Upon receiving the Emily Georges Gottfried 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland. 

A parable from Hasidic Judaism:

Once upon a time, the king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would go mad. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop, for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be the abnormal ones.

“Rather,” said the king, “we must eat from the crop, like everyone else. But we will make a mark on our foreheads. In this way, whenever we look at each other, we at least will remember that we are mad!”[1]

I am grateful to the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland for the honor of this award, because their choice to honor me is a decision on their part to lift up the work I do, the work to which I have dedicated whatever strength and support I have to give. In these extraordinary days, as we endure the violence of a dysfunctional society, I am among those who find the meaning of my days in Resistance. There are human beings kept in cages. There are human beings sleeping in the cold. There are human beings who are being murdered by those who are sworn to protect and serve them. And there are people in power who want only to keep their power, who seek to silence or discredit those who cry out in their pain.

This world of ours is full of pain and loss for too many of us. The grain has been tainted, and we are surrounded by madness. To know this is to Resist.

I am a Rabbi, and as such I see my Resistance work in a historic context which reaches directly back to the Prophet Isaiah, who called for justice to roll down as waters, sweeping evil before it as a flash flood obliterates all in its path. I am inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah, who declared to the government that if a society does not care for the vulnerable, it will be without cohesive civic strength, and will decay and collapse under pressures of outside aggression and inner disaffection.

I am a Jew, and I find my strength to Resist as I am grounded in my tradition. There is an ancient Jewish perspective depicting our world as an island of order floating in an endless abyss of chaos. We are taught that the stability of our world depends on three things: study, prayer, and what is called hesed. This last term is difficult to translate, but in a moment I will attempt it.

I believe that the ancient wisdom of these three pillars can help all of us make some kind of ordered sense out of the chaos in which we live.

The first pillar that can help you hold your world steady is that of learning. I cannot act for the greater good simply based upon my own sense of what is good, something that is likely to be tainted by the bias of what is good for me.  Real learning requires the humility of knowing you don’t already have the answer; it requires a willingness to hear all voices and contemplate all perspectives, especially those that contradict the clarity we want so badly to reach. Only slowly do we come to learn that our own well-being is wrapped up in each other’s.

My learning comes from so many brilliant, brave sources: from the Oregon ACLU, from Don’t Shoot Portland, from Empower Portland, from the NAACP, and from Portland United Against Hate. It comes from Portland Resistance, from the Oregon Justice Resource Center, from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, from APANO and IRCO and from Basic Rights Oregon; from Black Lives Matter and from Jewish Voices for Peace and from the Democratic Socialists of America. Downtown at a demonstration, it comes from the Unpresidented Marching Band, from the National Lawyers’ Guild, from Rose City Antifa, and from my own Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. I am grateful for all the learning.

The second pillar that holds up our world is prayer, in the best sense of that reality: not the repetition of rote words, but the piercing clarity of finally realizing their meaning.  A good prayer moment is a time of quietness, when one listens for a voice which speaks of the complexity of truth. It is the time after learning when one sees the fullness what one is discovering, and knows it is changing one’s sense of self and purpose.  You may call it meditation, or musing, or a walk in the park, but it requires a willingness to face one’s own soul, and one’s own solitude.

The third pillar is called by the word hesed. This Jewish word refers to the kind of caring that we extend to another person whom we recognize as part of our group; a member of our tribe; a companion upon who we can depend. While the ancient Hebrew term was never meant for a multi-cultural society, nevertheless in it is a key to our survival and thriving: unless we come to see everyone as an equal companion on our path, worthy of the same kindness and support we need, this third pillar that supports our lives will not stand.

The third pillar can only be understood in terms of the first two. The humility that comes with real learning echoes in the quiet moments of a single life, and perhaps to the realization that we are, after all, all connected. In my tradition we are all born with a beautiful and perfect soul, and all of us join in that purity, connected one to the other. My tradition rejects the idea that any human being is less than human – even the human being you find most odious. Every soul has a part to play, every human being is irreplaceably precious.

In this way of thinking, no one can be demonized as “other” and therefore dismissed; someone may be a deeply damaged human being or a highly developed one, but we are all human. This is disconcerting, because it means that I am no different in my potential than a racist or a murderer; on the other hand, it is encouraging, because I’ve got their number – I can find a way to stop that evil, because I recognize it.

It follows, then, that for resisting the effect of that tainted grain we must work together. Your path must be my path or ultimately it is no path. Learning by listening rather than speaking, deferring to others, and sharing space, is essential. Acting with open hands and heart, putting down the defensive posture and the certainty that I know already all I need to know, and to let go of the need to be noticed, to be first, to get credit – because we all get there, or none of us do.

