A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.

 

 

When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.

 

 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.

 

The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,

 

 

It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”

 

 

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My husband and I are folding clothes on a Sunday night. Bless him for helping me tackle the mountain of wrinkled shirts and pants. Not to mention that we were running out of underwear. And bless him for not blaming me for letting the laundry get so out of control; I blame myself enough for the two of us. It’s all bound up in my underlying confusion with regard to work and child rearing.

What prompted me to think about whether I’m actually in or out of the workforce is a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine by Judith Warner on women who opted out of working outside the home in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly these women—and it’s a very select group—left lucrative jobs to stay home and raise children.

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Reevaluating their decision almost two decades out, these women have decided to go back to work. For some, it was figuring out what to do with too much time on their hands now that their children were older. For others, it was the only option after divorce or other economic difficulties. For example, one woman’s husband had been a higher earner who was adversely affected by the 2008 recession. In any case, Warner asserts that, “the culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time round-the-clock, child-centered devotion.”

I mention that the group Warner’s research is based on is select because, for the most part, these women are well off and well educated. The majority of them are white and live in affluent neighborhoods. Her article doesn’t touch on women for whom staying at home was an economic sacrifice—women whose net pay would appreciably shrink when childcare became a line item in the budget. As far as I could tell the women in Warner’s article did not significantly alter their lifestyle when they initially left the workforce. But they had measured their worth by their paychecks and ten or fifteen years out, they were unable to assess that worth without a dollar sign in front of it.

I suspect that my situation is more typical of the women who opted out of the formal workforce. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew that I would stay home with my kids while they were babies. My first-born was a couple of months old and we had had a difficult, colicky night. I was up every couple of hours with her. After her five A.M. feeding I brought her into bed and we fell asleep until nine in the morning. That’s when I knew that I didn’t have the fortitude or the organizational skills to balance a job outside the home with new motherhood. I’m in awe of women who have done both. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s not magic.

But I also knew I wasn’t a 24/7 type of mother. I wanted to write. And so I began to freelance with an eye toward going back to work when my children were in school all day. When they were, I went back part-time as an Internet magazine editor until I was laid off. That was ten years ago. At the time, my husband and I decided that it didn’t make economic sense for me to pursue full-time employment. He was able to support us and our version of luxury was having me at the ready for our children.

I became a full-time writer seven years ago. My income is not that significant. But working from home or the library, I’m always around even if mountains of unfolded laundry surround me. I’m working on a book that may or may not get published, but my husband understands that I’m driven to do it if only for the accomplishment of telling my family story.

Which brings me to the crux of the problem with women who opt in or out. The husbands portrayed in Warner’s article sounded unreasonably difficult. One woman complained that as her kids grew older, her husband’s role as the wage earner and hers as the de-facto housekeeper became problematic. Warner quotes her as asserting that, “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage. I think he preferred the house to be ‘kept’ in a different kind of way than I was prepared to do it. If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising kids, but it was about sweeping.”

Raising children is an art, a soul-giving endeavor. Housework is drudgery. These high-flying husbands didn’t appreciate that cleaning was their responsibility too and if they didn’t like it they should hire a house cleaner.

The advice I would give my daughter is not whether or not she should opt-out and then back in when she has children.  It’s to marry a partner who will fold clothes with her while watching reruns on a Sunday night with nary a complaint.

 

 

 

 

 

Sex and the Boy Scouts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

By the time you read this there will have been a raft of articles and columns about the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to allow openly gay boys to participate in the organization. The new policy states that, “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, called the decision “compassionate, caring and kind.”

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The outcome of the vote, however, is a deceptive one. The BSA will continue to exclude openly gay leaders, and when a gay youth member turns eighteen he will have to turn in his badges and bid farewell to his scouting career. Quoting from the BSA’s internal documents, Reuters reports “when youth members become adults they ‘must meet the requirements of our adult standards’ to remain in the group.”

It’s disorienting to think that just last summer the BSA reaffirmed their anti-gay policy in bureaucratic doublespeak.“ We do not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open to avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

The BSA describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations.” If you look at the membership roster it is, in many respects, a faith-based organization. The majority of troops are affiliated with churches. The biggest feeder is the Mormon Church, which to its credit did not have a knee-jerk response to the BSA’s latest change in policy and, as of this writing, is studying the proposal. But contemplating theological issues is not within the scope of this particular column. The real issue for me is the unhealthy national obsession with our children’s sexuality.

