More Cracking, Less Packing

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I couldn’t resist writing a new post on this historic day. In the past week we have seen a lame-duck congress pass a couple of really significant bills:

  • Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – REPEALED!
  • 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill – PASSED!
  • Tax Cuts for Everyone – umm…
  • START Arms Control treaty with Russia – Passed

Many people are applauding and marveling at the amazing progress made by Congress, but are our expectations simple too low? DADT should have clearly been repealed years ago, the First Responder’s bill should never have been held hostage by Republicans who were too focused on taxes, and we almost missed out on a no-brainer nuclear treaty with Russia!

And all of this is before we get the most radicalized new members of congress this country has ever seen!

Which brings us to the other big political news this week. The US Census has released the data that indicates how many congressional seats will be awarded to each state. With the new numbers of seats comes the redrawing of district lines, and that could be the secret to fixing a lot of what’s wrong with Congress today.

Too Much Packing

When politicians are tasked with redrawing district lines, they are essentially deciding which voters will be clustered together to choose a single candidate. For too long, the prevailing strategy has been what analysts are now calling “Packing.” This describes the drawing of a district to contain an overwhelming majority of one party’s supporters in order to all but guarantee victory for that party. This helps party leaders feel confident about the outcome in their elections, but it also has a very negative an insidious outcome.

Let’s explore a district that was packed by Democratic state leaders to be an overwhelmingly Democratic district. During the primary process, the electorate knows that the Republican candidates don’t have a chance. Because of this, Democratic candidates are not concerned with being moderate or appealing to non-Democrats. They are simply concerned with getting as many Democratic voters to support them. This often leads to candidates focusing on the extremists in their parties, and losing their perspective of what compromise and governance is all about.

When so many districts across this country are packed in this way, we find extremists populating Congress, and we see a serious decrease in willingness to “reach across the aisle.” There is less compromise and less cooperation. Congress can accomplish less, and the American people ultimately suffer.

What needs to happen is a little more Cracking.

The alternative strategy for redrawing district lines is called Cracking. This calls for the breaking down of packed districts, and the creation of districts that could easily by won by both Democrats and Republicans. In situations like this, the politicians are forced during the general election to get independent voters to swing in their direction. They are much more concerned with being considered moderate, and there is a sincere desire to govern towards the middle of the American populace.

Not enough State Governments are employing Cracking as their chief strategy for redrawing district lines, and the reasons are obvious. These decisions are being made by politicians! And if they want to stay in power, they must ensure their party will win more elections.

The silver bullet to solve this problem is independent commissions established to redraw district lines. I believe California is trying this, and it could work a long way towards bringing politics back towards the center.

This country has such low expectations for congress that we are amazed when the 9/11 bill passes – clearly something is wrong. We need to work towards punishing extremism, rewarding moderation, and stop allowing politicians to choose who gets to vote for them.

 

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My Chanukah Dvar Torah

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I really do wish more people at Mt. Sinai would write divrei Torah for the Kesher bulletin, but I also enjoy getting published on a frequent basis. So here is my short idea on Chanukah. (Thanks for fixing my typo’s and dangling modifiers to @thedailysnowman.)

OK – it’s time for the annual asking of the Chanukah Question: Are we celebrating the miracle of the oil or are we celebrating the miracle of the military victory? There are strong arguments for both sides, of course. On the one hand, a very small amount of oil was able to last much longer than it normally would have. On the other hand, a small ragtag group of Maccabees was able to fight off a larger, stronger and better trained Greek army. How do we decide?

I’m propose that neither of these is the true reason for celebration on Chanukah, but instead the victory and the oil, respectively, act as a prerequisite and a symbol of something much more important. What we are commemorating on Chanukah is the ability of the Jews to go back to living their lives without the fear of persecution, and without the threat of violence and war. They could stop retreating to the forest with wooden tops for clandestine daf yomi shiurim, and would no longer be pressured into publicly sinning to prove their allegiance to a foreign king. They could live freely and live normally.

Granted, the military victory was a necessary step in achieving that freedom. But a military victory is not an end to be celebrated. We do not rejoice in the injury or death of another people; we don’t relish the opportunity to fight, destroy and kill. While we pray to God for safety and security in battle, our true wish is for the war to have never begun in the first place. The victory was miraculous, but it alone would not have merited a holiday to continue for generations.