Twenty years ago the sociologist Robert Putnam noticed that less and less of us are able to talk to our neighbors. The scale of our lives doesn’t allow us to stop on our way and chat. Less time spent in each other’s presence translates to less ability to see each other as approachable. Divides between different communities became wider, and within communities as well. Rather than talk to each other, some are now more likely to call the police, expecting them to make up for our increasing lack of ability to learn outside our comfort zone. That comfort zone becomes a pair of blinders, and we don’t even know what we don’t know about each other.

These are terribly upsetting days. Everyone, it seems, has eaten tainted grain, and it’s hard to know which way is forward, and what will confront each of us next in society. In my experience it is too easy to believe that those who disrupt are the problem, when they are actually serving in the role of symptom. There is no cure for what ails us if we don’t consider the symptoms a valuable warning.

I believe it’s not only a Jewish value to stand with those who are being trampled upon, even when they are upset enough to act in ways which are seen as disruptive and unpleasant. No one really wants to spend their time marching downtown when they could be hiking in Forest Park. The traffic jams and the vandalized buildings and the embarrassing headlines should be seen as a signal to all of us that something systemic is very, very wrong, and disruptive and unpleasant change may be inevitable.

One has to be willing to consider the upsetting voice truthful, even prophetic, in the sense of the Prophet Jeremiah. He was jailed, and even thrown down a well for saying upsetting things, such as declaring that his corrupt society would be destroyed. But it was anyway. You do not change the facts because you silence them. A prophetic voice is perhaps simply that voice which says something that we all know is valid, even though we may not wish to think about it.

No one really wants to think about the fact that the entire harvest is tainted, and that radical change may be necessary, lest the pillars give way and our world sink into chaos. Yet the work of resisting the tainted grain will always be uncomfortable, upsetting, and disruptive.

The Rabbis said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, “sing for us!”

He sang, “Woe for us that we are to die!”

They said to him, “what shall we respond?”

He sang, “Where is the Torah and the Mitzvah that will protect us?”[2]

A mitzvah is a sacred obligation. Someone like me, given access to the dais because of my position, whether I have earned it or not, is obligated to use that advantage for the nurturing and thriving of all the life on this dirt raft we share together. The mitzvah of being present downtown at a protest is to simply act upon my belief that in a city which respects and protects all its residents, all of us should be equally able to be present, at all times, anywhere. I come downtown whenever I can (note to organizers: please plan a Sunday sometimes.  Jews like me take Shabbat off).

I am downtown and I will be present where voices are raised against the violence we would rather not see, because it disturbs and disrupts us and we can’t fix it all. I will continue to join those who do something, anything to voice protest, because I find my common path to lie with those who are raising up the prophetic voice of our day in declaring that

Killing is evil.

Compassion is good.

Violence is evil.

Patience is good.

Separating children from their parents is evil.

Empathy is good.

Using tear gas is evil.

Listening is good.

Racism is evil.

Humility is good.

Justice is not justice if it is just us.

This is what I think works: getting grounded in one’s own traditions of finding one’s way and one’s balance. Keep learning and seeking community, so that we can stay strong and centered in these days. Figure out your own Shabbat, your own down time, and use it to think deeply about what you are learning and doing. Keep learning; try to get used to being uncomfortable. Find a delight in learning that all you thought you knew on an issue was actually wrong, and now you know better. Remember the kindness and mutuality of hesed, and try to be gentle with others, and with yourself when you realize how much more work there is to come before we can bring in a good harvest of nurturing, healthy grain, and celebrate it together.

Thanks for this honor: it really belongs to all from whom I have learned, and I will try to be worthy of it. I do hope that it’s neither indicative of the lifetime I have yet before me, nor the achievement toward which I still hope to grow.

[1] Tales of Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav

[2] BT Berakhot 31a

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Shabbat HaAzinu: Listen!

HaAzinu means “listen!” – “pay attention!”  Now, in these few days between Yom Kippur and the start of our Sukkot holy day, now, when we are rushed to prepare not only for that Festival but for all that our New Year brings.

“Listen!” The words of our parashah, Moshe’s final song, ring out over the ages to us. On this Shabbat, following so closely on the heels of Yom Kippur, we are poised to respond with our best selves. Sometimes we have to listen carefully to a still small voice inside of us. Other times, the voice of G*d rings out loudly. It rings right now, right here in downtown Portland.

On Yom Kippur while we were immersed in prayer, while we were considering what it might mean to engage in social justice from a more deeply felt and articulated Jewish grounding to support us, a disaster for our local democracy was unfolding downtown at Portland Oregon City Hall. You can see coverage here:

http://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-police-union-deal-ratify-votes/

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2016/10/portland_city_council_approves_27.html#incart_gallery

https://t.co/O72VuEtncm

A number of our fellow citizens had gathered at City Hall to voice their concerns with the new contract created by Mayor Hales and the Portland Police. Rather than being heard, they were forcibly ejected from the building with force by armed security. For no clear reason, our fellow citizens were pepper sprayed. The Image of G*d was beaten. It was arrested.

