Park51 (not the Ground Zero Mosque) as seen from my desk at the Washington DCJCC

It is perhaps stating the obvious to declare that I believe in community centers. In particular, I believe in the important role our Washington DC Jewish Community Center plays in the life of the local Jewish community, the neighborhood we call home and the program participants of all faiths (and lack thereof) from near and far who find themselves in our facility for any number of reasons. As an American who finds his patriotism most firmly in the exceptional diversity and pluralism of the United States, I am especially proud that our Jewish Community Center sits just down the street from the White House. In short, community centers matter. The location of community centers matter. Which is why it has been especially difficult to observe the acrimony, intolerance and clumsy public debate that has accompanied the so-called Ground Zero mosque, more properly known first as Cordoba House and now as Park51.

My personal feelings aside, our organization has no official position on whether or not an Islamic Cultural Center should be built in the neighborhood surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Park51 is explicitly trying to emulate the role of a JCC — and even consulted with the Executive Director of the Manhattan JCC who advised her to have plenty of space for stroller parking. (Quick fact: leaders of the Manhattan JCC paid a visit to 16th and Q when they were planning their building for ideas on how to structure a new urban JCC. To this day, we both struggle with stroller parking.) The facts seem to be that legally, there is nothing that ought to prevent such a center from being built — presuming factors such as zoning and other vagaries of construction in New York are not impediments.

My personal belief from the limited research I have done is that the spirit and mission of the proposed Center send a powerful message about the resilience of American democracy and offers a platform for mainstream Muslims to demonstrate their participation in and contributions to that democratic culture. My limited research has also shown that while there are passionate people of goodwill behind the Park51 project, they may ironically have lacked the community building skills needed to bring a project like this through to fruition. One needs more than passion to create the community that Park51 proposes, you need political savvy and a public relations plan — both of which have been painfully absent, evidenced best by their surprise at the backlash they now face. One would hope that they could respond to the outrage they face with more persuasive material than an intern’s snarky tweets and their own righteous outrage.

Lofty beliefs and magnanimous gestures are not always received in the same manner in which they are offered. Where the founders of Park51 thought they were offering to create a beacon of tolerance, others chose to see an arrogant monument of Islamic triumphalism. Then there are those who do not embrace that particular hysteria, but come out against it based on an argument that boils down to, “I’m sorry but we’re just not ready. It’s not you, it’s me. Perhaps we can still be friends?” Others point to the parallel of the ill-conceived Carmelite convent that was to be built on the grounds of Auschwitz — no matter how pure the intentions, the locale makes such a presence sacrilege. Still others argue is that while there ought to be nothing preventing an Islamic Cultural Center proximate to the site of a national trauma, a political climate absurd enough to provoke an official statement from the White House as to the President’s religious affiliation makes this at best an inconvenient and unnecessary battle and at worst, provides fuel with which to further derange the body politic.

How on earth do we ever get ourselves out of this place? Is there a way to move forward without moving backwards? My hope is that Park51 does get built, and that over time it proves its worth in building bridges and healing the pathological distrust our culture has developed in response to anything Muslim. But one seldom cures a pathology without treatment, and it may be that at this moment the patient is too sick to take this particular medicine. That would be a shame.

If Park51 has no other goal, it is  to reclaim Islam from the 19 criminals whose perverted fervor gave us the trauma of 9/11. To provide a space where an Islamic culture can be in a constant process of creative and dynamic exchange with what gets lumped together as “Western Culture” is an important step in that on-going project.

At our finest moments, that is what the Washington DCJCC achieves — serving as a nexus for the vibrant, multitudinous and often contradictory expressions of modern Jewish culture and then bringing them into creative tension with everything else the world beyond our doors has to offer. The results are by turns thrilling and disappointing, deeply transformative to some and profoundly upsetting to others; and more often something somewhat in-between ecstasy and tragedy. From the diversity of the kids and parents at family night of our summer camp, to the unbridled voices on our stages and screens, to the unlikely alliances formed on our volunteer projects, to the hesitant embrace of a rediscovered Jewish identity by a participant in our GLBT outreach programs, there are small moments every day here that testify to the power of a community center. It is an energy that enriches our Judaism, our neighborhood, and being six-blocks from the White House may I be so bold to say, our country and our world. It is that potential (and perhaps old-fashioned American optimism) that makes me hope that Park51 can become a reality.

Fashion Crime in the City

Crime is a fact of life when you live in a city. We wish it weren’t, but there you have it. And if you live in the city long enough, you realize that anything that can be stolen, eventually will be stolen, regardless of whether it is worth stealing. Back in the 90s my car window was repeatedly smashed not for my radio, which had already been removed, not for something valuable like a coat or sports gear left in plain view, but for my mix tapes. I remember wondering if the person who stole the tapes was disappointed by so much Uncle Tupelo (or if they were into 90s alt-country and hence kept breaking my window hoping for more).