The supernatural oil is also insufficient to merit a holiday of its own. The environmentalist in me is happy for a Jewish example of how important energy conservation is, but if this was all about a jug of oil that burned longer than it should have, we would not still be lighting Chanukiyot today. The menorah was the most mundane of activities in the temple – it was as basic as turning on the light switch each morning. We focus on the Menorah because it symbolizes a return to the mundane, a return to the normal.

With so much disagreement and fighting in the world, we begin to lose sight of the goal. Life is not about defeating an enemy. Life is not about waiting for that one small miraculous event to inspire us. It’s about the daily ritual and the daily routine. It’s about connecting with family and friends, contributing to society, helping another person, performing a mitzvah, saying a tefilah. The war and the oil are the tangible events that we associate with this return to normalcy. Chanukah is an 8-day week designed to remind us to appreciate the freedom we have to live our lives with purpose and security.

Aaron Steinberg (@Steinberg) is a Mt. Sinai board member, Rena Weisen Book Club Member, and ‘The Knish Box’ Panoply team member. He and Adina have lived in the Heights for 3.5 years.

Not much of a hidden agenda in this dvar Torah – just wanted to emphasize that we don’t celebrate war, and should all be striving to live our lives peacefully. OK – maybe there’s a bit of commentary for ME Peace Process. Sue me.

Happy Chanukah!

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This is a test post, and I apologize for anyone who subscribes to my blog and is receiving this.

For those of you who are reading this post, I am currently thinking about addressing the high incidence of young divorces in the MO community, what we can hope for from government in the next two years, and what it means to want to live in Israel. I can’t guarantee these will all become posts, but they’re in the hopper.

Parashat Chayei Sara

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This is the Dvar Torah I wrote for the Kesher this week at Mt Sinai. I’ve added some additional commentary underneath it. 

“I just felt like running.” That’s how Forrest Gump answered when asked why he ran across the country. Running was something he had relied on as a child, and he returned to it as an adult. He wasn’t running to or away from anything. He just ran.

Three very different characters dominate the central story of this parasha: Elazar, Rivkah and Lavan. Elazar is the serious, humble servant focused entirely on finding a wife for Yitzchak. Rivkah is the kind, thoughtful even naive young woman who wants nothing more than to help others and make people happy. Lavan is the calculating, self-preserving brother in search of wealth and power.

The common denominator among all three, however, is that they all run. In the span of only 13 psukim, Elazar runs to meet Rivkah, Rivkah runs to fill the trough and ready her home for Elazar’s arrival, and Lavan runs to greet Elazar. They each posess the trait of zrizut, but the manner and means towards which they implement it is very different.

It’s no chiddush that Lavan is running for the wrong reasons, but is it significant to see that Elazar runs only once while Rivkah runs to fulfill two acts of chessed? Elazar is a servant and shaliach of Avraham’s – he serves his master to the best of his ability, but is ultimately only fulfilling the wishes of another. Rivkah is an individual who is acting on her free will – there is no pressure or external responsibility to take any action. Rivkah is realizing on her own that she has a responsibility to act, and she does so with avidity.

The world we live in presents us with very serious challenges. People suffer both locally and abroad. Injustices and discrimination run rampant, and innocent people are left by the wayside. Violence and harassment are not unknown even in our own communities, and we need to decide how to respond. We have to decide if we’re going to run towards the problems or away from them – will we be the selfless Rivkah, the obedient Elazar, or the selfish Lavan?

It’s easy to ignore the question altogether. We live fast paced lives – many of us on treadmills that keep us moving towards no particular goal and in no particular direction. We must fight the temptation to “just run” like Forrest, and ensure that we aren’t running away from the problems of this world. Let’s commit to following in the steps of Rivkah Imeinu, and run headstrong in support of causes we believe in, and in the direction of chessed, emet and tzedek.

I was inspired to write this dvar torah following the recent clustering of violent attacks and overwhelming harassment against homosexuals. Many religious, political and communal leaders across the country stood up and spoke out against this sort of bullying and attacks. Unfortunately, only a handful of Orthodox leaders took a stand against this universal cause, and even those few took a while to come around.

Homophobia and/or hate for homosexuals is not the only cause worth standing up for. There are many injustices in this world, and we need to stand up for as many of them as possible. Some require the contribution of funds, others require volunteering and action, and a few require nothing more than a statement of solidarity. When the rare opportunity to help someone in need comes in the form of a spoken word, written piece or facebook update, how can we pass it up?