For a more nuanced look at the subject, I take you down to Florida where an 18 year-old teenager named Kaitlyn Hunt faces 15 years in prison for having sex with her 14 year-old girlfriend. Hunt and the younger girl were on the same basketball team and the girl’s parents brought the criminal charges against Hunt. As CBS reported, these parents blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter’s homosexuality.

Reporting on the story in Slate magazine, Emily Bazelon writes that “[i]t’s hard for me to see how you can take the homophobia out of this case.” Yet that’s exactly what the mother of the younger girl and the prosecutors in the case are doing. The State Attorney charged Hunt in February with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child. Additionally, Hunt has been expelled from school. The only leniency offered to Kaitlyn in this sorry affair was a plea bargain to lesser charges of child abuse. The offer was two years of house arrest rather than face the possibility of onerous jail time and the prospect of having to register as a sex offender. So far Kaitlyn is not budging.

Bazelon’s article gets very interesting as she ponders the outpouring of support for Kaitlyn. Hunt’s family has used social media to great effect to draw attention to Kaitlyn’s case. A Facebook page called “Free Kate” has links to T-shirts, bracelets and a petition, which more than 45,000 people have signed. The Florida ACLU is also behind Kaitlyn calling the relationship “harmless and consensual.”

But Bazelon goes a step further in considering Kaitlyn’s plight by citing:

the denunciation of various 17 and 18 year-old boys who have been charged with sex crimes because of their relationships, or encounters with 15 or 14-year old girls. Is this case really so different because it’s about two girls? Or does it reveal a larger problem with charging older teenagers for having sex with younger ones?

I originally cited Kaitlyn Hunt’s case as one of homophobia. Like Bazelon, it’s hard for me not to see anti-gay sentiment exacerbating the situation. But Bazelon also brings up a much more complicated issue—should sex between older and younger teens spanning less than a five-year difference be decriminalized? Hunt’s parents are calling their daughter’s case an example of selective prosecution. I think they’re right. How often do the police get called for heterosexual consensual sex between a freshman and senior in high school? I daresay, not very often.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may wonder how we began with the Boy Scouts of America’s new policy towards gay scouts and ended up talking about consensual sex between teens. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for sex between teens. What I am saying is let our teens figure out their sexuality without shunning them or prosecuting them.

Toward that end, let’s free Kaitlyn Hunt and the Boy Scouts of America from the hate and prejudice that dogs both of them.

 

Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

Lean In and Listen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Okay girls, go ahead, “lean in,” and you’ll hear a cacophony of voices about what you should do with your lives. At the moment one of the louder voices belongs to Sheryl Sandberg, the storied Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. To lean in, says Sandberg means to push through the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, to go down a path with an uncertain outcome. Conversely, to lean back means to stay in a known, comfortable situation.

The choice is yours. Or is it?

“Girls growing up today,” writes Sandberg, “are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” That’s right, you study alongside the boys, take pre-law, pre-med or pre-business classes and if a McKinsey Report from 2011 is indicative of your situation, you can still expect your male colleagues to be promoted on their potential and for you to be promoted on your accomplishments.

Let’s take stock for a moment. For the first time in American history there are more college-educated women than men. Sheryl Sandberg is asking those women to do three critical things to maximize their education and frankly, to remember why they entered the workforce in the first place. She wants women to sit literally at the table. Not to sit off to the side and to stay quiet, but to take a seat next to their male peers and participate in conversations, pitch deals and make decisions. It’s a daunting task considering that 57 percent of men in the workforce negotiated up front for a better salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women who said anything when they received their job offers.

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In a 2010 TED talk, the basis for Lean In, Sandberg also reminds women that sitting at the table may take some elbowing in a world where just nine out of 190 heads of state are women, only 13 percent of parliamentarians across the world are women and just 15 to 16 percent of CEOs or COOs are women, Not only has there been no improvement in those corporate numbers, but since 2002 the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

The second thing Sandberg advises working women is to make your partner your true partner. That means spouses have equal responsibilities when it comes to childcare and running the house. So don’t just marry well, young women, marry smart because you are smart.

There is a flip side to that advice which comes from the journalist Elsa Walsh, who recently made a deep impression with a piece she wrote for The Washington Post headlined, “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” Walsh contends that parenthood and family “are more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

At first glance it looks like Sandberg and Walsh are butting heads. Sandberg can come across as a career-obsessed woman who admits that, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.” Walsh, on the other hand, encourages her 17 year-old daughter to “carve out space for solitude. Search for work that allows you flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them older, after you’ve reached the point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while.”

But their counsel is not incompatible. Sandberg, for her part, devotes an entire chapter to the “Myth of Doing It All.” Granted, Sandberg has resources that most working women in this country can only dream of. Besides a supportive partnership with her husband, she can afford top childcare. But putting that aside for a moment, let’s concentrate on the key questions that demythologize the notion of having it all: “Can I do it all or can I do what is most important to me?” Perhaps Walsh has an answer when she observes that “a good enough life is not a failure—it is maturity and self-knowledge.”

The third thing that Sandberg advises is not to leave before you leave. This means stay committed and focused on the job. Don’t project too far into the future. In her TED talk Sandberg mentions a young woman who was anticipating a maternity leave that was so far in the offing she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Walsh read Lean In too and she “nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says.” But like me, she also noticed that Sandberg’s advocacy for more family-friendly policies in the workplace or recognition that full-time motherhood is as meaningful as a corporate career read like “afterthoughts.”

My daughter and son’s generation will have a lot of sorting out of priorities. When the time comes, I want them to lean in and identify the nuances in Sandberg’s and Walsh’s perspectives. Maybe they’ll come to a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s metaphor of a career pathway as not climbing a ladder, but staying on the jungle gym where men and women move sideways or downwards in order to ultimately move forward in their jobs. Hopefully my children will take to heart Walsh’s assertion that personal relationships are as important to a career as a place at the table. And they’ll work as hard on those relationships as they do in the workplace because in the end, love is what will get them through.

After the Bar Mitzvah, the Service Continues by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This is a story about a church, a temple and a young man dedicated to feeding the hungry. For over two decades Project Manna at the Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge has fed thousands of people a year from its little kitchen. And for 24 years Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre has been moved by the mission of this small yet mighty church to produce the eponymous Project Manna, a concert to raise critically needed funds to keep the food kitchen open. “It is,” says Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, “a story about black-white, Christian-Jewish love, partnership and community building that has been going on for over two decades.”

MassAveThis year’s Project Manna concert on Wednesday, March 24, 2013 at Temple Emanuel, features Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and a star of Jewish music in her own right. Neshama and her band will celebrate the traditions of gospel and Jewish music with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Rabbi Gardenswartz notes that, “Neshama’s music is deeply moving and a salve for some of the suffering seen throughout the world.”

Inspired to “repair the world” as well as by Temple Emanuel’s commitment to feeding the hungry Max Breslau, a recent Bar Mitzvah, decided to do more than attend the annual Project Manna concert. It began with Max’s older brother Mitchell who was required to do a community service project for his school in Needham. As Jane Breslau, the boys’ mother, points out there wasn’t much volunteer work for kids who were under sixteen. The Breslaus noticed that Temple Emanuel’s Brotherhood volunteered at the Mass Avenue Baptist Church’s soup kitchen and decided to commit to serving there for a year. A year soon stretched into two years and Max joined his brother and mother that second year as part of his Bar Mitzvah project.

Conventional wisdom holds that doing one thing three times becomes a habit. In the Breslaus’ case volunteering over time has become a passion. Monday evenings in the Breslau household belong to the Mass Avenue Baptist Church. Jane notes, “we take our commitment to the church and the guests at the soup kitchen as seriously as someone takes a sports commitment.” On a given Monday the Breslaus will be among the volunteers who serve upwards of seventy meals. They not only serve, but also help to prepare the supper. Jane notes that among the moving experiences at the kitchen are the prayers said before every meal. “Sometimes my sons will do a prayer and it will be a bracha—a blessing in Hebrew. Other times they’ll simply note how thankful all of us are to be there. We feel we are a part of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church family.”

As parents, Jane and Howard Breslau purposely pushed their sons out of their comfort zones. Neither boy had any idea what a food pantry would be like. Much to their surprise, the boys’ perceptions of the homeless were shattered. “It wasn’t just a learning experience for my sons,” Jane notes,” they completely changed their assumptions about who was homeless. They saw how thankful these people were to be there. How respectful they were.”

Max, who became a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel last week, says that his time at the soup kitchen will go beyond his bar mitzvah project. “I love doing it every Monday. Everyone who comes and eats makes friends. There’s one guy who loves the Patriots and we talk about the team. With other people, we share how our week has gone. Everybody has a story and people don’t necessarily look homeless. You wouldn’t expect some of these people to be out in the street.”