So, it shouldn’t be very shocking that our flag was stolen off of our flag pole this past weekend. That’s just petty theft.

Walking Towards the Flag Pole at 16th and Q


Fig. 1 – We see the perpetrators walking up 16th Street in the early morning. Whether they were walking towards our flag pole with premeditated ill-intent is unkown at this point.

Stopping by the flagpole


Fig. 2 – The perpetrators give no indication even as they reach the base of the pole that they are doing anything other than cutting across 16th to Q Street.

Down the mast


Fig 3 – Without so much as a recorded-bugle version of Taps, the thieves unceremoniously lower Old Glory.

Fold the flag


Fig. 4 – The fiends begin to fold the flag, but in their defense it looks like they are doing so in the properly sanctioned manner.

What's happening


Fig. 5 – Wait. What’s going on? Our view is momentarily blocked by the naked flag pole, stripped of its standard. Please note that at this point a third person has entered the frame and is observing from the bus shelter.

Fashion crime


Fig. 6 – The thieves stride off with one of them wearing the flag — as what? — as a skirt? As a wrap? As a patch for a split in the seat of his pants? What exactly are they doing with our flag? Please note that the person in the bus shelter has made themselves comfortable.

To steal the flag is surely dastardly, but to wear it as a skirt! Let’s ignore the fact that horizontal stripes are never flattering and that he is wearing the wrong accessories to go with a patriotic-themed wardrobe — that was our flag!

Please bring it back.

If you would like to help us purchase a new flag, please make a contribution to the Washington DCJCC.


We Asked You To Drive, And You Did

by Erica Steen, director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Washington DCJCC

Bone Marrow DonationsHave you ever had an experience that at the time didn’t seem like much but afterwards you were flabbergasted by it? That’s what last week’s Bone Marrow Drive was like.

At 4:00pm 8 volunteers arrived. They discussed the plan for the evening and how they would organize themselves along with the supplies. They hung up a banner, set out fliers and questionnaires and took the time to register themselves.

I got nervous, it was pouring rain. Would anyone really come out of their way to swab their cheek with an extra large cotton swab? Gift of Life had sent us 100 kits to register donors and after 150 people registered in-advance to stop-by we called and asked for more. Our contact giggled and said we were very ambitious and that 100 would be plenty. In fact he reminded us to send back the unused kits along with those that had been filled out. To ease our minds a bit, one of the volunteers had an extra 25 kits from a drive she’d run. She brought them just in case.

The evening ran like clockwork. A stead flow of community members came in, asked the front desk where to go and then headed over to the J café area to fill out their paperwork and swab. Some people asked what motivated the drive and many of the volunteers spoke of their friend Elissa, a vibrant 26 year old living in our community. Everyone was cheerful, feeling good about being a part of this effort and to be out of the torrential rain outside.

Congresswoman Donna EdwardsThere was steady flow of registrants from throughout the DC area. We even had a VIP guest, Congresswoman Donna Edwards stopped by to add her name to the Bone Marrow Registry. It was nice to know the word spread!

And believe it or not, by 7:00 pm, 125 kits had been completed and we were having to turn people away. OK, we didn’t actually turn them away; we invited them back on September 15 for our Patriot’s Day event that will include among other things, a bone marrow registration.

After leaving the event, it hit me. What a wonderful thing our community did. In a matter of 2 hours we added 125 names to the National Bone Marrow Registry. Without batting an eye! Through word of mouth, the Washington DCJCC website and Facebook we may have saved a life. My fingers are crossed; let’s hope we’ve found a match for Elissa and maybe someone else. You never know!


Our Jewish Service Corps Fellow on Building, Volunteering and Connecting

by Rose Cranna
Today is Rose’s last day as the Behrend Builders/Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service coordinator. Rose held this year-long position as part of her participation in Avodah—The Jewish Service Corps. I asked her to reflect on her year working on Behrend projects and her experiences as an Avodah Fellow.

Last fall, a woman e-mailed me. She had met Behrend volunteers at the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition rally at the Fishing School that August. After several severe storms, a tree had fallen on her roof and the top floor of her house was being destroyed by water damage. AVODAH volunteers repair a homeHer back porch had also collapsed. Her insurance company not only denied her claim within less than one week, but completely canceled her policy, leading to her mortgage company immediately denying her refinancing process. In the last line of her e-mail to me, she wrote: “This is an urgent plea for help.”

After our initial site visit, we had to tell her that, although Behrend Builders cannot do roof repairs, we could connect her with a partner agency that could do the roof. Once she found someone to do the roof, we would be able to come in and begin repairing the interior rooms. Months went by and we did not hear from her. Many attempts to contact her failed. Then, in April we spoke with our partner, Yachad, who informed us that they had found a contractor to fix her roof at very little cost to her. This was the message we were waiting for because it meant that we could bring a group to begin the interior. After a second site visit, we saw that it was in far worse condition after the winter – in certain corners of the ceiling, sunlight was streaming in.

Now, it was a matter of finding just the right group for the job.

