God Bless America

Lothar Birkner

Irving Berlin wrote this anthem. He was a refugee from Russia, his parents fled in the 1890ies from Russian pogroms to the USA. They believed in the message:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Long ago!

Today the USA celebrates Independence Day. On July 4th 1776 the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which was mostly written by Thomas Jefferson.  A historic day in the history of modern times and an important milestone in the development of freedom and democracy. Of course it was long way from the Fathers of the US Constitution via Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, the first non-white president.  It was a path with many difficulties and setbacks and today it seems as if we have to…

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Some Things I’ve Learned

Some things I’ve learned on the trail:

  • Social media is a curse and a blessing–it connects and maintains friendships across long distances,
    • but it also isolates people into their screens and removes the face to face and in the moment contact that humans need as social animals
  • Gratitude is a powerful motivating force, required to fuel the desire to persevere.
    • Gratitude and joy for one’s own accomplishments
    • Gratitude and appreciation towards those around us for their kindness and support
    • And for all the coincidental and unexpected gifts, for the unwitting angels, as well as the purposeful, powerful forces that move people to joy and kindness.
  • Trying new things and persisting makes strangeness and discomfort slowly wear away.
    • You don’t know what you can do till you try
    • You also needn’t be afraid to ask for help, while trying to get yourself steady on your own two feet
  • Speaking of feet, putting one foot in front of the other, not overwhelming with the bigger picture can make big problems seem manageable
    • While big pictures and dreams are meant to motivate one to start taking those little steps

It feels like yin and yang, with good and bad mixed together.

And what I have learned is that, there is no such thing as perfect, but you are perfect, just the way you are.

The Day After

They say when one door closes, another opens. It has most certainly seemed like there have been endless doors and hoops and tunnels, where I didn’t know if I were coming or going.

Yesterday was the primary and what felt like the end of an era. I went from being a devoted part of #TeamAllison to there being no Allison team in a single night.

Because we lost.

But we accomplished so much. We knocked on far more doors than I could have ever imagined, pushed ourselves to call people and write, waved signs and handed out flyers for hours. And along the way we made connections and new friends, built a sense of community.  I know I am so thankful for all the amazing people I have met.

I also learned an immense amount about the whole inner workings of politics, as well as what I am capable of. I went from being a helper, to starting to take charge and manage a campaign, to being a candidate myself.

I am fortunate that my political journey is continuing. While the primary campaign for Allison has sadly ended, I will have my own election night in less than 5 months. When I reach that night, no matter what the outcome, I hope I will be able to look back and reflect on new accomplishments, new lessons from a campaign trail of my own.

Death Be Not Proud: An Ode to my Brother-in-Law Jonathan

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
--John Donne

John Donne’s poem isn’t one I have pondered in a very long while, but it rose up into my consciousness this past week. No wonder with all these occurrences: an unexpected death, a long awaited birth, not to mention the recent events in Las Vegas. Today couldn’t get more complicated could it? Good things–overshadowed by tragedy. But I won’t let death win. Death be not proud: it is all too easy to die. Each day we live past the next is a triumph over death.

I turned 46 today. My brother-in-law, Jonathan, found face first in the pool last week, made it to 48.

I can see him smiling, his sweet, innocent smile, wondering what all the fuss is over him. He lived humbly and kindly. He was a blessing to his mom, who just 7 months earlier had lost her husband, his dad. Before the last hurricane, Jonathan had an inkling this wouldn’t be an ordinary storm. A week ahead of the more common last minute panic, he went quietly about shopping and stocking up for the road closures and lack of power he knew would follow the winds.

I thought of him when I was making my famous ground turkey meat sauce the other night. During our visits to my in-laws, my mother-in-law would always ask me to make my specialty. But Jonathan never let me cook alone. He would get out the pots and pans for me, start the water boiling for pasta. If I needed to tend to one of my kids, he would take over stirring the sauce.

Jonathan had a passion for many things in life, one of which was chess, but he wasn’t a loner in his pursuits. He wanted to share that with our kids and the kids he taught at the local chess club. We have his books How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and Chess Tactics for Kids on permanent loan to us, which he asked my kids to take good care of. He sent his nephew, my son, a competition grade chess set for his birthday and, when we visited, patiently sat with him teaching him the more tricky moves.

