouraged me to change an already scheduled international flight for the sake of a pit stop in Kiev.

It was a wild few days. Trying to get a sense of what was happening, I spent my days wandering around the protest with my friends, talking to as many people as I could. They were all friendly, of course, and upon hearing my thick American accent when I spoke Ukrainian, their congeniality took on a pleading tone. One man nearly fell at my feet, regaling me with a terrible tale of the government stealing his business and his livelihood because he refused to pay the bribes they were demanding. Tell them, he begged me. Tell Obama what is happening here, beg him to help us.

The protests have often been characterized in the Western press as a desire for Ukraine to move closer to Europe and away from Russia. This is only a part of the story. These people are standing on the square because they are tired of having a government who works against them. Corruption has been so ingrained in their culture that many public service professionals, including police, doctors, and teachers, often expect bribes to simply do their jobs. For a country rich in natural resources, its soil is getting sucked dry by a wealthy and powerful few. The Social safety net designed to aid its weakest citizens is riddled with holes, and it becomes nearly impossible to not fall through the cracks.

So when the people took a stand on that square, the government raised its night stick and began swinging wildly into the night. People were beaten indiscriminately, others thrown in jail, and yet they kept showing up, night after night, Sunday after Sunday, to stand with their fellow citizens, to protest this time warp back to Soviet-style politics where the political discourse is conducted with blood and handcuffs.

And on Thursday, in one of the greatest shams from a government that has aced the art of feigning democracy and justice, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a law that strips away the rights not only of those citizens standing on the square but of its people as a whole. Suddenly NGOs who receive overseas charitable work will be considered foreign agents. Journalists who print things unfavorable to the regime will be given years in prison. And one can be convicted of a crime without ever showing up for their day in court. Vladimir Putin must be gleaming with pride at all the tyranny his money has bought him.

I received my letter in the mail four years ago, but this story began a year before that, when my father and I drove down to Washington, D.C. on a cold Tuesday and stood outside on the freezing grass to watch as Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President of the United States. And as he stood up there I believed his vision of a better tomorrow, I realized I wanted to do something to help my country, to serve in my own way. A few days later, I had applied to the Peace Corps.

In that first white envelope, on a small pamphlet that might have easily been discarded, was a statement of the three goals of the Peace Corps, the aims which were to be my mantra for the duration of my service.

Goal One: To help the people of your host country, to provide support, to install internet in a small village so the students can follow the protests in their country without media bias, to teach English to a young University student so he can give interviews to foreign reporters who come visit him on the square, to strengthen the organizational capacity of a Human Rights NGO so that they can stand by their countrymen as their constitution is burned before their eyes.

Goal Two: To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, to tell them of the wonderful country I came from and the values we stand for, to regale them with tales of inaugurations and marches and hope and change that we still hold on to even if it never quite comes as we’d imagined, to teach them to dream in a culture that suppresses it, to teach them to believe in a tomorrow they can’t yet see.

Goal Three: To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans, to tell everyone I know that there is a country called Ukraine that is not Russia, filled with people who yearn to create a real democracy, to post on facebook and to write to Senators and to scream at the top of my lungs until the world takes notice that these people still exist and are still standing and we seem blase to their cause, to implore for action from my government, to insist that they send these bandits a message that such tactics will not fly, not on our watch.

Help me to fulfill the three goals, because otherwise, I would have been better off to never open my letter.

Jeremy Borovitz

Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK Day Message: Rabbis Arrested

Dear Friends,

On June 18, 1964, just three days before the three Freedom Summer activists - Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – disappeared, 15 Reform rabbis (and one lay leader) were arrested in St. Augustine, the largest mass arrest of rabbis in the United States. The rabbis had come to St. Augustine, Florida in response to an appeal made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbinic Association) through his friend, Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner, then serving Springfield, New Jersey’s Temple Sha’arey Shalom. Reverend King asked the rabbis to join him in St. Augustine in “a creative witness to our joint convictions of equality and racial justice.”

Two of those 15 rabbis are my father’s friends, Rabbis Danny Fogel and Alan Secher. To mark this Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and to remember the courage of these Jewish civil rights activists I share with you Rabbi Secher’s personal account of what happened. Fifty years later it’s hard to imagine that this happened in the United States of America:

…[On June 17th] we were met by King at a local church, [and] given instructions…. That night we were going to march from the black area through the white area to the slave market, and return. And what King told us was be on the lookout, because the night before someone had been shot and killed along the route. Someone had crawled up a tree, and as the group passed below, had shot and killed them.