In AVODAH, we make monthly Site Visits to each others’ placements (my fellow Corps members work at other anti-poverty non-profits throughout DC and Maryland). It’s a great opportunity to see not only where our housemates spend the bulk of their days, but to see how interconnected the work we each do really is. Often in the social services, one can feel extremely isolated, so this is an opportunity to realize the incredible network available.  It just so happened that my Behrend Builders Site Visit fell in June. You can guess how easy that decision was.

My friends and I spent the Site Visit working with her; clearing out her basement, pulling moldy drywall off the ceilings and walls, priming and painting the rooms, and clearing brush from the backyard. The chance to work alongside the homeowner and to see first-hand the devastating conditions she was living in was an eye-opening experience for many of my housemates. In the weeks since our project, many of them still ask me how she is doing and when Behrend Builders will return to continue the project, which shows that, even though I was lucky enough to spend my AVODAH year as the Behrend Builders Coordinator, they all care deeply about helping others, and understand what it takes to be a Behrend Builder.


Happy Birthday Faye Moskowitz

In honor of the incredible Faye Moskowitz’s 80th Birthday, past particpants in the annual Washington DCJCC Writer’s Retreat created a collection of essays and stories surrounding food and cooking — a topic close to Faye’s heart. The only requirement for submissions was that you share a recipe. Despite not having attended the retreat, but out of my enormous respect and love for Faye, I was allowed to make the following contribution. The collection was presented to Faye last night at the 8th annual Retreat, so now I am safe to post this…

My mother writes to me:

So I have no recipe for chicken marsala – I just make it from memory

Pound the chicken cutlets until they are thin
Dip in seasoned flour and brown in olive oil

Place cutlets in a baking dish

Slice fresh mozzarella cheese and put a slice on each cutlet (this is your memory)
Slice mushrooms and lightly coat with flour mixture
Lightly sauté mushrooms – add more olive oil if needed
With mushrooms still in pan, add a cup of chicken broth, ½ cup white wine and mix until sauce thickens

Pour sauce over cutlets – cover lightly with foil and bake at 350 for ½ hour – longer for thicker cutlets
Remove foil for last few minutes

Photo courtesy of

Photo by 2-Dog-Farm. Used under Creative Commons License.

This was my favorite dinner that my mother would make when I was growing up. I have not eaten it in many years – not since I began keeping kosher and forsook all that combined milk and meat. Intellectually, I have problems with the dictum that milk and meat should apply to poultry at all: the commandment tells us to “not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” The logic goes that to do so – to literally boil the slaughtered flesh of a premature lamb in the substance it’s mother’s body excretes with the intent to nourish it –would be cruel. I can see their point.

But chickens produce no milk. They do produce eggs in abundance, but there is no similar prohibition against dipping butchered fowl in a yolky-albumen cocktail of its never-to-be-born offspring. Such are the vagaries of kashrut. There is, of course, a lengthy chain of Talmudic logic that gets you from cheeseburgers to chicken parm. I will not trouble you with it here. It is a logic I begrudgingly accept as an article of faith, in part because the logic is so extended and because I doubt faith supported by less serpentine logic would qualify as faith at-all.

It is for that dubious faith that my mother’s Chicken Marsala is now a dish consumed only in my memory where it comes out of the oven piping hot, bathed in brown gravy with stray whorls of mozzarella cheese floating about, tempting you to pluck them out at the expense of singed fingers and scalded tongue. Once cooled and served with a healthy portion of rice pilaf (via Rice-A-Roni), the dish is a perfect combination of the slight crunch of tender chicken, the milky sweetness of gooey cheese and the earthy, savory warmth of that gravy. Honestly, I could drink that gravy and many times I literally licked my plate. If I were a deer, that gravy would be my salt-lick, and the last thought that would go through my mind before the bullet sent it, along with my skull and six-point antlers to the wall of some survivalist supply store would be, “Yum.”

My mother claims that the detail of the cheese on top of the chicken is an invented memory, belonging only to me. Technically, she is correct that traditional Chicken Marsala is prepared without cheese. But if we were to get technical then I would be compelled to note that nowhere in my mother’s recipe does the ingredient Marsala wine appear. And come to think of it, I don’t remember any mushrooms either. That detail doesn’t jibe with a dish that was imprinted on my psyche at an age when I was most certainly not yet reconciled to the view of fungi as fit for human consumption. And looking at the recipe, there is no reason I couldn’t make this dish now and stay within the bounds of kashrut by simply withholding the (possibly fantastical) cheese.

And perhaps some day I will. But I am already bracing myself for the letdown when, inevitably, the alchemy of this childhood dish fails to reactivate. Even if the cheese is a pure fabrication, it stands in-place for the one-way passage that delivers us from childhood and the comforts thereof. I can no more be the little boy licking his plate clean than I can convince the Sanhedrin that dairy and poultry really is kosher. Would that I could do either.

(cross-posted to Not-For-Profit Dad)


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