It’s hard to think about death without celebrating life. Yesterday was the birth of Jonathan’s first cousin’s first born son, an event he and his mom had been looking forward to. They were supposed to Facetime with the newborn as soon as he came out into the world. I can picture Jonathan smiling and getting all googly eyed at the adorable little infant, that we were planning to drive up together to see over the winter. 

And today is my birthday and Jonathan’s funeral.

Death reminds me that each moment with loved ones is precious. I wanted my kids to grow up with their smart, sweet uncle guiding them. But we had some wonderful times together and we will never forget him. Jonathan, who suffered mental illness that kept him from venturing out on his own, had not a jealous bone in his body. He was happy to see us happy and had made peace with his lot. I know he will be looking down at us smiling.

Yom Kippur Appeal

My Motto: I am not perfect, but I can strive toward progress. 

We are coming up on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of atonement, a day for self-reflection and to ponder what I could have done better and how I can improve for the next year. I know it is a day to not just reflect on my own shortcomings, but on our communities and the world at large. My personal motto is ”I am not perfect, but I can strive toward progress.” That’s what keeps me going day to day, and especially at this time, when there are so many suffering, I think about how in my own small imperfect way, I can make a difference.

Somewhat serendipitously, the campaign that I am working on to elect Allison Galbraith for congress is also coming up on the end of the financial reporting quarter. As some of you may know, I had taken over as Acting Campaign Manager, when our previous very talented campaign manager, who was instrumental in launching Allison’s campaign had to step down due to other demands. I was honored that Allison put her trust in me, but also recognized that I am stepping into some very big shoes.

I took the plunge because I knew I wanted to make a difference in our world, and because I saw Allison fighting for principles that I believe in. Such as the right of each person to affordable healthcare, giving support to our families caring for loved ones with disabilities and health issues, taking the corrupting influence of money out of politics. And as our team has grown by leaps and bounds, I know I am not alone. Every single one of our staff members have the dedication and desire to make sure that Allison wins her election for Congress in November 2018. We do our work for the campaign without expectation that we will be paid for all the numerous hours we spend, because we believe in Allison and because this is not just a job for us: Allison is who we want to represent us!

So why am I writing a “Yom Kippur appeal” on the eve of the final day of our financial quarter? I don’t want money for myself, my staff doesn’t do this for the money, Allison herself is sacrificing hours from her own business. But what we do want is to win, and to do that we need money. In order to win in such a large, spread out district, we need to reach the many many people who I am sure will want to vote for Allison as soon as they hear about her. Even seemingly small things, such as literature and t-shirts and phone lists, add up.  We want the means to support all out canvassing and outreach to every single one of our constituents. And we want to pay our staff, because we don’t want them to have to juggle outside work responsibilities, while they organize and energize our volunteers on the ground.

So I am asking you for whatever you can afford, be it large or small. Every bit helps, because like raindrops gathering together, we can become a downpour, that washes away the corruption and greed of our current system, and replaces it with an elected congress that truly fights for the people.


 
Allison for Congress
P.O. Box 25
Fallston, MD 21047

 

It is Passover again and I am reminded that Silence is not an option

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Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is the one that most speaks to me as a call to social justice. From the slow decline of a minority group into oppression to the transformation of a member of the privileged class heeding the whisperings of his conscience, Passover has all the elements of the heroic tragedy we face in almost every generation and so keenly today.

Outsiders, immigrants with strange customs, the Israelites were first welcomed into the land of prosperity at the time, Egypt. But they were kept separate and never integrated, and as their numbers grew the majority or ruling class began to worry that this group would overtake them. And so the pharaohs began to limit their activities, place additional burdens in order to keep the population from expanding. When this did not seem to work, decrees became harsher, families torn apart, parents forced to give up children, including one brave woman who hopefully set her child in a basket on the river.

That child was discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter and grew up in privilege in the palace. The child drawn from the water, Moses, became aware as he grew up that his place of privilege was held at the expense of the oppression of others and he risked his life to save a slave being beaten by his master. Had he simply fled for his life to the oasis of Goshen and turned his back on his origins, we would not today have the story of the Exodus of slaves to freedom, a story that continues to ring the bell of responsibility for the oppressed, of speaking up for the voiceless.

Moses settled for a while, but inside him burned the memory and consciousness that others still suffered. This voice, that he heard on a mountain speaking to him through a burning bush, urged him back to Egypt, to speak against the injustice of his time.

Every year I think about Moses and remember that it takes one brave voice to begin the march to freedom. And eventually that voice grew into a multitude demanding liberty, and eventually that multitude became a people demanding a just society.