City Hall was built by the taxes paid by citizens. It is our building. It is our right to go there and testify without fear of being forcibly, physically silenced. And it is our right and our obligation – indeed, a mitzvah – to raise our voices now and demand that our elected leaders listen, and respond, and stand accountable for that inexcusable violence.

(I attach the open letter written by a leader of Don’t Shoot Portland. Please read it, that you might listen to him.)

What are we commanded to do in response to a divine call such as in this moment? First, learn about it. Then, write a letter or an email to City Hall. Post on your blog or on Facebook. Join me for our erev Shabbat kirtan this evening to consider, learn, and discuss. And then consider joining me at the planned protest gathering:

Friday Night Lights: Protest Against Brutality of 10/12 at Watershed PDX, 5040 SE Milwaukie Ave 3:00 Friday till 8:00pm Saturday

In our parashah we read Moshe’s hope that “My teaching will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.” (Devarim 32.2) May the approaching storms speak to us not only of the weather on this erev Shabbat. When inappropriate violence is used against our fellow citizens, it is not enough to secure our own house. The storm that grows in strength in our country will one day reach us all if we do not stand up against it. 

I am deeply disappointed in the actions taken by our elected representatives at City Hall. Regardless of the details, crucial as they are, of whether the contract should have been ratified by City Council vote, violence against those who raise their voices peacefully in protest is wrong.

I pray that we each find a way to respond, as concerned and responsible citizens, that increases peace for all.

An Open Letter to Mayor Charlie Hales

My name is Gregory Robert McKelvey. I am a 23-year-old law student, campaign manager and activist. I am also a born and raised Portlander. During the past few years I have been organizing with groups such as Don’t Shoot Portland, which fights for justice in this city. During the past month or so, I have met with you and your staff many times to see if we could work together in achieving a better Portland. It has become clear that we cannot. Yesterday, I personally witnessed your police force close the community out of a public City Hall meeting, beat women and children, and pepper spray and arrest peaceful protesters all while yelling. Officers continued to yell, “under order of the mayor.” What I witnessed yesterday was something I never thought I would see in my hometown. I saw in the media that you said something like, “Some people are just looking for any reason to protest.” This is an incredibly disgusting statement, one that I feel compelled to personally address.

Over the past few years, Don’t Shoot Portland has conducted many peaceful protests throughout the city. Never once have we rioted nor looted. Just this year we organized panels, forums and art shows. We are not strictly a protest group. However, there are many instances in which a peaceful protest is warranted. Our First Amendment right is not something we are supposed to simply point to as a trophy of our past accomplishments, but rather a tool we must use to be heard. Howard Zinn once wrote, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” There is nothing more patriotic than exercising our First Amendment right.

However, it is not fun to protest. I do not enjoy getting daily death threats. We do not enjoy sleeping in tents outside of City Hall in the rain. We do not enjoy being pepper-sprayed. We do not enjoy being hurt by your police department. We are not looking for any reason to protest, we are trying to fix the reasons why we must protest. Police brutality, abuse of power, racial disparity in policing and corrupt politicians.

The Los Angeles Times wrote the other day:, “A 2012 investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found Portland Police were using excessive force against people with mental illness and were too quick to use Tasers.

Portland Police have also long been accused of disproportionately targeting black residents. African American residents make up 6.3% of the population but account for 12.8% of police stops, according to police data released last year.”

We have a problem in our city. Minorities are contacted at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are jailed at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are overwhelmingly overrepresented in our jail system. “As mayor, you can only submit two possible explanations for this reality: Either there is something inherently worse about brown or black people, or police actions have created an unjust racial disparity.” I like to think you do not think black and brown people are worse than others, and therefore agree that there is a problem with policing. This is why we protest. — because you recognize and acknowledge the problem yet refuse to do anything about it. Black people do not have the privilege. We must do something about it because we are being affected. None of us want to turn into the next hashtag.

Yesterday, I showed up to testify. Many others showed up just do that same thing. We wanted to be in Council chambers, but within just a few minutes you moved the meeting and locked out the public. You then had armed cops force everybody into one part of City Hall. That is an occupation. We were not allowed to attend the meeting. We were not allowed to testify and we were not given a voice. The only thing we were allowed to do was be beaten. I handed out waters and snacks to your officers. I felt bad for them. It must feel wrong to be ordered to beat children out of City Hall. I also care about them. I care about you. I care about our entire city. I just want justice.