…we kept marching. And it’s dark where we’re marching, and I’m in the lead. And I’m holding this Black girl’s hand as we’re marching. I gotta tell ya…the scariest two, three, four hours of my life. We’re passing under the same trees where the night before someone had been shot…and with the full knowledge the National Guard that had been called out wasn’t very sympathetic to start with. So…I was scared…Well, we marched…from the black section, through the white section…to the slave market…did a prayer service there of some sort and turned around and walked back – that was our evening.

The next day we did a prayer service, we were to divide into three groups…one group was to go to the local Woolworth’s lunch counter …be like going to a Target nowadays to a lunch counter, or to a lunch counter at a WalMart. One group went to the Woolworths. Another group went to a lunch counter at an interstate motel. And the third group was to go to the parking lot of this same motel and gather in the parking lot, and that’s the group I was assigned to. There were about fifty of us, in a circle in the parking lot, doing a prayer service, whites and blacks, crossing arms, and again singing and doing prayers. And at that moment I was witness to the most courageous act I’ve seen in my life – in my life!

We’re in the circle, and at a given moment, two young black kids – teenagers – broke away from the group, and as they broke away they peeled off their clothing, and they had bathing suits on, underneath their clothing, and they ran from us to the swimming pool, of this motel. And the swimming pool was probably no more than thirty yards away – and they jumped into the pool…and of course the patrons of the pool, white people, immediately exited. Oh my god, swimming in the same pool with a black! And the manager was called. And the manager panicked. And he didn’t know what to do and he ran, and he grabbed a gallon jug of acid…and he took the acid, and he poured it into the pool…with the two black kids still in the pool – they didn’t budge! Now, he had no way of knowing that the acid diluted itself with water, but you could see on the bottle…’acid’ – and the kids just stayed there in the pool till the guy was done with the acid, and they didn’t move. Those two kids…that’s indelible…that scene…is absolutely indelible…that hasn’t changed over the years, the vision of that scene.

Then we were arrested…and they put five of us in each of the cop cars…then they took us to a huge parking lot outside the jail…then each cop had his picture taken with his five charges…I guess so he could put it in his scrapbook for the future…

And there I saw one of the most horrific acts in my life, one of the cops had a cattle prod…and there was a young white girl, I’d say early 20’s, who had been arrested with us, and the cop took that prod, and shoved it right up her behind, and turned on the juice, and the scream from that girl, the absolute scream from that girl, and the agony…and she was not counter-demonstrating at all. She had come, she had been arrested, and she was going peacefully.

They separated white from black and Jew from gentile…
I think…I think it’s important to tell the story…[so] it’s not lost…it doesn’t go down the drain…so that others realize what had gone on then…so that it’s not just about going on Face Book and seeing that your friend had ice cream for dinner. It’s about realizing a piece of history, and about how those things affected history as time went by. And so I tell these stories as often as I can…. (

These past few weeks in the synagogue we have been reading the story of the Exodus. Last week we read the passage about when our People crossed the Red Sea to freedom. This past Shabbat we read what is really the culminating moment of the Exodus, according to our tradition, the moment at Mt. Sinai when we stood as one and freely entered into a covenant with God to be God’s People. We heard revealed God’s Ten Statements, the Ten Commandments.

Years ago I was fortunate to study this portion with Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, a civil rights hero in his own right. He pointed out something I hadn’t noticed before. The first of the ten commandments, the first thing that God says to us gathered at Mt. Sinai, is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” It’s not really a commandment. It’s a statement. It is a statement about the nature of God, Godself. God is many things. But, who is God, first and foremost? God is the one who brought us out of the Land of Egypt, the God of Liberation, the God of Freedom.

While in jail in St. Augustine the 15 rabbis (and Al Vorspan, a layman and staff person of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) penned the following letter explaining why they went:

…We shall not soon forget the stirring and heartfelt excitement with which the Negro community greeted us with full-throated hymns and hallelujahs, which pulsated and resounded through the church; nor the bond of affectionate solidarity which joined us hand in hand during our marches through town; nor the exaltation which lifted our voices and hearts in unison; nor the common purpose which transcended our fears as well as all the boundaries of race, geography and circumstance. We hope we have strengthened the morale of St. Augustine Negroes as they strive to claim their dignity and humanity; we know they have strengthened ours.

Each of us has in this experience become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become).

We believe in man’s ability to fulfill God’s commands with God’s help. We make no messianic estimate of man’s power and certainly not of what we did here. But it has reaffirmed our faith in the significance of the deed. So we must confess in all humility that we did this as much in fulfillment of our faith and in response to inner need as in service to our Negro brothers. We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying Him, we become ourselves; in following His will we fulfill ourselves….

On this Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day let us remember and find inspiration in the courageous deeds of the rabbis arrested in St. Augustine and all those who fought for civil rights in our land.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein

P.S. View the full text of “Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine