#MyImmigrantFamily

Gerhard with Gotthold and Eliesabeth Levy

My Father and His Parents Before the Fled Nazi Germany

I am alive today because Shanghai opened its doors to my father, his parents, his uncle and his aunt when the gates of most other countries, including the United States, were closed to them.  I am alive today because, even as the Japanese conquered the Chinese and forced Jews into the ghetto of Shanghai, they refused to return them to a certain death in Nazi Germany.  I am alive today because Jewish agencies like ORT and the Joint Distribution Committee sent aid and support to the Shanghai Refugees.  And I am alive today because at war’s end, the United States began to reflect more closely the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gates were finally opened. A life of freedom and security in America was finally a reality.

b0000665This is a picture of the S.S. General W.H. Gordon making its way under the Golden Gate Bridge as it comes to port in San Francisco. This is the ship that in 1948 brought my father and grandparents, German Jewish refugees, from the Shanghai Ghetto to which they had fled to escape the horrors of the Shoah to America. They came here in the hopes of finding a home and, like so many before them, the gift of freedom.

My father, an ardent Zionist, actually hoped to make his way to Israel and help build the modern Jewish homeland. In 1948, that possibility, that long held dream, lay before him.  But he faced one significant obstacle, the needs of his parents.

His parents, my grandparents, had sacrificed so much to take him out of Germany and to survive the hardships of living in the Shanghai Ghetto under Japanese domination. They did not have the strength to go to a new and unsettled land.  They hoped to go to the United States where they had a San Francisco Jewish community willing to give them shelter and a Jewish company, Levi Strauss, ready to offer employment.

Like so many young adults before him, he sacrificed his dreams for his parents.  He knew that they could not go alone, that they needed him now as he had needed them in the past. So, he accompanied them to America on the Gordon, a ship of refugees sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee.

Bio from the Tribute Book for Gotthold's Retirement

From My Grandfather’s Levi Strauss Retirement Program

In the United States, his parents built a new life.  My grandfather worked his entire career for Levi Strauss and retired with pride in what he had accomplished and of how his son had thrived both professionally and personally.

Dr. Gerhard Levy, Distinguished Professor

My Father, Dr. Gerhard Levy

My father went to college and graduate school, met and married my mother (hence my being alive today!) and pursued a career in pharmacy.  Ultimately, he became one of the giants of pharmaceutical science, the father of the field of Biopharmeceutics and Pharmacokintetics. He developed or laid the foundations for drugs and therapies that have saved millions of lives, especially among children.

glevy-tells-story2

Telling our family story to the next generation

But for the good fortune of finding a refuge, in 1941, from the horrors of the Holocaust, none of this might have happened and I would not have been born to write about it.  That Shanghai was one of the few safe havens available to them, that the Japanese refused to send them back when the Nazis demanded it, and that America finally began to return to the essence of its highest ideals are the blessings at the heart of why #myimmigrantfamily is #heretostay.

How many will die or never be born because the Gates of America are once more being closed to refugees whose lives are at risk?  Will the United States of today once again become the United States of 1939 that sent the passengers of the St. Louis back to Europe and their certain demise? Will we allow Muslims seeking to escape the horrors of Syria to become the “European Jews” of today, denied sanctuary and sent back into danger?

We who have lived this history know that Silence = Death.  And so, we will raise our voices, we will protest and advocate, we will never forget and we will not give up!  And one day, I pray, some American Imam, yet unborn, will write that he is alive today because of us.

 

 

 

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We Need More Than Words and Prayers

One of my plans for today was to write a blogpost as one of my goals is to add weekly to my posts.  Then the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota happened and I thought I knew what I wanted to say. And then Dallas happened last night and words could not express the pain I felt as I watched my country teeter on the precipice. And then this morning, Facebook erupted and the words came and I added mine to theirs:

My heart is broken and my soul is challenged this morning. I grieve for two who died for being “stopped while Black” and five more whose lives were taken for being present “while wearing blue”. I grieve for the loss endured by their families, loved ones and friends. I grieve for our nation. 

