Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: 100 Years Later


Today marks the 100th anniversary of a terrible tragedy that you might never have heard about.

The date was Saturday March 25, 1911.  It was at the end of a long work day, and a long 50+hour work week for the mostly Jewish immigrants who were employed as garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist blouse factory in Greenwich Village in New York City.  The factory - it's important to note - sat on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a ten story building.

The building itself was state of the art: everything inside the building was fireproof: the interior and exterior walls, the floors, etc.  Take the time to read the New York Times original coverage of the event (including the incredible pictures) and you will see that the whole thing lasted only half an hour.

How did the fire start?  Some say that one of the workers was sneaking a cigarette, and that a match/ashes ignited the piles of clothing scraps that littered the floor of the factory.  Others speculate that sparks flew from one of the sewing machines.

Regardless: 146 garment workers lost their lives that day in the worst disaster in New York City - until September 11th.

The tragedy of it all is that the workers didn't have to die.  They enjoyed the luxury of working in a state of the art fireproof building!

Yet they died because the factory owners routinely locked down all the exits from the factory so as to prevent the workers from stealing clothing.  Thus the women (more than 120 of the 146 were women between the ages of 16 and 23) couldn't use the stairs or the non-functioning elevators.  And they couldn't rely on the fire department to save them either.  Because as it turns out: the fire department's ladders could only reach up to the 7th floor.

Thus, the victims had to choose between staying inside the factory to face certain death, or take the risk of jumping out of the windows.  The fire department was standing by with netting to catch jumpers.  But the netting tore, because so many were jumping at nearly the same time.

There is immense tragedy, of course, in the needless deaths of so many people.  It is made all the worse by the fact that the victims were almost entirely immigrant women: relatively uneducated, forced to take factory work in order to help support their families.

The incident has become a major turning point in American Jewish history: it highlights the plight of Eastern European immigrants who were coming to this country in droves at the turn of the century.  (Indeed, I am especially struck by the event because my great grandmothers could have easily been counted among the victims.)

Nonetheless, I think that it's important to point out that the Triangle fire was also a pivotal turning point in the history of New York City and our country.  The fire is directly responsible for spawning an extensive range of safer building codes and workplace safety standards - things that we mostly take for granted today, but which were life and death issues 100 years ago.

The web is full of rich resources for further exploration on this important historical event.  I want to encourage everyone to sample some of the following:
I know that, on the surface, it might seem that this fire doesn't have very much to do with our lives today.  All the more so if you didn't have relatives living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

Keep in mind, though, that while the flames burned out long ago, the issues that they raised have not.  We live in a society whose values guarantee that workers have the right to organize, in order to protect themselves.  And that right is increasingly being questioned by some on the political right.

Perhaps, if the fire's anniversary touches you in no other way, then at least it will invite you to (re)consider your stance on the issue of workers' rights.  Perhaps you will be motivated to get more involved in this pressing political issue.  Find out everything you need to know about our Reform movement's position on the issue by clicking here.  Regardless of where you fall on this issue, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about it, and your reflections on the fire.  Please do click on the Comments button below to publicly post.

May the memories of all those who perished 100 years ago live on - to be for a blessing, and as a reminder to all of us: that there is always more work to be done to make our world a healthier and safer place.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hoping, Praying, and Fasting? for Health and Peace in Japan

I am sure that, like me, you have been anxiously following the latest details to emerge from Japan: now one week after that country experienced a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

According to Wikipedia (I'm writing this on Thursday), the numbers are stark:
  • 5692 people are confirmed dead
  • 2409 others are wounded
  • 9522 are officially missing

There are several basic Jewish responses that our tradition teaches:

PRAYER: Prayer has always been an authentic Jewish response, when we are forced to witness the needless and senseless suffering of others.  Here's one prayer that is appropriate, based on material written by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of London:

Prayer In Response To Disaster
God, be with all those who mourn and pray for all of the people who have been affected by the recent tragedy in Japan. 
May our solidarity strengthen them. God, help them manage to live on in spite of their pain. Give them courage, hope and purpose.

God, be with all those who have been traumatised, young and old. Bring trust and hope back into their lives. May the love they receive prove stronger than the horror they have experienced.

God, be with all those, of all peoples, who are suffering.

God, remove thoughts of violence and hatred from every heart. Strengthen our readiness to understand one another. Give us tolerance and insight. Teach us all to live together in peace.

May Isaiah's words speedily come true:
לֹא-יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִיתוּ בְּכָל-הַר קָדְשִׁי כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ
דֵּעָה אֶת ה’ כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים

'They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.'

And let us say 'Amen'.

TZEDAKAH: Beyond praying, our tradition has always empowered us to DO SOMETHING about the brokenness of our world.  And, short of hopping on a plane to Japan to lend a hand (which may not be advisable for a number of logisitical reasons - i.e. you'd just be another homeless person needing shelter), your best bet is to donate.  Down the line, charities will probably be in need of goods.  But right now, what they need most is our money.  Consider making a small charitable donation to the American Red Cross or you can donate via the Jewish communal response to the disaster: the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.


