Report from the first Rapid Responsa: Race, Resentment and the “Obama Moment”

Stephen Stern, Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs writes: 

Nine days after Presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion on “race and resentment” at the Washington DCJCC.  Chief Program Officer Joshua Ford and I organized our first Rapid Responsa to address what seemed a rare cultural moment, to have meaningful personal dialogue about what had become a hot button public controversy, touching on very raw societal nerves.  We got the first word out Sunday night, and on Thursday we had gathered thirty some people in a circle of chairs in the Community Hall, a grand mixture of generations, men and women, perhaps 25% of African-American origin, and a large number of people (not all) from our Jewish community.  I was constantly astonished as participants spoke with restraint and depth; profound respect, but real passion about differences – and speaking about those differences as if they were gifts in which we all might share.  Our participants opened their hearts and minds to look at people forming themselves in the face of anger and resentment, but did so without speaking to each other with anger and resentment.  

We read aloud brief excerpts from Senator Obama’s speech, which Josh and I grouped under headings i) The Personal: Encountering “Cringe” Moments in Black and White Communities, and ii) The Societal: Anger and a Path to Progress?  We asked participants to look at this not as an opportunity for political advocacy or opposition, but for frank encounters on how we identified and connected as community.  We turned to our special guests to launch the conversation — Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, not speaking for the NJDC or for any candidate, but as someone who had been responding to rumors and attacks on Senator Obama that were circulating in the Jewish community; and Jonetta Rose Barras, commentator on local politics for WAMU and newspaper columnist, who had written an Outlook front page commentary in the previous Sunday’s Washington Post on black churches, African-American identities and her path in life.  The following is from my notes taken while I participated in the discussion, as well as moderated with an eye to seeing that everyone was given an opportunity, and a prod, to speak.  Any distortions in my account are invitation for you to correct me in the comments section.

Ira started by reflecting on a formative time when race and rage were tearing America apart, April 4, 1968 and Robert Kennedy arriving in an Indianapolis black community to inform the gathering of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr..  RFK spoke of anger and division, the tragedies befalling his own family and country, and the seeking of community and rights across divisions.  The parallels to some of Obama’s themes were raised and Ira quoted from Obama’s passage on how our current age often sees race as spectacle, with cynicism and conflict.  He outlined Obama’s call to construct an alternative politics, which Ira deemed in many ways a response to a political problem for Obama.  There are real issues for Jews and others raised by what can be seen as Reverend Wright’s unacceptable fulminations, but Ira sees some currents within the Jewish community that to him often seem unfair and paranoid (though “even paranoids often have real enemies”).

Jonetta began with Obama’s singular experience of both white and African-American communities that he identified himself with (and against). She found his speech filled with the personal, and offering a special opportunity to look at what community and family mean for all Americans, and as context for our journeys encountering formative figures in our varied American lives.  She spoke of “kinships”, people in her life who were critical at some stage, and that after personal growth to another stage, there is no way you just “cut ties to them without cutting yourself”.  Jonetta expressed a vision in which race is too often a block (or obstacle) to looking at inherent realities, which for her are more importantly about class, economic disparity, and inequity in opportunity.  She sees a new stage, a fresh wind in African-American political leadership, growing from a newly-experienced  “grassroots”, in part from the “Alinsky School” of community organizing across racial lines – some exemplars being Senator Obama, Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, and Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District.

The roomful of participants jumped in, first with a concern that there is cynical and manipulative use of racial polarization to attack Obama and undermine community-building possibilities.  Continue reading

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Shabbat Surfing: Big Weekend For Jewish Films

The most exciting thing going on this weekend? The Cherry Blossom Festival? Nah, only inflames my allergies. The National Marathon? I’m more of a treadmill guy. Opening of the Nats new Stadium? Couldn’t score tickets (and we tried). NCAA tournament? My bracket’s already gone to gehena (thanks for nothing Georgetown).  

No, the most exciting thing about this weekend is the explosion of Jewish film on the local cinema screens, and most exciting is the double bill taking place at the Avalon.  We are honored that they are doing a special engagement featuring both of the audience award winners from the 2007 Washington Jewish Film Festival.

Praying With Lior is Ilana Trachtman’s transformative documentary about Lior Liebling, a young man with Down Syndrome preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. But to describe it like that is to do it a severe injustice. It is a film about transcendant spirituality, about family and loss and faith that will leave you amazed. Don’t mistake this for an “illness of the week” weepy–any time the film begins to veer too towards unearned sentimentality, Trachtman wisely steers it back to a practical plane (usually with humor), and allows the truly powerful moments to speak for themselves. You cannot miss this film.