This is not the America of our hopes and dreams, but of our fears and nightmares. Senseless hatred and Societal biases have brought down many a great nation and we dare not ignore these moments. Words on a Facebook post mean nothing, only action matters. 

Today is a day to recommit ourselves to getting involved with the work of organizations and the support of leaders devoted to building a more loving, more inclusive and less polarized America. Let’s make sure that #loveconquershate and join hands in repairing our shattered world.”

Tonight is Shabbat which brings with it the taste of the world of Shalom and Shleimu (peace and wholeness) for which we all hope.  

Tonight and tomorrow I will offer prayers of peace. But, next week I will spend time with some of my social justice partners doing the work to make those prayers a reality for all. The words are only as meaningful as our actions make them.  And though this work seems never ending, but it must also never end.

Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorim l’hibatil mimena. – It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:21)

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“When I get my doctorate…”: Sci-Tech’s Girl Power!

I just returned from a week on faculty at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, one of our Reform movement’s summer camps. This three-year-old affinity camp that combines science and technology with Reform Jewish living and values is an amazing place that I have been blessed to be a part of from the very beginning. (Full disclosure, my wife Julie is the camp’s Camper Care Coordinator.)

During the past three years I have been awestruck by what a cool place Sci-Tech has become and the amazingly organic way in which Jewish values are seamlessly integrated with scientific inquiry. What struck me most this past week, however, is the special place that Sci-Tech has become for our girls.  While the camp has grown three-fold in its short life, the number of female campers has increased four-fold.  In a day and age when so many educators are focused on increasing the number of girls and women involved in STEM fields, Sci-Tech is just doing it!

This increase is due in no small part to the generosity of the Women of Reform Judaism who have provided scholarships to encourage girls to attend Sci-Tech. But is also the product of Sci-Tech itself and the inclusive atmosphere that Greg Kellner and his team have created. I saw this first hand this summer in the coding and programming workshop taught by lead instructor Kelly Fennessy.

IMG_9481Kelly is one of a number of female lead instructors who provide Sci-Tech girls with engaging role models of women involved in STEM. The atmosphere in Kelly’s workshop, like others at Sci-Tech, is one of inclusiveness, regular reference to Jewish values as guideposts, and enchanting moments of scientific discovery and achievement. In a classroom that was predominantly male and filled with some very experienced young coders, even the most inexperienced campers were made to feel comfortable and the two or three girls were not at all out of place.

As I helped out in Kelly’s workshop, one young girl excitedly asked me to try out her first Java program which she had coded only moments before.  When it ran flawlessly, I was impressed and she was filled with the excitement of programming success.  I asked her if she had ever coded in Java before and she said that this was her first time.  Last summer, she said, she had come to Sci-Tech and learned to use Scratch to write her own video game. That experience inspired her to return to tackle Java coding and writing apps for Android. As she spoke, the joy was apparent in her voice and it brought a smile to my face.  That moment alone encapsulated why Sci-Tech has become a place for bringing girl power to STEM.

But, on my last day at camp, there was another related moment that brought a similar smile to my face.  Two girls from one of the other workshops I was covering were walking past me when I overheard one say to the other one of the “only at Sci-Tech” phrases we often hear around camp: “When I get my Doctorate…” It was said with the quiet confidence of one whose learned at camp that the sky is the limit and I can’t wait to hear of her future accomplishments and, perhaps, remember that I knew her when.

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From Georgia to Trenton: A Continuing Journey for Justice

You never know where taking a long walk in the summertime will lead you.

IMG_5730Almost a year ago, my son Josh and I took a long walk on a hot summer’s day through the streets of Augusta, Georgia and across the border into South Carolina as part of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.  Over 200 Reform Rabbis joined members and supporters of the NAACP on this historic 1,000+ mile civil rights march from Selma to Washington, D.C. It was during that walk, with my son by my side and the hot Georgia sun beating down upon us, that I found a source of inspiration which ultimately led me this past week from the Georgia streets to the halls of the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton.