There's one other authentic Jewish response that might be worthy of our consideration at a time like this: FASTING.

I know fasting is such a strange thing to do...something that many of us typically only do once a year - on Yom Kippur. 

But, actually, our tradition has a long history of communal/individual fasting when the community is facing a pending disaster that they are seeking to avert.

I am writing this on Thursday, which our Jewish calendar designates as Ta'anit Esther: the Fast of Esther.  According to the Book of Esther (which we will reads on Purim this weekend), Esther fasted just before she confronted King Ahashuerus of Haman's pending genocide against the Jewish people.  Indeed, our tradition ascribes the miraculous happy ending of the Book of Esther to her if her fasting swayed God toward a place of compassion and Divine Intervention.

As for the Japanese situation: we don't know how it is going to end yet.  Several Japanese nuclear facilities are on the brink of major accidents...accidents which could harm tens of thousands of people that live in their vicinity.

Just as Esther hoped for a miraculous happy ending so many thousands of years ago, we too hope for the same in Japan.  So many have already suffered.  But a miracle now could prevent more suffering, more illness, more homelessness, and more loss of life.

So, at some point in the next few days, I would invite you to fast...either doing it the traditional way by abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset.  Or by skipping a meal.  Or by simply skipping a special treat that you might otherwise indulge in on a regular basis.  Take on a little bit of suffering on your own - in order to prevent the suffering of others.

Even as we rejoice over the happy ending of the Purim story, we humbly temper our celebrations, knowing that others are hurting in our world today.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 11, 2011

Do American Men Need to "Man Up"?

In the last few weeks, sociologists who study Americans in their 20s and 30s were all abuzz about two competing trends that seem to be affecting 20s/30s somethings (and particularly men in that demographic).

The first relates to a new study just released by the National Center for Health Statistics (an arm of the government's Centers for Disease Control). You can read an article about the study here.  In a nutshell, the study seems to indicate that Americans age 15-44 are having LESS intercourse (and other forms of sexual contact) than they used to.  The most interesting number from the survey: among Americans 15-24, 28% have had no physical contact with a romantic partner - ever.  That number is about 5% higher than the last time this study was done a few years ago.

What factors might explain this decrease in sexual contact?  Is it a shrinking American libido, brought on by the stress of high school and college?  Or brought on by the stress of the current state of the economy?

Is it that young people are finding a sexual outlet for themselves that doesn't involve actual physical contact with partners?  (I'm thinking here of sexual encounters that take place online in chat rooms and the like.  You might also want to check out this CBS News report on virtual sex in the online word of Second Life. By the way: All of this is separate from the equally troubling issues surrounding online porn addiction.)

Or is it that we are living in a moment when our lifecycles are being stretched out....we're living longer....the onset of true adulthood is being delayed (more on this below)...and so maybe our young people are just "blooming" later than they used to.


Even as the debate goes on about this seeming trend toward less sex, a separate conversation has been going on in the last few weeks, in response to an essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Kay Hymowitz.  There, Hymowitz argues that American men in their 20s and 30s have officially become a 'slacker' generation - even as their female peers go on to graduate school or begin building successful careers.  (Think of the dynamic between the Seth Rogen (slacker) and Katherine Heigl (successful career woman) characters in the movie "Knocked Up.")

According to Hymowitz, American guys have no real incentive to "man up" (and pursue a real education/career/etc.) because their female peers continue to hook up with them, and even sometimes pursue real relationships with them.  She argues that if men won't "man up" on their own, than women should rise up and withhold sex from their male peers - so that there is a real incentive for the demographic to change!  (Did anyone else have to read Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" in school?)


Now I turn to you - to find out what you think about all of this.  Do you agree with the assessment of the CDC - that we find ourselves in a moment in which our society is less engaged when it comes to acts of physical intimacy?  And if so: why is that?  Is the trend good for our society?  Or maybe not so good?

Or perhaps you are skeptical of the CDC study...and the Wall Street Journal article speaks more to your worldview...that American guys in their 20s and 30s are having plenty of sex...and that women maybe have some role in getting those guys to "man up" for the sake of the future health of our society?

I can't close without mentioning that our Jewish tradition calls us on to make good and healthy choices when it comes to how we conduct our (romantic) relationships.  If you want to get up to speed on Jewish Sex Ethics, click here and invest the time to listen to the audio recording of a class I taught on this subject last year.

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.

Be safe, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 4, 2011

Giving Voice to Your Values

I want to begin by making sure that everyone knows about the disgusting story that came out of France a few days ago:  That the noted French fashion designer John Galliano turns out to be a raging anti-Semite.

I am going to spend the rest of this column writing about Israel and Zionism.  But I begin with the Galliano story because it's imperative to remember that...for Theodor Herzl, the initial impulse to organize, and ultimately call for a World Zionist Congress at the very end of the 19th century was in response to the latent French anti-Semitism that showed itself during the infamous Dreyfus Trial.  For Herzl, the Dreyfus Trial was a knock upside the head - a realization that anti-Semitism would continue to persist....even in the most rational and enlightened countries of the world.  And that the only reasonable Jewish response to the ongoing "problem" of anti-Semitism is Zionism: the establishment of a Jewish homeland - the one place in the world that Jews would be theoretically guaranteed to be safe from anti-Semitism sponsored/supported by the government under which they lived.