Arranged is a triumph on so many levels: quality independent filmmaking, an orthodox Jewish narrative told without condescension, an authentic display of womens’ voices connecting across a faith divide. Structurally, the film plays like a romantic comedy, but its content is refreshingly unique, about the friendship between and an Orthodox Jewish and a Muslim woman who are both facing arranged marriages. It is based on a true story and that authenticity shines through.

Also opening this weekend at three area theaters is the Opening Night film from the 2007 WJFF, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation. If you missed our sold-out Opening Night or last week’s sold out sneak preview, be sure to check out the film that made the short list for Foreign Language Oscar. You can read more about the film at its website.

Mark Jenkins (formerly of The City Paper) has reviews of all the films at his new site reeldc.com

More Shabbat Surfing after the jump

Berman Hebrew Academy Students Make My Senior Skip Day Look Shallow

Back in the good ole analog days, when I was in high school, “Senior Skip Day” (you might have called it “Cut Day” or “Ditch Day” or “I Got Into College and I Am Sooo Over High School Day”) was a day for frivolity, goofing off, and in my case heading down to the Jersey Shore, testing out my fake i.d., and trying to convince Heidi McHighschoolcrush that we could be more than “just friends.” But enough of my baggage. (P.S.–Heidi, I am totally over you.)

Yesterday, Erica Steen, the director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service got a phone call at around 10am telling her that a group of Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy students were having an impromptu “Senior Skip Day” and were looking to make the day meaningful and thought a community service project would fit the bill. While the department didn’t have any specific projects scheduled for that day, Erica proposed that they come downtown anyway and she would Berman Academy Kids Rebel By Repairing the Worldcreate a project for them.

Within an hour Erica met 14 boys and one girl at a grocery store around the corner from the 16th Street J where they purchased bread and fruit and bottled water, then returned to the J’s community service prep kitchen.

The kids proceeded to assemble peanut butter sandwiches which they then took down to Franklin Square at 13th and I Streets and distributed to the homeless population that tends to congregate in the park there.

According to Erica, much of the conversation amongst the students centered around how much trouble they might be in the next day for cutting class. And while, their headmaster may have to give at least a small rebuke (if he’s a go-by-the-book kind of guy), I have a hunch that they won’t be forced to write on the blackboard 100 times, “I will not cut class to feed the homeless and hungry.”

Bart Simpson Does Not Attend Berman Hebrew Academy

So we congratulate the Seniors of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy for their good hearts, their kind deeds and hope that the faculty and staff of the school will smile and be proud of all that they did. We were proud to be a part of it.

If you are a high school student (or are parenting a high school student) and are interested in doing community service work for school credit or for personal enrichment, consider participating in the 16th Street J’s summer service camp: Yad B’ Yad. The two-week camp exposes high school students to a variety of service projects in the DC-area including shelter repair, hunger action, environmental clean-up, neighborhood beautification and work with at-risk children. There’s an early-bird registration discount of 10% if you sign up before April 4.

Sneak Preview of “Then She Found Me”

Then She Found MeThe Screening Room is holding a free screening next Friday, April 4 at 5:00 pm of Helen Hunt’s directorial debut Then She Found Me. It’s a remarkable film and a little unexpected coming from Hunt who made a career out of playing the ultimate shiksa in the 90s television series Mad About You opposite professional nebbish Paul Reiser. This isn’t one of those charming, indie, New York-based films where everyone in it is a coded Jew (neurotic, urban, mommy-issues). No, the characters, adapted from the Elinor Lipman book of the same name, have real Jewish identities, celebrate Shabbat, even (gasp!) pray and believe in G-d. The main character’s Judaism is a central aspect of her character and not just fodder for comic moments. That said, these are complete characters, so they’re not entirely defined by their Judaism–just like most of the people I know who have a religious life of any denomination. It is an interesting choice, and one wonders if those years of hanging around Reiser (and in a long-term relationship with Hank Azaria) had a lasting impact on her that attracted her to this story and to the character of April Epner. She also managed to assemble an amazing cast including Colin Firth, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick, as well as an unexpected cameo by Salman Rushdie.

The other intriguing thing about the film is how well it handles the emotions and experiences of infertility and adoption which are as large a presence in the film as April’s Jewishness. My wife and I went through infertility and are frustrated when so often popular entertainment gets the whole thing wrong–either by focusing on septuplets as the obvious result of fertility treatments or by making adoption seem like an easy way out. (I’m pointing the finger at you Friends– we know you knew better Courtney Cox Arquette!) The reality is of course, far more complex and Then She Found Me deals with both topics–adoption and infertility–with extraordinary veracity to the conflicted emotions and hard decisions involved in both.