During the march, we were privileged to engage in dialogue and friendship with activists who, like ourselves, dream of a better America for all people of all races, religions and orientations.  We were inspired by the powerful words of Cornell Brooks, the strength of Middle Passage, the example of Keisha Thomas and the stories of so many of our fellow marchers.  Each segment of the march was dedicated to a theme and ours was dedicated to the need for criminal justice reform.

We heard harrowing stories of getting stopped for “driving while black”. We heard stories of a system so biased that the same minor offense which might get a caucasian suburban child a slap on the wrist, could be life altering and almost life ending for a black, urban kid.  And we heard stories of racial biases within the sentencing and prison system that do not at all reflect our American ideals of equal protection under the law.

I came away convinced that criminal justice reform was an issue that could not wait and that called out for the voice of our tradition, which teaches us to view each other as created in God’s image and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  A system that denies our shared image through its biases against some, tears at the fabric of the love which God has commanded us to show one another.  We cannot keep silent in the face of such institutional discrimination.

54B05FDA-3AE3-43B2-A9C9-70E138664D55And so last March, with the help of TRUAH, I and a group of my fellow New Jersey Reform and Conservative Rabbis met with NRCAT,and the ACLU to discuss how we could bring a Rabbinic voice to criminal justice reform in New Jersey.  Soon after, I found myself sitting in the hearing room of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee testifying in favor of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (S.51), which would reduce the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey. This bill would end solitary confinement of more than 15 days, limit its use to prisoners who pose a risk to themselves or others, and end solitary confinement for vulnerable populations. This is an issue that affects people of color inordinately due to their percentages in the prison population.

I also gained a new friend and partner in this work, Rev. Charles F. Boyer, Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury. This past week, at Rev. Boyer’s request, I found myself back in the same hearing room, this time to testify in favor of S.677 which would require racial and ethnic impact statements (REIS) for certain bills and regulations affecting sentencing. The REIS would serve as a tool for lawmakers to evaluate the potential disparities of proposed legislation on persons of color prior to adoption and implementation.  Analogous to environmental impact statements, they assist legislators in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications before the change is adopted, rather than once they have been implemented. They are an important step towards ending the racial disparity in New Jersey’s criminal justice system.

Both bills S.51 and S.677 will be brought before the full Senate for a vote this coming Monday afternoon and the voice not just of Rabbis, but of all New Jerseyans must be heard by our lawmakers. Together we can make a push for a more fair and more just criminal justice system.  You can find your Senator’s contact information here. E-mail them this weekend and call their office first thing Monday morning to express your strong support of both bills, one aimed at ending the abuse of solitary confinement and the other at combatting racial disparity.

Let’s speak out loud and clear that the journey for justice has not ended and we will continue to walk together until we reach our goal of fulfilling America’s promise and her highest values.

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From Celebration to Mourning to Resolve: A Post Shavuot Reflection on Orlando

Shavuot is one of my favorite festivals. The awesome imagery of imagining ourselves as standing at Sinai in the midst of God’s revelation has always moved me. More personally, the celebration of my student’s Service of Confirmation is one that is always filled with equal measures of pride and joy as I kvell over the amazing young adults they have become and the deep connections they have formed with each other and with our Judaism. Each year that joy, however, is tempered the next morning as I prepare to lead the Shavuot Yizkor service and our thoughts turn towards those who, though they are no longer present in our lives, remain present in our hearts, our spirits and our memories. It is a transition most years is filled as much with the sweetness of remembrance as it is with the pain of loss.

This year that transition from celebration to mourning was a bit sharper and much more painful as I awoke to news of the murderous rampage by a lone killer at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The targeting of so many simply for the fact of who they chose to love, the increasingly inclusive country in which they lived or their desire to celebrate life through dancing and companionship broke my heart. As word of the rising casualties came in, ultimately 49 dead and over 50 injured, the joy of the previous evening dissipated. It was replaced by a sorrow for the victims and their families and for our country as we began to deal once more with an act of terror, hatred and illness facilitated by a misguided and all too deadly gun culture.