What is the state of Zionism today? 

I offer one perspective on that question today, as I reflect on my experience attending the latter part of the national gathering of the organization known as J Street in Washington, DC.

J Street bills itself as "Pro Israel and Pro Peace."  If you are interested, you can read about their platform here.  Highlights from the conference can be viewed here.  Rabbi David Saperstein (head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center) opened the session with this speech, which courageously pressured J Street to re-think its approach on the UN resolution from a few days earlier:

As you may know, J Street is not without controversy in the wider Jewish/Pro-Israel community. 

That controversy stems, in part, from the fact that J Street prominently advocates for a two state solution.  The organization passionately believes that the Palestinian people have a right to be treated humanely and fairly - and that they have waited long enough for a Palestinian state.  J Street continues to call for American and international pressure to be put on both the Israelis and Palestinians to enter immediately into final status negotiations so that a Palestinian state can come into existence, and so that Israel can thus end its more than four decade "occupation" (in and of itself a controversial term) of the West Bank.

There are aspects of J Street that I am not in full agreement with:

I don't know enough about the history and relationship between Israel and Syria to know if I agree with the J Street platform's call for a 'land-for-peace' deal with Syria.

And I know that I felt saddened by the fact that the organization seemed to put more emphasis on its Pro Peace (i.e. Pro-Palestinian) message than its Pro-Israel one.  More specifically, J Street's Zionism is left largely undefined.  It never seemed to be rooted in anything particularly reminder to me of the Jewish reasons for the continued existence of a secure Jewish homeland.  This - to me - is the essence of Zionism, and could have been more prominently discussed.

But all of that aside: for me, personally, it was unbelievable to be in a room with more than 2000 progressive Jewish activists who had the courage to say that the Palestinians deserve to be treated with respect.  That they deserve a state of their own.  That settlement-building, in the context of the Palestinians and their right to a state, is immoral.  That treating Palestinians as second class citizens is immoral. 

To be sure, there is a trade off of values that is at play here. 

Most of the Pro-Israel activists who disagree with J Street do so on the grounds that J Street is putting Israel's security at risk, by so aggressively pushing for Palestinian statehood.  Many say: what's the hurry?  Let's wait until relations with the Palestinians improve...when things on the ground become more stable....then we can work towards their state.

J Street's answer is that that magical moment will never come.  So long as settlement building continues, and the occupation continues, it will never be that the Palestinians suddenly wake up one morning and want to be friends.  Instead, J Street reasons: we Jews must take the initiative, and give them their land, and withdraw.  That, in turn, will make for a more secure Israel.

My own response to that line of reasoning is conflicted.  Israel courageously withdrew from Gaza several years ago, and Hamas filled that vacuum.  It's hard to argue that Israel is more secure now because Hamas is there.  What if the same thing were to happen in the West Bank?

But, for me, there are equally pressing questions: what do we make of the fact that the occupation compels Israel and the IDF to violate Jewish values in their interaction with the Palestinians?

That is a huge problem for me.  And according to Peter Beinart in his widely-publicized article in June: it's a problem for lots of my peers as well.  I (many of us?) wrestle with what it means to support a State of Israel whose government and army lose sight of basic Jewish moral values from time to time, at least when it comes to how Palestinians are treated.

I know that many disagree with me strongly on these issues.  There are some in our community who don't think it's appropriate to criticize Israel under any circumstances.  And there are others who struggle with being sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, I bring all of this up because what I have walked away from...after leaving the conference this a newfound desire to re-open this conversation.  It was one that I broached, in passing, in my 2009 Rosh HaShanah sermon.  And it is one that I hope we can begin having again - together - starting now.

One of the things that J Street passionately believes in is a Big Tent: the notion that our Jewish and Zionist communities become stronger when there is room for a diversity of ideas to be presented and discussed.

Perhaps, you will be moved to respond to this posting by commenting publicly here on the blog.  Just click on the "_ comments" link immediately below.  (You can already see Dr. Rob Weisgrau's response - below - to an earlier draft of this posting.  I encouraged him to share his thoughts, as a way of helping to move our conversation forward.)

Of course, you can always email me privately as well.

Or perhaps you'd prefer to have a conversation in person or over the phone. That would be fantastic too.

Whether you want to tell me how completely and totally wrong I am, or how much you applaud my way of looking at this situation....or maybe that you've never seriously considered how you feel about Israel (especially vis a vis the Palestinians)...and you just have some questions.

For all of those reasons and more: I'd like to hear from you.

The story about John Galliano is enough of a reminder to us that horrific anti-Semitism still flourishes in the world...and that fighting for Israel's continued existence is the only response to that.

The nature of Israel's existence...that's what this debate is really about. And now is as good a time as ever to enter that conversation once again.

Thanks for reading - and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Brown