The story doesn’t end with dancing in freedom, though there was much joyous dancing as the waves of the red sea came down on their oppressors. The people come back to that mountain, where Moses heard the voice of responsibility and determined to return for the others. Standing under that mountain, they accepted a covenant, a social pact of justice and equality.

Of course, this is an idealized view of the Exodus from Egypt*, leading to this promised land of opportunity and plenty, each one under their own fig tree. New masters would continue to enslave others as property for thousands of years thence.

“In every generation,” we recite from the Hagaddah, “it is beholden on us to feel as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt.” Never forget, has been a mantra that harkens back as old as time. And never stand silent to the oppression of the stranger in your midst, for you yourself were once a stranger in a strange land.

 


*I would like to give credit to the original 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Ten Commandments” for perhaps inculcating this idealized view in me as well.

**Also see: On1Foot, Jewish Texts for Social Justice

Pride

Okay, this is not going to be about what you think. But here goes, a kind of follow up to my post Do What You Love. I wanted to acknowledge my pride in my recent work, particularly the launching of a lengthy labor of love, the website I helped create for the Off the Derech community. If you haven’t seen it, and if you are OTD you probably already have, as it already has far, far more visitors and views than my little blog will probably ever have, check it out: offthederech.org

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Pride is an important motivator, of which I don’t often have enough. I am one of the those people that get overly optimistic about a project, and then after a little bit, start to question, second-guess, often giving up in the process. But a little pride can go a long way. I know because among other things, I struggle with my weight, and what gets me back on track is my pride in having persevered and maintained a significant, but healthy weight loss. When I start to lose control of my eating habits, start to feel like giving up, I have this image in my mind of the person that can do this, that I know I am.

The OTD website has been a long time in coming, and I almost did give up. I had never built my own website before, aside from starting this blog on wordpress.com, and you can see I’ve kept it pretty bare bones, nothing fancy. I knew a little bit about html coding, from an online course I took, but hardly enough to make a complicated, well-designed site.

The suggestion to use a wordpress platform came from a good friend of my husband’s, a can-do, jack of all trades guy, who had taught himself the skills needed to create a web design business. In fact, he was also the one who inspired me to try my hand at some other unusual activities for an urban-raised, academically-minded individual; he was my mentor in woodworking and gardening, even gave me the confidence to get under the sink and replace my own kitchen faucets.

It did take me several years to build enough confidence to finally launch the website. Along the way I had various collaborators, who were also willing to take time from other occupations to pursue this project. My OTD colleagues live across the globe, so we have held our meetings on conference calls and google hangout.

We started with a very basic wordpress platform and began writing pages. For a few bucks, I purchased a domain name and found a web-host. We wanted something that wasn’t static, that would provide up to date material. Achieving this wasn’t so simple for amateur web-designers. We experimented with various plug-ins and themes, but there were a lot of bugs that we couldn’t quite figure out. We were getting frustrated and the project began to stagnate.

Then, a professional  web developer offered to make a custom designed site in his spare time. He volunteered an enormous amount of time, did an amazing job, and the site was put up. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that without his continued support, which he was unable to sustain long-term, we were left with something that we had no idea how to maintain. We didn’t want to pull the plug, but after a few months with no new content, we took the site offline.

I still wanted to do this thing, so did my collaborator, but we needed time for other things;  I was busy advocating for my special needs child, who needed a more appropriate school placement; my friend was working a new job that needed his attention. We seemingly went our separate ways.

About a month or so ago, I started to get involved in a local political action group. I offered to help with their website. To my surprise and the delight of the professional web-designer, I  was quickly able to get in and start editing and uploading content to the wordpress based site. Then, in some serendipitous act, my OTD collaborator contacted me; it was time to get this site online already. He had purchased a new wordpress theme that had all the functionality we needed. With new found confidence in my understanding of how to work with a wordpress platform, I got to work rebuilding our site.

I know it is not perfect, but I have impressed my collaborators, my OTD community, and most importantly, myself, with the result. I am proud of my work and proud of what we accomplished. And that pride continues to motivate me, to keep learning and gaining skills, to persist in adding up-to-date content to the website, to never give up on my dreams.

 

Do What You Love

A very long time ago, I read a book entitled: Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. I’m a firm believer in following your passion, but practically speaking, I can’t say that I agreed that money will necessarily follow. Has my passion for dance, writing, or foreign languages led to a career? Okay, I have used my knowledge of Hebrew to make money teaching and tutoring. Perhaps, the problem is that I have too many interests (I haven’t actually listed all the things that spark me).