As I sat in my study preparing for Sunday morning’s Yizkor service, the events of earlier that morning brought to mind a conversation from only a few weeks earlier. Our Synagogue serves as SAT Testing site for those who are Shabbat observant and cannot take the SAT’s on a Saturday morning during their regular administration. At the end of the morning, an Orthodox young woman who had just finished her exams asked me about the pride flag we proudly display on the front of our building to indicate that we are a welcoming, open and inclusive community. After a brief discussion of Reform Judaism’s embrace of LGBTQI members, she made an interesting comment. She said “That seems like such a courageous thing, to display such a flag on the front of your synagogue.” My reply in turn, “It’s not courageous at all, it is simply loving.”

Even in the aftermath of Orlando, my answer remains the same, it is simply loving. It is simply loving to display our solidarity with and welcome for the LGBTQI community, it is simply loving to mourn with and show our support for all those in Orlando and it is simply loving to redouble our efforts toward making our country one that is evermore open and embracing of diversity and difference. As so many have said, Love Conquers Hate. But love alone cannot bring the change our country needs in the aftermath of so many mass shootings.

As Jay Michaelson wrote in the Forward:

But the sad fact is that… There will always be some who are mentally unstable, always be some who are virulently anti-gay, and always be some who are religious extremists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Which is what brings us to the fourth necessary condition for Orlando: guns… the massacre at Pulse would not have happened if he hadn’t so easily obtained a deadly assault rifle that, until ten years ago, was illegal under the Bush-era assault weapons ban.
There is no reason on earth why any civilian should be allowed to own an AR-15 assault rifle , a weapon based on the M-16 that has been used in at least ten mass shootings since 2001, and that has no conceivable hunting or self-defense application.

(http://forward.com/opinion/342553/is-orlando-about-islamist-terrorism-homophobia-mental-illness-or-guns/#ixzz4BZCt0mF2)

Orlando, like San Bernadino and Sandy Hook before it, is a wake up call that I pray this time we will not ignore. I fully support the right to bear arms, to own a hand gun, hunting rifle or target rifle, if you are properly trained and vetted. But I do not think that right extends the right to own that which is simply meant to do one thing and one thing only, kill large numbers of human beings quickly.

An AR-15 is not appropriate for hunting, nor is it truly a sporting weapon prized for accuracy on the target range. Rather, it is more often than not the choice of those who wish see themselves as soldiers of fortune or characters in Call of Duty, as one look at the ads for these guns will tell you. And, sadly, it is the choice of mass shooters like those in Orlando, San Bernadino, Sandy Hook and elsewhere. The time to return to a ban on these weapons of war and the high-capacity clips that go with them has long passed. This is not about banning gun ownership, but about eliminating from our midst easy access to the tools of a mass shooter.

During Shavuot Yizkor, I read some thoughts written by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg that included this lesson: “Our sages tell us that there are two kinds of tears: one is demaot shel ashan – tears that disappear like smoke… But then there are also demaot shel perot – tears that enrich the earth and bear fruit.” May the tears we have shed for the victims of the Orlando attack not simply disappear like smoke as another wake up call ignored and forgotten. Instead, may the be tears that water the fields of justice, that inspire us to finally take action and that bear fruit for a safer future for us all.

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Finding New Meaning in an Old Lesson

27 years ago when I was an Assistant Rabbi with Rabbi Barry H. Greene, he shared with me a lesson that each and every year he would offer as “summer homework” to the all Religious School students at the end of the school year. It is a lesson that was passed down to him from a previous generation of Rabbis and which continues through my generation of Rabbis.