I know this dvar torah wasn’t the most intellectually stimulating, but that wasn’t my goal. I want us all to think about the implications of our actions and damage that can perpetuate due to our inaction. Pick your fight, take your stand, and don’t allow momentum to keep you from standing up for something you believe in.

Water

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I promised a couple of people that I would address issues that were bothering me (Simchat Torah policies just to name one), but it seemed like I never got around to finishing any posts.

Well, I’ve decided that in honor of Blog Action Day 2010: Water, I’m going to write a post that’s a little different from what I usually write.

While I was sitting in shul on Yom Kippur, I began to think about the things in the world I wanted to change. My mind first focused on a number of social issues that bothered me: Women’s rights in Judaism, LGBT rights in Judaism and general society, prison reform, universal health care, and others. These are matters I am always reading about in the NYTimes, talking about with my friends, and thinking about when I head to the polls.

But then I looked at one of the “Al Chet” statements of confession that are recited over and over again on Yom Kippur. “Al Chet Sh’chatanu lefanecha b’tsumet Yad” – For the sin we have committed before you in extending the hand.” Artscroll provided an uninspired explanation for this, but I think this is more a sin of omission than commission. We need to think about all of the people to whom we have failed to reach out our hands and help.

While we’re living nice and comfortable lives (in Washington Heights or elsewhere), there are almost 1Billion people around the world who can’t even feel comfortable with their access to clean water. If there is no other basic human right, it should be the ability to drink, cook and bathe with clean disease-free water.

I once read that the standard used by International NGOs is to aim for every person have 5 gallons of clean water per day. What has always horrified me was learning that the average American shower head dispenses 5 gallons of clean water every minute!

Obviously taking a shorter shower won’t send that unused water to a village in Africa, Asia or anywhere else, but it puts in perspective how much water we waste every day, and how much we take this valuable resource for granted.

It’s hard to come to terms with all of the bad things that happen because there isn’t enough water in the world, but here are just a few:

  • Researchers predict that wars will break out in regions that have severe water insecurity. Water access was a major factor in the atrocities of Darfur, and the future is just as bleak.
  • Pollution of rivers and lakes around the world is on the rise, and more than 40% of rivers and lakes in the US are unfit for swimming, fishing or aquatic life.
  • Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions

There’s a lot we could do help more people access clean water, but most of us won’t be travelling to build wells in villages or teach drip-irrigation to rural farmers. Unfortunately, most of us will forget about this in a matter of minutes. So what you can do really simply is just donate $25 to Water.org, a non-profit that is working to provide drinking water to people around the world. Take that small step, feel good about yourself, and go take a shower.

Think about it.

I’m Coming Out

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Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m coming out as an LGBT Ally.

In too many communities and sub-communities, cultures and sub-cultures, there is still a strong stigma against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender/transexual individuals. In some places as we have seen recently the result is violence and harassment. In others we can find isolation, exclusion and branding in a way that can and does drive people to depression and suicide. In a modern country like the one we live in, it is inconceivable that sexual identity is the basis for people to be openly discriminated against in the military, business places, houses of worship and private homes.

Unfortunately, I am part of one of those communities where the stigma is strong (nerds: please insert Star Wars reference here.) In the Modern Orthodox community, too many people refer to homosexuality as SSA (Same Sex Attraction) and imply that it is a disease or affliction. In too many congregations, the only homosexual congregants that are accepted with open arms are those seeking therapy in the slim hopes of somehow changing their sexual nature through dangerous practices and highly questionable procedures.

There are not enough Modern Orthodox communities where it is OK for LGBT members to simply live their lives without having to disguise their life partner or spouse as a roommate. Too many MO teens who struggle with their sexual identity because they feel there is no one to talk to if they are gay or lesbian. There are not enough LGBT safe places, and there are not enough straight people standing up and saying that they will not judge, but rather offer an open hand.

So today was designed to accomplish just this goal. National Coming Out Day is an opportunity to give an excuse and some encouragement to people who want to share an important part of who they are with friends and loved ones. But NCOD is also an opportunity and excuse for straight people to share publicly with the people they know that they will not discriminate or ignore someone in their community because of sexual identity, but will rather serve as an ally, friend and partner.

Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this post are not LGB or T. So to all of you out there, tell your coworkers, friends and relatives that you will not stand for hateful or hurtful comments about homosexuals. Talk to your bosses about making your company or organization more gay friendly. Make a commitment to be careful with your speech and not judge people you meet just because they might be a little different. Ask your school or university to create an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy that explicitly mentions acts that are based on sexual identity. Take today to send a letter to your elected officials asking them to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or to change the law in your state to recognize same-sex marriage.

And to my readers/friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transexual, queer, questioning, straight, and whatever, I have the following to say: You are my friends and I’m going to treat you all the same. You are all people I care about, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you are gay or straight. It is my mission to do my best with my limited abilities to fight for a more equal community that believes in full human and civil rights for all people.

Consider taking today, or any other day, as an opportunity to stand up for equality.

36th World Zionist Congress feat. Aaron Steinberg

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8.5 hours into my flight, and the significance of the event I’m about to attend is hitting me. I’m about to serve as a delegate from the Religious Zionists of America to the 36th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. It is our collective responsibility to carry on the efforts begun by Herzl & Co. to build a Jewish State.

Over the last few weeks, people have been asking me what I’m going actually going to be doing there. I tried to explain that the WZO has some authority over JNF and the Jewish Agency, and that the voting at the Congress can have an impact on the policies of these important bodies. While that may be true, it still seems like it’s really an opportunity for 750+ Jews from around the world to get together and argue. Sounds fun, but is it worth the time and money spent to maintain this organization?

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Another matter that some of my regular readers may pick up on is the seeming contradiction between my personal politics and the perceived positions of the Religious Zionist movement (Mizrachi). To be clear, my personal opinions differ from the Mizrachi party-line on settlements, paths towards peace, religious pluralism, the role of religion in government, and possibly other matters as well.

Furthermore, I am attending this conference with the understanding that I will in-line with the party in all cases except those where we are explicitly instructed to vote our conscience, and I intend to fulfill that commitment.

This won’t be an easy process, and I am dreading the potential reality that I will have to vote for something I think is not in the best interests of Israel or the Jewish people.

BUT, I firmly believe that there is a growing minority of Orthodox Jews who have these more liberal views on Israeli politics and religion. We are a group that is continuing to work for a stronger, more vibrant, more democratic, Jewish State. We love Israel, we live lives of Torah, and we believe in the need for a two-state solution. It’s that simple.

I am a part of the RZA delegation because I want to be a part of the internal discussion of what it means to be a religious Zionist. Regardless of whatever criticisms people may have, it’s hard to deny that over the years Orthodox Zionists have ranked among the most passionate and steadfast of Jewish supporters of Israel. There is a lot of passion and dedication, and I’m proud to be a part of that rich heritage.

I hope that the discussions we have as a Siah (faction) will at least foster a sense of understanding for the other opinions that might be represented in the room. This is my first experience of this kind, and I look forward to the challenge.

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Still struggling with an answer for what the point of the WZO is, I went to my Zionist handbook – The Zionist Idea by the late Arthur Herzberg. I usually refer to this as my other Zionist bible.

I flipped from ideologue to radical to politician to poet, and tried to find something that would inspire some higher significance to this conference. There have been a lot of strife in our community over the last two weeks, and I wanted to find something to help push us through this rough patch.

I settled upon a reading should have probably been my first stop – Herzl’s opening remarks to the first Zionist Congress held in Basil in 1897. Amazingly, his first message to the group was a hope that time would be used wisely and efficiently, and that a lot could be accomplished in three-days. He knew Jews, and was worried that we would get caught up debating details instead of tackling the big issues.

His main message to the group, however, showed great optimism, premonition and confidence in the ability for World Jewry to come together around a Jewish State. He declared that the body convened in front of him served an important purpose, and that it would continue to be needed even after the establishment of a Jewish State. Herzl believe that the Jews of the world needed to remain connected to what was happening in Israel (Palestine), and actively involved in the continued development and governance of that important place.

On any given year, I’m not sure what important decisions the WZO makes. If we were to ask the hard-core WZO lifers, they would point to dozens of resolutions passed every four years that they would claim impacted the direction of the State of Israel. I’m not so sure the rest of us would interpret those resolutions with the same import or impact.

The importance of the World Zionist Congress is that it brings Zionists together from around the world for a collective effort of perpetual nation building. Israel is the home of the Jewish people, and the more avenues that Jews outside of Israel have to become involved in what’s happening (shy of voting), the stronger the country will be.