August 20, 2019

Ani Ma’amin, I believe

I was raised in a world of great Jewish ideas. At our seder table, everyone’s questions were welcome. No one was labeled “wicked” or “simple,” and no one was silenced. My atheist brother, my socialist aunt, my Orthodox cousin, my Labor Zionist parents, even our Catholic neighbors — all had a voice at the table. It was noisy, but it was vital. There were arguments, but there was dialogue and listening. It was passionate, and it was loving. That’s the kind of Jewish community I cherish.

Ours has always been a culture of ideas, big ideas. But today, we find ourselves so immersed in the issues and calamities of the moment, so preoccupied with the community, the State of Israel, the direction of America, the condition of the world, we never have a moment to ask, What for? Because of this, we share a deep sense of crisis, but little collective direction. We have great energy but little shared vision. We are a community yearning for great ideas.

In the 1950s, the renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow solicited brief statements from people across America, great and ordinary alike, in a project called, “This I Believe.” Murrow believed there was no greater need in the America of his time than for assertions of principle and conviction. Recently, NPR renewed Murrow’s project. Our Jewish community shares the same predicament. So I suggested to The Jewish Journal editors that they initiate a project called “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe.” Together we have invited a number of Jews from the community to share a statement of their core beliefs. And we invite you to join them.

A few are printed here. We want to publish more on a regular basis in The Journal and online at Instructions on our format and how to submit are on that Web site. For now, immerse yourself in your neighbors’ core beliefs.

Welcome to “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe”! I’m glad you can join us at this noisy, vital, loving Jewish table!

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Click here to find out how to submit to our Ani Ma’amin collection.

I believe the world should be Fair

by Adlai Wertman

“What’s the matter, Adlai – did someone, somewhere, tell you that life was supposed to be fair?” That is what my investment-banking boss said to me in 1986 after we just lost a deal to a competitor who I didn’t think earned it. Over the next 25 years – and through two major career shifts into nonprofit work and academia – that line always stayed with me. Because I actually do believe that life should be fair – but it really isn’t. For the past decade, I have devoted my career to making the world a little bit fairer – not for investment bankers (life is quite fair for them) – but for the poorest people in our society. For them, life is not in any way fair.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. The imperative is clear to me – but in real life, the notion of pursuing justice is quite challenging. In my mind, the call for justice reaches outside the courtroom and into society at large. So what, then, does it mean to create a just and fair society?

The injustice that seems the most glaring to me is poverty. We live in a world where there is an ever-growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor. All statistics show that the rich continue to get richer as the poor get poorer. This can’t be just and truly isn’t fair. And, very important for me, it runs afoul of a multitude of Jewish (and general moral) tenets — too numerous to cite. I believe that narrowing this divide is an important way of pursuing justice — and charity isn’t the only way.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in capitalism. I had my undergraduate degree in economics, an MBA in finance and 18 years of experience as an investment banker before I began spending my life in the pursuit of “economic justice.” The free capitalist system is theoretically inherently fair. Anybody has the ability to succeed. All it takes is hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. Capitalism depends on free markets – the market for labor, the stock market and consumer markets, to name a few. If our economic system offers equal access to these markets, it is hard to argue that any results aren’t fair.

Unfortunately, we don’t all have equal access – which results in poverty for too many members of our society without it. The possible barriers are numerous and include lack of a stable family growing up, race or gender prejudice, health challenges or, unfortunately, poverty itself. In fact, growing up poor is, in itself, the greatest cause of being poor as an adult. This is most evident in education – those students attending schools in the poorest neighborhoods have little to no chance of getting an education that would allow them equal access to capitalism as an adult. This endless cycle of poverty cannot under any definition be fair.

I believe that it is incumbent upon me — whether following biblical and talmudic prompts or simply out of secular morality — to work to create a society where everyone truly has equal access to economic success. That success would, in and of itself, lead to better education, stronger families and a narrowing of our country’s growing divide. That would be fair, and that is my personal pursuit of tzedek.

Adlai Wertman is professor of clinical management and organization, and founding director of the Society and Business Lab at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

I believe in Ponies

by Zane Buzby

My grandfather promised me a pony. Poppy (my grandfather, not the pony) arrived in the United States in 1907, running from the czarist regime, dreaming of America with its endless possibilities. He was from Odessa, a city of humor and storytelling, so it was only natural that he was gut-bustingly funny and a master storyteller. He had seven grandchildren and was a larger-than-life presence to all of us. He smoked cigars and married us repeatedly with cigar bands he saved on the rabbit ears of his console TV, in a ceremony he conducted in Russian gibberish. He worked hard, laughed hard and taught us that the best laugh was one that left you gasping for breath. He played a mandolin festooned with ribbons, believed that everyone should play a musical instrument, go to college and eat ice cream every day exactly at 3 p.m. He proved that one could be unconventional and unique in an age of conformity.

This was the man who promised me a pony.

On the day that the pony was to arrive, Poppy announced that he had just come from the train station, but the pony was nowhere to be found. We’d have to wait for the next train, or the next. Months passed. The train station was “called,” freight cars “checked.” No pony.

Eventually came the good news: The pony would arrive tomorrow! Poppy said the coming day would be so wonderful that we had better “sleep fast” in order to get up quicker and experience it all. Life was not to be missed. Who but my grandfather could get away with telling little children: “You’ll sleep when you’re dead”?

That morning, we rushed to the station to pick up the pony, but the train car was empty. Pointing to bits of hay and a broken rope that he had somehow planted, it was “clear” that the pony had been there, but had gotten loose and run away. We’d have to find another one. And the process would start again. This would go on for weeks, years, generations.