The lesson is as follows, “Over the summer, I would like you to do a bit of Jewish homework: Take a long walk, make a new friend, read a good book and do a mitzvah.” Simple advice that is mIMG_5744eant to fill the summer with the Jewish values of appreciating God’s creation, building community, continuous learning and making a difference.
Last Friday as I walked the 18 miles from Ft. Gordon, GA to the outskirts of Aiken, SC, often carrying an 18 pound Torah in hand (the double chai symbolism was not lost on any of us), this lesson came back to me in a renewed manner. In one day, by taking part in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice as a representative of the Religious Action Center and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, I had done my summer homework in a most powerful way.

Read a good book: In preparation for the march, I had picked up a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”, a powerful letter from a father to his son in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Gardener and Trayvon Martin. It is a powerful meditation on what it means to inhabit a black body in America today. In it he explores our country’s racial history and forces us to face up to the damage it has done to so many black lives.

In words that are often uncomfortable to read, he challenges us to change this history and free our country from the burdens and dangers it imposes on so many. His words led me to approach our journey with a clearer vision of what it might mean.

Make a New Friend: My 22 year old son Josh and I arrived at Paine College in Augusta, GA the night before our walk to take responsibility for the Torah that is being carried at the head of the march all 40 days, from Selma AL to Washington DC, as a vital symbol of both it’s eternal call for justice and our Reform community’s commitment to the goals of the Journey. The embrace we received was overwhelming. I can’t put into words what it means to all involved that each and every day two or more Reform Rabbis, from across the country, are joining in on this walk.

And in that warm embrace I and my son Josh made some incredible new friends. We connected with Middle Passage, a 68 year old disabled veteran whose name is a tribute to his ancestors who came on the slave trade and who is walking almost every mile of the trek carrying an American Flag at the head of the march.

1440508788_full.jpegWe met Keshia Thomas, a human rights activist whose photo of a moment of courage and compassion as an 18 year old high school student was seen around the world and appeared in one of Josh’s text books. Keshia befriended us and watched out for us throughout the day of walking and has taken on a personal responsibility for helping to care for our precious Torah scroll.

And we got to spend time over a meal with Rev. Dr. Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP and one of my new social justice heroes. His commitment to the causes that inspired the Journey for Justice is profound and his words are most powerful. But what moved me most was his gentle, caring demeanor. Walking at the head of the line, Cornell was constantly working to get the word out through the media and to further the work of the NAACP. But at the same time, everything could be put aside to go over and talk to a young mother and her two children watching from the side of the road and invite them to walk with him, if only for a block. In genuinely caring as much about talking to the individuals along the road and walking behind him as he does about talking to MSNBC and CNN, he is the picture of the best kind of leader.

Take a Long Walk: America’s Journey for Justice is, at its most simple, a very long walk from Selma to Washington. Each day the group has covered 18 – 20 miles on humid southern days with the heat index often rising well above 100 degrees. It is a physically taxing experience.

But that very exertion adds to the spiritual inspiration each of us felt as we walked. I saw this as I looked over at my son who spent almost the entire march walking behind Rev. Dr. Brooks (and even had the honor of filming Cornell’s dedication of that day’s march). No matter how hot the day got or how much his feet hurt, there was a wide smile on his face. It was the smile of someone who knew that each step he was taking had meaning. Many have referenced Heschel’s famous words that at Selma he was praying with his feet and I have never understood those words better than after this walk.

Do a MItzvah: I was asked by a reporter after the walk “What was the point? Why does a march in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the voting rights act matter?” My response was that to see this march simply as a commemoration is to misunderstand it completely.

America’s Journey for Justice is not a look back to where we have been, but a journey forward into a better future for our country. Each step taken is a cry for criminal justice reform, each mile walked is a call for education reform, every sore limb aches for an end to the plague of economic inequality and every day closer to Washington is a day dedicated to restoring voting rights that continue to be denied to many.