Max also noticed the soaring temperatures inside the church during his summer service at the soup kitchen. “I decided to raise money for two ceiling fans and air conditioning window units.” At first the goal was to raise a thousand dollars. Max reached out to friends and family and to his temple email list. The response was so generous that he raised the goal to $2000. Max and his family called it the Fan Project, asking people to “be cool and become fans of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church Soup Kitchen.” As of this writing Max and his family have raised $1800.

As for their own parenting, Jane and Howard assert that their commitment to the soup kitchen has been a “ learning process.” Howard notes that it is “breathtaking” to see his family’s commitment every week. “It’s a joy to see their eagerness to go there. They’ve established friendships with the staff and guests that are very meaningful.”

Jane notes that, “everyone has a different perception of what a mitzvah is. It’s not something that should be easy or immediately fit into your life. You should make it fit into your life so that you’re giving back to the community. We began this project to help our children, but our time at the soup kitchen has had a profound effect on me too.”

The Radius of the Bomb by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When you move to Boston there are three things that you must accept—you are forever a member of Red Sox Nation, you’ll never get used to someone passing you in the breakdown lane on Route 128 and the Boston Marathon is what we really celebrate on Patriot’s Day. I live half a block from the marathon route—on Heartbreak Hill—and I must confess that every year I feel claustrophobic anticipating that I won’t be able to cross Commonwealth Avenue by car. But my love-hate relationship with the marathon, my angst over feeling penned in, evaporates when I watch the runners go by.

The marathon route begins in Hopkinton and wends its way through the suburbs of Boston—Framingham, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline before crossing the finishing line in Boston’s Back Bay. By the time the majority of runners reach me, they’re approaching the 20-mile mark—Heartbreak Hill.

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This year I watched the runners go by in the early afternoon—the height of the marathon on my little stretch of the race. Where I live, the marathon is a party. People bring picnics and watch the race on folding chairs. We look for the names of runners on their shirts or written in black magic marker on their arms. Go, Margaret. Last hill, Bob. Every year I am in awe.

This year, I watched my fifteen year-old son clap and whoop for every runner. He’s a runner too and thinks nothing of taking a five mile run. I am, at the moment, training myself to go around the block in the hope that I can run a 5k road race this summer. I’m almost halfway around my block without stopping. Heartbreak Hill, indeed.

By four o’clock in the afternoon, the 2013 Boston Marathon was no more. Commonwealth Avenue was empty save for the occasional police car and yellow school bus picking up stranded runners. Not again, I thought. Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown. And 9/11. Please God, not again. London, Madrid, Jerusalem.

Enough.

I am a compulsive reader. A Kaddish reader. After 9/11, I gazed into the eyes of every victim and read their accompanying word portraits. Lives thrust into the news, engraved in our hearts. Their memories for a blessing. I’ve said that too often for people I’ve never met, but somehow are not strangers to me.

It is deeply disturbing to live so close to an act of terrorism that happens during such a quotidian event. My teenager and his friend didn’t take the T to the finish line because of inertia—easier to hang out in our suburb. Yet he’s cultivating his independence and one of the ways he’s learning to do that is getting around Boston on public transportation. After last Monday, how do I keep him safe? How do I help him stand down fear?

The day after the bombing, I was glued to the television and radio. “The sadness here in Boston is palpable,” said one reporter. Everyone who called in or was interviewed was testifying about something—their love for Boston, their relief that a loved one made it safely across the finish line, their dream of completing the marathon cruelly derailed. People were stunned and grateful that they were in Back Bay at the right time and the right place. Each one of them mourned for the victims. For eight year-old Martin Richard who loved riding his bike and playing ball, who hoped for peace after the Newtown shootings. Martin Richard, everyone’s child. For 29 year-old Krystal Campbell cut down in the prime of her life.

Over 180 injured people—many of them seriously—flooded the emergency rooms in downtown Boston. Any one of them could have been my friend who crossed the finish line 15 minutes before the bombs went off or his wife who was cheering him on a few yards from the explosion. There but for the grace of God go my friends. Boston was a huge shiva house—quiet, heavy and grief-stricken where the Psalm of Consolation, as my rabbi observes, seems to be “patently untrue.”

For the Guardian of Israel

                Neither slumbers nor sleeps…

                The Lord shall keep you from all evil…

                The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in,

                From this time forth and forever.

And yet for me the psalm has the potential to offer solace in the same way that the Mourner’s Kaddish praises God and doesn’t say a single word about death.

Sometimes, though, I think this God of ours is too demanding of our loyalty without giving much in return. I can’t depend on God to keep my children safe. Or can I? Do we devise our fate or is it pre-ordained?