Due to some recent experiences, however, I am discovering how money might follow. If you follow your passion, you will want to spend a lot of time doing it. For the last few years, I have pursued my desire to create a website that fills a need for people who have left their orthodox religion (i.e. have gone Off the Derech). I jumped at the chance to work with other OTDers up the coast (in New York) and across the pond (in Europe) to make a professional looking site, despite the fact that none of us were web experts. With young kids and one with special needs, it was hard for me to find the time to contact and collaborate with my compatriots. Despite the length of time it has taken (and we have not yet reached our goal) we have persisted.  

That great cliche, practice makes perfect, is quite true, and in fact, despite a lack of formal education in the subject, I am starting to see myself as technologically adept. This improvement in my abilities has resulted in a certain pride in my work. Thanks to this growing confidence, when inevitably faced with new challenges, I was not afraid to try new tactics and seek out more information.

I can see how through multiple such experiences and expansion of one’s knowledge, one will start to identify oneself as an expert in an area. It might take years, but eventually, with that confidence and expertise one will be ready to market one’s skills, and yes, money might follow.

In the last few months, with my kids finally in school full-time [last year was hard because my son had to be home-schooled half the year, till we found a suitable educational environment; having a special needs child means that I am always on call, and I could go on, but that is for another post], I have been increasingly looking for fulfilling work outside the home. Money alone will never be the motivating factor, though, at least for me. Humans seek many things, and survival, attaining basic needs, is primal. But beyond that, motivation comes from the pride of a doing a job well, and the dignity of knowing our own self-worth. So yes, I have looked at job listings, in all sorts of fields, that I am somewhat qualified in, but finding that spark of motivation to pursue a job, that hasn’t been so easy. I did not feel the synergy of pride with the skills required to do a particular job.

[As an aside, money is in a sense a social representation of the value of your pursuits, and yet we can be paid far less than our labors’ real worth, and still feel fulfilled.  I won’t deny, though, that at some level, the lower wages of child-care workers, as opposed to a business executive, for example, can affect one’s own sense of value.]

A week or so ago, I decided to help out with a new organization’s website. I’ve written about attending the local meeting of this organization and my timid acknowledgement that I might like to run for office. Beyond that, however, I have become increasingly relied upon to edit and upload content for their very professionally done website. I had some self-doubt at first, but I was reassured that I knew more than enough to get started. Along with restarting this blog and maintaining my commitment to self-expression, I am starting to identify myself as a writer and web content editor. I am fascinated by this new perception of myself as a professional. It took many years, persistence, willingness to practice skills, but slowly, I see how at some point, yes, if I do what I love, the money will follow.

Policy position #1

A few days ago, I admitted I might like to run for political office. So if I am to run for office, I will need to put down on paper exactly where I stand on the issues. Of course, my current stance might change as I learn more about how things work in our particular community. However, I will at least attempt to delineate my core values, while also learning about what is important to my constituents.

I am going to begin with the issue of housing. I have stable housing: I own a house, albeit with a mortgage, so the bank can claim ownership if I fail to pay down my mortgage. Not everyone is so lucky to have this stability when it comes to shelter. Reliable housing requires reliable income, something not always available for various reasons. One’s ability to save money determines if one can save up for a mortgage, or will need to rent. Then based on one’s regular income, is determined the affordability of various options.

Right now, the options available, particularly for those who are unable to save money to obtain a mortgage, are severely restricted, if not non-existent, if one has a low income. In our area, the average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is about $1,000. In addition to simply covering the amount of at least $12,000/year, many landlords require the renter  to have an income considerably higher than their actual income, so assuming roughly 50% in their income goes to rent, now we are talking about needing to verify income of at least $24,000/year. Of course this assumes that $12,000/year is enough to cover food, clothing, transportation and utilities that are necessities. Oh, I haven’t even included basic health care or child care costs ( or higher education costs, if you went to college and have a debt to pay back).

So let’s think about it. Let’s say you are a single parent, with two kids and work a minimum-wage job, 40 hours a week. You make $15,000/year. In our area, few if any landlords would accept your application, your children would probably go hungry and you would probably not even be able to afford child care to work those 40 hours/week. Now, if you are a parent with school-aged children, available hours to work would go down even further, but with no money left for food, clothing, and all the other necessities mentioned above.