It is a free screening, but a reservation is required and the slots are going fast. Click here to get yours. It opens in theaters May 2nd in DC. The trailer from the film is below:

Taking the Opportunity to Talk About Race

An interesting article from last week’s New York Times covers the national response to Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race outside the context of its political success or failure. The article quotes Rev. Joel Hunter, the senior pastor of a white evangelical mega-church in Central Florida, who described Obama’s speech as a kind of “Rorschach inkblot test for the nation…It calls out of you what is already in you.” As a clergy member he wants to be part of the healing and reconciliation that the moment affords, but adds, “unless it’s raised in a very public manner, it’s tough for us in our regular conversation to raise it.”

So we’re raising it in a very public manner. And we’re not alone. Why? Because, as the article details, around the country there is a sense in many quarters that there is a window of opportunity to talk about these issues like adults–this coming from personalities as divergent as the crew from The View, to Bill O’Reilly to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine. The Time’s article quotes a student from Tufts University in Boston as saying, “We need to have some sort of follow-up conversation…even among groups that do no interact on a daily basis, and this speech has created a space for that. Whether individuals choose to engage is their own choice, but the opportunity is still there.”

It is heartening to see that our instinct to provide a public forum to react to the substance of Senator Obama’s speech is one that is being echoed country-wide, as detailed in the article. I hope that if you’ve been seeking the opportunity to Jonetta Rose BarrasIra Formanwrestle with what has been “called out of you” by the speech, you’ll join us on Thursday, March 27 for our dialogue on the themes of the speech with Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and Jonetta Rose Barras, political commentator at WAMU-88.5.

Rapid Responsa: An Open Discussion About Barack Obama’s Speech on Race & Resentment takes place Thursday, March 27 at 7:30 pm at the Washington DCJCC. Click here to RSVP.

Rapid Responsa: An Invitation to Meet on 3/27 and Talk About Obama’s Philadelphia Speech on Race and Resentment

This Thursday, March 27, the 16th Street J invites you to join us at 7:30 pm in the bricks and mortar world for a discussion about race, resentment and the cultural moment signified by Barack Obama’s speech on race. We will use Obama’s speech as a “source text” and an opportunity to move beyond political advocacy or opposition to share our individual reactions, how it applies to our communities, adjacent and related communities and what we might have to say to one another. This is an attempt to step outside the predominant conversation of how Obama’s speech affects the campaign horse-race, and rather respond to how the content of Obama’s speech reverberates–or falls short–with each other.

Initiating our discussion will be special guests, Jonetta Rose Barras, political commentator for WAMU-88.5 FM and Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and Research Director of the Solomon Project.

This program is free and open to all members of the Washington community.

Rapid Responsa is a new program of the 16th Street J. It seeks to periodically provide a forum, as public events warrant, to shape a quick, civil discussion on ideas that have immediate cultural relevancy and about which average citizens ought to be able to speak with one another. Responsa have a long history in Judaism, and concern themselves not only with religious matters, but increasingly with contemporary issues, beginning as early as the 14th Century. What we are embracing with this title is not the stamp of authority that a responsa from a learned rabbi brings with it; rather we are embracing the dialectical approach which characterizes a great many of them. In these cases there is a willingness to discuss thesis and antithesis, a participatory Socratic method, and while we expect we will raise more questions than we answer, our hope is that something can be learned.

RSVP to join the conversation.

Read the text of Senator Obama’s speech.

Read Jonetta Rose Barras’ article, “He’s Preaching to A Choir I’ve Left” from the Outlook Section of the Sunday, March 23 Washington Post.

Shabbat Surfing: The Rich Set Him Up! (?)

Could Eliot Spitzer be the Jewish Marion Barry? The inevitable conspiracy theories surface at Jewlicious. They might be worth pursuing, you know, if he hadn’t actually admitted to spending eighty large on hookers.

Tom Ricks on washingtonpost.com ran excerpts of a report on how concentrating on counter-insurgency operations degraded the IDF’s ability to fight a more conventional war such as the one against Hezbollah in 2006. He wonders whether the US Army’s current experience in Iraq could have similar consequences.

Arjewtino has a great post about wearing his father’s suit, giving props to another blogger who described it as, “Superman putting on his cape.”

Our neighbors at 17th Street Hardware make it into the landmark hearing at the Supreme Court about gun rights.

Patrick Sauer at Jewcy handicaps the NCAA field by their Tribe affiliations (as previously mentioned, I’m pulling for Memphis).

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention along with half the other bloggers in DC that the cast and crew of State of Play was shooting up the street at the Temple of the Scottish Rite. There have been plenty of other posts about this elsewhere, but one of our preschool classes took a walk up the street to check out the scene. Unfortunately, Russell Crowe was not available to participate in circle time.

Speaking of movies…After the jump: The Best of Purim on YouTube Continue reading

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