Our Journey matters because it is highlighting issues that left unsolved will continue to destroy lives and ultimately our country. Our Journey matters because it has renewed and reinvigorated the historic ties between our Reform Movement and the NAACP. Our Journey matters because those we have walked with have become friends and family and we have again begun to feel our neighbors pain as our own. And, our Journey matters because it has inspired so many of us to go home and get our hands dirty by continuing the work that will make its goals a reality.

Josh and I are planning to be in Washington, DC as the march comes to its conclusion on the day after Rosh Hashanah. Though we will celebrating the end of America’s Journey for Justice and the completion of a vital piece of “summer homework”, I know that what we will really be celebrating is beginning of a renewed commitment to its goals and ideals.

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Reflections of a Failed Boy Scout

I have some very fond memories of my years as a cub scout.  We had a lot of fun getting together at each other’s houses under the watchful eyes of mom’s who served as Den Leaders.  I remember having a belt filled with little metal belt loops that were the equivalent of Boy Scout merit badges, having one of the worst looking Pinewood Derby cars that was a winner despite its looks thanks to my Dad’s scientific expertise and making my way up through the ranks to Webelos.

Boy Scouts was a whole other story.  I joined a secular sponsored troop that met at my synagogue, never made it past Tenderfoot and quit after the first campout (I was never meant to sleep in a tent).  My only achievement, selling the most candy for the Halloween candy fundraiser, was not even my own.  My little brother, the budding entrepreneur, made those sales (and I gave him the long forgotten prize).
I was a complete failure as a boy scout, which is why, over the years, I would stand in awe of my Temple kids who excelled and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.  I took pride in helping scouts with their Jewish merit badges, in sponsoring scout shabbatot, in supporting Eagle projects and in offering blessings and benedictions at  their Eagle ceremonies.

All that ended in 2001. In 2001, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism recommended that Reform Congregations withdraw their sponsorship and stop housing Boy Scouts of America troops because of the BSA’s discriminatory ban on gay scouts and gay scout leaders. In full agreement with that decision, I pulled my personal and rabbinic support from all scout activities with the exception helping Temple kids who asked with their Jewish merit badge requirements.  Scouting was not even a consideration for my own son even though, at the time, we lived in a town where it was a very active presence.  I preached openly about the Scout’s discriminatory policies and suggested parents think carefully about their children’s involvement.  And, most visibly, for the past 14 years the synagogues I have served have not hosted BSA troops or sponsored Scout Shabbatot. It was a situation, given the BSA’s public statements, that I thought would be with us for many years in the future.

This has been an amazing summer, however, with gains in making our society more open and affirming that have been almost unbelievable in their scope.  The Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, theEmployment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently voted that discrimination against people of the LGBT community is forbidden under Title VII of theCivil Rights Act, and only days ago, The Boy Scouts of America voted to lift their ban on gay scout leaders.  This represents an important step forward for scouts and scouting and teaches our children that leaders are determined by their personal values and not their sexual orientation.

There is still a ways to go towards a fully open BSA.  As Barbara Weinstein, Director of the Reform Movements Commission on Social Action, noted in her response to the BSA’s decision: ion and that the BSA has not taken a formal stance against discrimination based on gender identity.” “While we applaud this important decision by the BSA, we are disappointed that the organization will continue to allow individual troops to choose to discriminate based on sexual orientation.”

I know that I and my cIMG_5652olleagues will continue to push the BSA towards a more complete national anti-discrimination policy that is in concert with our understanding that all people are created in the divine image and worthy of equal respect and dignity. However, in recognition of this sea change in the BSA’s policy, this failed scout is ready to once again fully support the scouts of our congregation with one simple caveat.

I am happy and honored to welcome our Temple kid’s troops for a scout Shabbat, to support their projects and to take p
art in their Eagle ceremonies so long as they are coming from troops that support and affirm the inclusion of both gay scouts and gay scout leaders.

The path to tikkun olam, to a world healed and completed is a long one.  Rarely are we blessed to see so many changes for the better in such a short time.  Our vision of a society where all are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve is still far off, but this summer it does feel just a bit closer with regard to our LGBT brothers and sisters.

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