So what do people in that situation do? Well, housing gets crowded and sometimes illegal. Desperate families move in with their relatives, who may not even legally be allowed to take in additional residents (many landlords and city regulations have restrictions on occupancy).  I know personally of such a case, and I tried to help by searching for local rentals, even tried to imagine how I could rent out a portion of my own home, but that would mean either lack of privacy for my own family, or allowing someone to take up residence in a basement without easy outside access and no bathroom or kitchen. So it could be done, if I had a walk out basement with at least a bathroom, which I don’t. This family is currently on a two-year waiting list for an affordable housing voucher, and meanwhile, would be homeless if not for relatives willing to risk their own housing by taking them in illegally.

If we go to the next level, a family that is making enough to afford basic housing, they are still unable to ever save up enough money to put down a mortgage for their own home. In the past, the American dream of owning one’s own home, was much more attainable, but no longer.

So what do we do about housing? First of all, half of the funds currently being spent by our government towards affordable housing subsidies are in the form of mortgage deductions. I don’t know about you, but if I can afford a mortgage, I can probably still afford to live in my house without that deduction. It doesn’t make housing more affordable for those who do not have reliable housing. If we got rid of the mortgage deduction, that money could be put to doubling the amount for housing vouchers. That would possibly cut my friend’s wait time in half, from 2 years to 1 year.

The next thing to be aware of is where these housing vouchers end up being used. If one lives in my area, it is likely that section 8 is looked down upon (landlords are not required to accept the vouchers), and therefore almost unusable. This has the effect of segregating low-income families to certain areas that have fewer economic opportunities, fewer well-paying jobs, struggling schools, less opportunity for upward mobility.

So what is the way forward for housing vouchers? Official public housing projects have been plagued by problems, but still there is a need. Public housing needs to be integrated into local communities in a way that doesn’t create problems for the neighborhood. One way of doing this is to require new housing developer to set aside a certain percentage of the development for affordable housing. This is being done in individual counties in Maryland, such as Montgomery county and needs to be a part of all city and county planning.

Okay, I’ve talked my head off about one issue that I am very concerned about. Many other issues such as income, education, child care, health care are intricately bound up with the issue of housing. So there really needs to be a comprehensive plan covering all these issues, but I will start by trying to address individual issues, and hopefully, over time a thorough, integrated plan will developed. For now, I would appreciate any thoughts and experiences that you would like share.

Some References:

Affordable housing program in Montgomery county: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/dhca/housing/singlefamily/mpdu/program_summary.html

Mortgage deduction reform: http://nlihc.org/article/letter-editor-how-make-housing-more-affordable

Rent affordability: http://money.cnn.com/2016/06/22/real_estate/rent-affordability-housing-harvard/

40 times rent rule:

http://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/011916/i-make-50k-year-how-much-rent-can-i-afford.asp

2.5 times gross income qualification : http://www.cbtownandcountry.com/rental-qualifications/

Waking Up to Racism

Liberal white people, that includes myself, we have been asleep. We proudly voted for Obama, shared the hashtag #blacklivesmatter with our friends, and now we wear a safety pin and pat ourselves on the back for being anti-bigotry. Yet, racism persists, and incomprehensibly, appears to have a resurgence.

Subtle racism has been all around us, but too often we chose to ignore it. Now, we hear Trump supporters or others from the alt-right being less than subtle, and are appalled. But have we consistently challenged their racist thinking? When faced with inappropriate behavior towards people of color, did we keep quiet, so as not to make waves, and inadvertently approve this behavior?

Our time to be an ally is not just for the most obvious times, when we are called upon, to make a public show of our righteousness. We need to be actively planning and discussing how to confront racism aggressively wherever it may be hiding, even behind our own closed doors.

Now we are talking about different cultures, one that likes to brush things under the rug, and one that opens the rotting can of worms. When Obama was elected president, I believed we had reached the point where we would no longer have to actively eradicate racism, it was going to disappear naturally. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

When I walk into a store and hear white people talking shit about some black people gathered outside, and I don’t say anything, then I am allowing that racism to be. Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say, that I may have slunk out of a store, my head steaming with anger, but not saying anything.

It’s time to stop the pussyfooting around, and not be afraid to confront and challenge these assumptions. This is a wake up call, because the ones who need to speak up have been sleeping far too long, while our black brothers and sisters have been losing sleep and lives and are justifiably weary.