For me and my father before me, and probably all my cousins, waiting for the pony taught us that the best was always ahead of us, and anything was possible if we stayed optimistic and enthusiastic. It meant there was always hope, and so our days came alive with excitement and anticipation of a wonderful thing just about to happen. We came to have an unshakable belief in an extraordinary and bright future, where next time the pony will come.

Poppy was a shining example of someone living his dream — in this New World that he had so longed for and struggled so hard to reach. Where disappointment or discouragement never meant “game over” or “stop trying.” Where the challenge was always to find another way when the road ahead was blocked. He infused me with excitement, energy, enthusiasm and, above all, an insatiable appetite for life. He sent me on my way with my head full of dreams and the ability to make those dreams come true.

This is his legacy to me: this positive frame, through which I learned to view the world and my own life experiences. I believe this is a key element of who I am.

There are those who wait for Godot and those who wait for the Messiah. Me, I happily wait for the pony.

Zane Buzby is a television director and co-founder of The Survivor Mitzvah Project.

I believe in Caring

by Dr. Bruce Powell

In July 1960, while attending Camp Alonim, I heard Shlomo Bardin talk about his life in Zhitomer, Russia. He told us of a community of Jews within a large city who “cared.” He talked about how the community ensured that everyone who wished to marry was able to do so. He explained how the Jewish burial society (chevrah kadishah) handled each body as a sacred vessel, with dignity, with an understanding that that person had made a contribution to God’s world in some profound way, and how the community could now honor that contribution with the ultimate mitzvah of a dignified burial.

And Bardin told us the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.”

In those moments at Camp Alonim, sitting in a barn-like room on Shabbat where Bardin explained that it was “we” who make the barn holy, that it is our obligation to “care,” to build our nation through Jewish values, my 12-year-old soul was shaken to its core.

It was in that “barn” that the seeds of my beliefs, and my entire career in Jewish education, took root. It was in the summer of 1960, where, to a 12-year-old, all was possible, that my current work at New Community Jewish High School was born.

As I grew and ventured into my career, I was almost possessed by Bardin’s vision. I wondered if it were really possible to create a community where the core ideals centered on “caring,” “active kindness,” “contribution” and the fulfillment of American ideals through a Jewish values lens.

Upon finishing my doctoral work, my belief in Bardin’s vision was not only complete, but fully supported by empirical data. One could actually build a school based not upon “measuring,” but upon “meaning and values and contribution.” We could be better Americans by being better Jews. We could create a community where two core Jewish values might meet: being an or l’goyim (light unto the nations); and b’tzelem elohim, where every person regards one another as if he or she were created in the image of God.

And, perhaps most importantly, and personally, I came to believe that one could build a life upon these values and visions. It wasn’t easy to really understand what it meant to serve as a role model, or to treat every person as if they carried the spark of Godliness. Could one’s values at work and at home become seamless? Could one find a life partner and raise children based upon these core beliefs and ideals? Was I a raving idealist?

Thirty-seven years into our marriage, four adult children raised, having helped to establish Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, this I now believe:

I believe that I must strive at being a role model (often failing); I believe I must regard each person as divinely created (often failing); and I believe that God demands of me contribution to our community and to our nation.

Dr. Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.

I believe that the path to wholeness (holiness), wholeheartedness, begins with embracing our imperfections as a gift from God (yetzer tov tov – yetzer hara tov me’od)

by Harriet Rossetto

This belief liberated me from shame, freed me from the seesaw of hope and despair, grandiosity and self-loathing that kept me stuck. I had inherited a polarized consciousness. You are good or bad, right or wrong, winner or loser. I struggled to be perfect, to fit the script I was handed. Brené Brown once said in a lecture, “The difference between fitting in and belonging is that fitting in requires you to become who others want you to be; belonging is bringing your whole self and being accepted as you — the divine spark that is your essence.” I wanted to fit. I hid the parts of me that didn’t “fit” the group that I wanted to belong to. I couldn’t keep up the act for long, the “real,” authentic, unappreciated me would leak out, confirming my worst fears about myself, sending me back to bed. I believed I was inherently defective. I thought I was the only one.

My 25 years living and working with addicts, the families of addicts and the many pre-addicted families I know has convinced me that the source of our collective discomfort is shame and the facades of perfection we construct to defend against the shame of our imperfections. The majority of people I meet are addicted to appearances, the family photo albums of every event, which project the family we want others to see, concealing the family we are. Unfortunately, protecting ourselves from shame also “protects” us from connection and intimacy. Intimacy requires vulnerability, transparency and authenticity. We can only connect in truth.

Shame, not disobedience, was the original sin of Adam and Eve. When God called, “Where are you?” they hid and blamed each other. Had they not been taught about teshuvah? Did they not understand that their disobedience was also Divine?

I’ve often wondered if the story had told of Adam and Eve owning up to their “sin” (missing the mark) and making amends and growing from their experience, would we have developed without shame?

I still struggle with the opposing twosomes inside of me … yes, I can/no, you can’t … judgment/acceptance; blame/responsibility; compassion/vengeance; fear/love; blessing/curse; life/death.

At Beit T’Shuvah, the path to wholeness is one of struggle. We struggle out loud, revealing our “shadow” selves, practicing acceptance, connecting through our brokenness. We struggle to take the next right action, no matter what we feel, strengthening our spiritual muscles, moving closer to “walking in God’s ways.”

Harriet Rossetto is the CEO, founder and clinical director of Beit T’Shuvah.