A bomb goes off. Three dead and almost 200 wounded. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote how the lives of these dead and wounded increase the radius of a bomb’s crater. If that’s the case, then the diameter of the bombs that went off in Boston stretched across the world. And in the wake of our tragedy, the truest words I have to offer are Yehuda Amichai’s:

The Radius of the Bomb

Yehuda Amichai

The radius of the bomb was twelve inches

And the radius of its effective force seven yards

Containing four dead and eleven wounded.

And around those, in a wider circle

Of pain and time, are scattered two hospitals

And one graveyard. But the young woman,

Buried in the place she came from,

Over a hundred kilometers from here,

Widens the circle quite a bit,

And the lonely man mourning her death

In the provinces of a Mediterranean land,

Includes the whole world in the circle.

And I shall omit the scream of orphans

That reaches God’s throne

And way beyond and widens the circle

To no end and no God.

Sticks and Stones: Emily Bazelon’s Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Emily Bazelon has written an important book in which she contends that many of the root causes of bullying in schools can be defeated. She takes schools to task through the stories of three teenagers who experience the extreme toxicity of bullying.

Monique McClain is an African-American middle school student in Connecticut whose woes began in that incubator of bad behavior—the school bus. As seen in Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary Bully, the bus is literally the vehicle where violence and cruelty mushroom like a noxious cloud. Monique experiences the random nastiness of two eighth-grade girls, which has a domino effect off the bus. The bullying is so bad that she eventually withdraws from school. After her mother and grandmother vociferously advocate for Monique, she’s permitted to enroll in a magnet school. Was Monique bullied out of her school or was she rattled by the everyday girl drama that young teenage girls conjure? In Bazelon’s view it was a bit of both.

Jacob Lasher is a gay boy from upstate New York who endured taunts and physical aggression, but also played the part of the provocateur. Although he may not have seen it that way, Jacob’s strong identity as a gay boy educated his teachers and the clueless superintendent of his school district about gay teens and the risks they face. A 2009 survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender) reported that they had been verbally harassed at school. Forty percent had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 20 percent had been physically assaulted.

Jacob’s story also explores the psyche of his tormentor Aaron. Aaron is what is commonly referred to in psychology literature as the bully-victim. Bully-victims are as prone to depression and suicide as their counterparts. They hope their extreme behavior changes other kids’ perceptions of them, making it clear that they don’t want to be picked on. Jacob eventually prevails in a lawsuit against the school district, which forces teachers and administrators to implement safety measures for LGBT kids.

Through Jacob’s story, Bazelon makes three crucial points about mitigating the effects of bullying for gay kids. Parental support is essential in shepherding these teens through a tough time. She also notes “we have to hold two ideas about gay teens in our minds at once—they are more at risk, and yet most of them will be okay.” Her final point is something that I fervently believe in—that a Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a high school can be one of the “strongest bulwarks a school can erect against anti-gay harassment. LGBT students at these schools tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often and feel a greater sense of belonging.”

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Bazelon’s book grew out of her extensive reporting for Slate about Phoebe Prince’s suicide in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe, the third teenager profiled in the book, was a pretty freshman at South Hadley High School who arrived earlier that summer from Ireland. She immediately attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and the ire of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Phoebe’s popularity with older boys miffed other girls at school too. A few of them began a campaign of harassment that ended in Phoebe hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

I wrote about Phoebe Prince’s death two years ago. At the time I called the South Hadley administrators and teachers criminal for the way they ignored Phoebe’s distress. Bazelon went to South Hadley expecting to find the “black hearted monsters” that I portrayed in my column. Instead she found shades of gray and she reports on the case through the point of view of one of the six teenagers initially indicted on criminal charges for Phoebe’s death. Like her peers, Flannery Mullins underestimated Phoebe Prince’s vulnerability. Although I stand by much of my initial impressions of the bullying that played a part in Phoebe’s suicide, I learned from Bazelon that many factors contributed to Phoebe’s tragic death. She had a history of depression and cutting and she easily fell into high-risk relationships with boys prior to arriving in South Hadley.

In Bazelon’s view “an overzealous prosecutor decided to reduce all the complexity [of the case] into one clean narrative: Phoebe Prince was bullied to death.” What I didn’t take into account in my article was Phoebe’s difficult past, the fluidity of teenage relationships as well as the reality that the correlation between bullying and suicide is complicated. It’s true that kids who are bullied are more likely to think about or attempt suicide. But in the end it comes down to a chicken-and-egg question. Are kids who are depressed more susceptible to the effects of bullying or does bullying cause kids to become suicidal?

