Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What We Need: Balanced, Civil Discourse

My father, in his office at Harvard

It’s hard for me to contain my excitement about a new program in memory of my father, Bernard Wolfman, who died just over a year ago.  We soon will develop a more engaging public name for what we are now calling the Bernard Wolfman Memorial Public Policy Forum at Beth Sholom Congregation. 

My father was a scholar of tax law and legal ethics also widely known for his work in public interest advocacy.  After serving in private practice in Philadelphia, he went on to teach at University of Pennsylvania law school, where he also served as Dean, and then at Harvard University law school. Deeply committed to inquiry, thoughtful discussion and high public and academic standards, he not only practiced law, he sought justice. He also was proud and deeply connected to his Jewish heritage and in particular to what he perceived as a connection between that heritage and the pursuit of justice.

For these reasons, we are establishing The Bernard Wolfman Memorial Public Policy Forum at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA, the synagogue community with which he was most closely connected in his adult life. The goals of this project are to develop an annual forum that provides the community with:
  • An opportunity to learn about issues in contemporary American public policy in a balanced way
  • A forum for experiencing public civility, academic inquiry, and pluralism
  • Elevation of the level of discourse through engagement of high level scholars and facilitators to present and discuss current public policy issues
  • The presentation of public policy issues through a Jewish lens
We wish both to present public policy issues and, in recognition of my father’s commitment to education, action and civil debate, to enable the community to more effectively engage by:
  • Presenting both sides of the issue from scholars of great expertise in their fields
  • Providing the tools for civil discourse and debate-we will ask scholars both to teach an issue and to model respectful, passionate disagreement
  • Asking speakers to offer ideas and venues for participants interested in engaging in activism for a particular position
 We will determine each year’s topic to reflect current critical issues. To extend the educational opportunity as much as possible, the program will be free of charge and open to the community at large, entirely underwritten by a fund established at Beth Sholom Congregation. We intend to partner with other organizations that can assist in broadening the reach, including educational institutions and policy oriented groups on all sides of the issues. And we will market the forum, as we want this not to be not only about exposing the 900 people that the historic Beth Sholom sanctuary can hold each year for the event, but about using the event as a springboard to reach many, many more with the civil discourse concept that is becoming an increasingly critical issue in our society—as the current political debate vividly illustrates.

We announce this now, during the Jewish high holy days, when we seek to return to the better path for the coming year.  For it is our hope that the forum will help us all along that path. 

Similarly, we plan to hold the forum each year during the intermediate days of Passover.  It is a holiday that my father loved, in large part because it brings family together but also very much because of the message of freedom that the festival embodies.  That message fits well with the concept of our public policy forum.  By delving into key issues in a balanced manner, and by raising the bar for civil discourse, perhaps we can help free ourselves to explore, interact and move forward with impact.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Writing Reality

I enjoyed a matinee of Ruby Sparks this weekend.  The premise is that a brilliant young writer, somewhat less brilliant in his emotional life, writes a character with whom he falls in love.  And beyond the bounds of what we accept as real or sane he writes her into existence.

Why is this beyond the bounds?  Long ago, people developed foundational stories that were brought together to form what we know as the Bible.  These stories essentially wrote God into existence for what would become generation upon generation upon generation.  Ironically, within the stories God authors us into existence with words of creation.

Yet even with this history, we find it unbelievable that a young man might write his lover (or anyone) into being.

The movie leaves us with plenty of questions to ask ourselves.  For now, I'm at: How is it that we humans are at once so expansive and so small minded?  How do we determine which approach is sane (or crazy) in any given circumstance? (Spoiler alert:  I'm particularly fond of the French fluency test in the movie.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My First Prayer

During the synagogue service, after reading to myself the silent Amidah, the central prayer, I take a few moments for personal reflection.  Never has this individualized prayer taken the form of words.  As comfortable as I usually am in the realm of written and spoken language, the idea of developing my own prayer--whether in my head, on paper or aloud--has made me decidedly uncomfortable.  Instead, during that personal prayer time I pull images of people into my thoughts, and this is the closest I come to saying, in my prayer, "She needs help right now," "I hope he'll have strength during this tough week he's facing."  When I have contemplated talking to God (as opposed to ritually repeating what others once wrote or said to God), the idea has seemed at once arrogant and naive.

This Friday evening, before Shabbat set in, my congregation hosted a prayer writing workshop.  Despite, or because of, my hesitation about the topic I felt drawn to attend.  Despite, or because of, my struggles with this type of writing I questioned my desire to attend.  It took me until the deadline to register.

Writer and teacher Janet Judith Falon gave us examples of prayer writing in various forms: poetry, prose, haiku, acrostic, epistolary. We even glanced at Facebook and Twitter examples.

Most effective, she gave us an exercise to prepare for writing prayers.  Janet presented eight questions and asked that each of us draft a private list in response to at least one of them.  I chose three:
  • What are your dependable joys?
  • What would be the chapters in your spiritual autobiography? (This is a cheat category--I simply jotted down "The chapters in Creative License," the book of my collected sermons.)
  • What resources do you have to do good in the world?
From this, each of us was to find inspiration, choose a form, and write a prayer.  And we did.  And I did. 

Here is my first prayer:

As we hiked Hawk Mountain,
Brad and I on one of our small adventures,
Light thrust through the heavy canopy
A dramatic shaft cutting a path
Through the clouds and leaves
To direct a path before us
From the sun yet I am not sure where, but
I knew your presence in that brief moment.
I gasped
With the weight and the light
And the lightness, all at once.

In adventures since, a sliver of
That day, that instant of you,
Continues to rain down light.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Helping Some Children in Grief; Turning Away from Others

After reading with hope Stacey Burling’s excellent Philadelphia Inquirer pieces last month on the resources now available for children coping with grief, the January 5th Inquirer article by Kristin Graham on the Philadelphia School District’s decision to cut its special representative from the payroll challenged my optimism.

In 1973 when I was 11 years old, my teachers were notified before my return to school that my mother had died—and they’d already long known of her illness—yet my science teacher raised his voice in front of the other students, asking why I’d not completed my week’s work.  “Because my mother died,” I yelled back, mortified but too angry to stay quiet though I'd never previously been one for outbursts in the classroom (nor for slacking in my work).  That was the extent of faculty’s and staff’s interaction with me about my loss.   And this was at the private school my parents chose so I’d receive personal attention, given my mother’s terminal illness.

I had tremendous support at home, and I Remember Mommy's Smile, my memoir for children to read with their caregivers—along with the accompanying video guide for adults—models a path while providing a means to dialogue, honesty and hope.

It is through this lens that I consider the dismissal of the special representative as Philadelphia School District struggles with many layoffs in an attempt to grapple with significant budget issues. I appreciate the economic pressures. But in a school district serving many communities where so many suffer losses, removing the one individual who helped them cope seems shortsighted.  If the district’s goal remains the education and safety of its children, then should we not help them and their families cope with loss? If not because it's the right thing to do, then at the very least so the children are able to learn and to avoid lashing out in school.