Then there is the relentless, 24-hour world of the Internet, which presents a challenge to schools. At Monique’s former middle school, there was a concerted effort to report inappropriate pages to Facebook to little or no avail. At a private Catholic girl school, Bazelon reports, an extraordinary example of peer mentoring in which senior girls helped freshman and sophomores prune their Facebook pages.

A Pew Center Survey from 2011 estimates that 15 percent of teens that are ages 12 to 17 said they were harassed on-line. With 800 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world. Reports estimate that 20 million teens and preteens are on Facebook and one million of them took the time to report bullying and harassment on the site to little effect. Bazelon visits Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley and discovers that the site has done shockingly little to keep kids safe. “As a parent,” writes Bazelon, “I wish I could tell you that FB gets it, that it’s a company willing to forego short term profits for the sake of safe-guarding the privacy and well-being of its young users. But I can’t.”

A negative comment on Facebook or texting an inappropriate picture cannot only spread like wildfire, but has a kind of permanence to it that can follow someone forever. Despite the overwhelming problem that the Web perpetuates when it comes to bullying, parents still have a big role to play in deterring their children from doing the wrong thing. Bazelon reports that for a 2009 study, researchers asked middle school and high school students what would prevent them from bullying on and off-line; parental discipline was first on the list.

Bullying may never go away. But I firmly believe that schools can and must transform their cultures into ones in which bullying is unacceptable. Teachers and administrators would do well to begin with the adage that, “If it’s mean, then intervene.” And as the subtitle of Bazelon’s trailblazing book says, developing character and empathy in our children is the strongest antidote to bullying.

A Men’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women – White Ribbon Day by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My Dearest Son:

I have no doubt that you will grow up to be a good man because you have been raised by the best man I know. That is why it is so important to me that you know that today is the Sixth Annual White Ribbon Day in Massachusetts. Men, like Dad and your uncles—and other men from various walks of life—will converge at the State House to declare publicly that each of them is accountable to end the ongoing violence against women.

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Accountability can seem daunting to a young teenager like you. But don’t be scared by accountability in life. Relish it. Instead, be alarmed by the lack of accountability, particularly when it comes to treating women with full human dignity. I know that you think a lot about human rights for all people, and one of the most fundamental rights in this world is for women and girls to be safe in their communities and their homes.

You’ll be interested to know that the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) was created in 1991 by a small group of Canadian men with a focus on what men could do to end domestic violence and sexual assaults. The first White Ribbon Day grew out of their campaign to commemorate the second anniversary of the murder of fourteen women in Montreal at the hands of one man. Today, the WRC is active in 60 countries and according to Jane Doe, Inc.—The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence—more than 5 million signatures have been garnered all over the world in support of WRC’s mission.

We’ve been on the Jane Doe site together and I saw how affected you were by the fact that anyone who is abused can quickly click out of the site without a trace of a visit if he or she is discovered looking for information. That safety measure opened my eyes too. WRC calls on all men to stand up against crimes against women, and yes it is a crime to be controlled and frightened into submission. Autonomy is one of the greatest gifts that you can cultivate in your children.

WRC is very clear that this is a men’s campaign where the focus is promoting positive male role models. This means that the campaign is for you, for your future. Your father and I don’t want you to live in a world where women are afraid for their lives. We don’t want you to live in a world where you feel hopeless and helpless to help the women around you.

Your father is a gentle man and that is his greatest strength. That kind of role modeling is the most precious gift that he can give to you. I know that you understand that there are all sorts of boys. Strength and thoughtfulness, bravery and sensitivity, artistry and athleticism are not mutually exclusive. Men are so pressured not to show a softer side. I hope and pray that by the time you are a grown man, society will reward men’s difference instead of humiliating them into ill-fitting stereotypes.

There is a formal pledge that you can take through WRC to end all violence against women and men alike. And there is that white ribbon you can wear. You may wonder why the color white. In all of the reading I’ve done about WRC’s commitment to healthy relationships, gender equality and raising boys with a new vision of masculinity, I haven’t specifically seen an explanation for why the color white was chosen. White has a lot of traditional associations that connote a fresh start. White is also the result of mixing all the colors of the rainbow. It’s every color, which is a rich metaphor for acceptance. White is also deeply illuminating, which is what I hope you will be—illuminated, educated, proactive and ever so gentle on this White Ribbon Day, and every day.

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Boston Globe’s The Podium

 

 

 

Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

 

The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.