It became clear that in an effort to thwart democracy, you were closing off City Hall to the community. I grabbed my bullhorn and directed everyone to leave. Next, you directed your police force to violently move in on everybody in the lobby. There was absolutely no violence before this. We were leaving as fast as we could. This did not make a difference to you. The citizens you abused were mostly women, children and the elderly. There were many disabled people as well. All waiting to testify at City Council. You should not view your constituents as the enemy, but rather as partners. We were there to testify, not occupy. It was you that ordered an armed occupation of City Hall while your citizens wanted to have their voices heard in a public meeting. This is intimidation at its finest and it is vile.

The area on the second floor of City Hall is very large but the doorway is not. As your forces continued to push into the crowd, many people were thrown to the ground. Others were trampled. Because of this nobody else could get through the doorway since it was blocked by injured community members. Yet, your police officers behind the line were still pushing people forward. People were attempting to slow the push so that those who had fallen could get up without being severely hurt. You did not care. This led to many more injuries. As people fell, your officers would jump on top of them and begin punching them in the face. After you had removed most of the community from their own building, your brutal officers began shutting the door. However, there were still people crying in agony on the ground inside. We needed to get them out before your officers could hurt them even more. While attempting to hold the door open — so that these injured people could get outside, your forces pepper-sprayed a 72-year-old women and many others.

I was one of the last community members to leave, as I was near the back of the line. Thus, I was able to see the entire ordeal unfold. As I got outside, with the mist of pepper spray still in the air, I was in shock of what you had directed your forces to do to us. Over the past month you have continuously attempted to silence us. However, I never expected you to deploy these tactics on hundreds of people just because they wanted to testify to their City Council.

Since you seem to believe we protest for no reason, let me inform you what the reason actually is. On September 23 we gathered in North Portland for a peaceful rally and march in solidarity with cities that were mourning the killings of unarmed African-Americans. Those cities and families asked us to do so. Soon after we gathered, we were met with dozens of officers with “gang enforcement” across their uniforms. We are not a gang. We are your constituents. Imagine the feeling of the young African-American children who came to rally for justice when their mayor sent gang enforcement to assault them. How do you think that feels? Apparently you think it feels like, “looking for any reason to protest”.

During this peaceful march, your forces pepper-sprayed, beat and shot at us. Since the police force is your responsibility, we came to City Hall to ask why you had directed your officers to assault us. After hours of simply asking to hear from you, you met with myself and two other leaders. In that meeting you agreed to speak to the crowd, continue regular meetings with our group about racism and police accountability, and to apologize for what your forces had done to us. You followed through on all of those requests, and I respect you for doing so. However, you soon proved that they were empty promises. The first of these continued meetings was supposed to be the following Wednesday at City Hall.

Once we arrived at City Hall for the community dialogue you had promised us, we were met with signs that said the meeting had been moved to a church in North Portland — and that City Hall was on lockdown. Many people could not make it to North Portland on such short notice. Others did not feel safe going to a church that is run by an accused sexual assaulter. Others simply did not feel comfortable going to a church. Black people are bigger than black churches. You then repeatedly lied claiming that we had signed off on the location change. You and your staff all know this is not true. This was a clear attempt to avoid your promise.

We stayed at City Hall, demanding that you do what you said you would. After many hours of waiting outside, your staff pulled me aside so we could meet with you. I told you that you needed to do what you promised, even if four hours late. Thus, you went outside and held a forum with the community where you answered many difficult questions, mostly about the new police union contract. You pretended to listen (your usual tactic) however it was clear the only way we could actually be heard would be at city council.

The following Wednesday, you allowed testimony on a flawed and corrupt contract with the PPA. Every single member of the community testified against the contract. You did not care because you do not have the community’s interest in mind. After just a few hours of testimony you amended the contract. This means that our voices can make good changes to the contract and also that the contract was not yet good enough to be ratified. However, this was not nearly enough.

Soon after that meeting, I met with you again. You attempted to lecture myself and two others on the reasons we must accept a bad contract. Your entire argument was based on the false premise that we need more police officers. You claim we are in a crisis. However, crime is down across the board. There is no crisis. Your primary concern with this contract is to retain and recruit officers. But what does it mean to retain and recruit officers who do not want to be held accountable and enjoy assaulting us as they have throughout the last month? Our city had an opportunity to set an example for real police reform and recruit officers of high character. I sincerely fear for what our city will become. It’s hard to imagine this being any worse.

The contract is bad. I agree with JoAnn Hardesty of the NAACP when she wrote, “[The contract] reflects the narrow focus on money rather than vision and does not reflect the will or voice of the community. There are many things wrong with this contract.” I also agree with the City Auditor who wrote, “We are concerned that the veil of secrecy that has enveloped the proposed contract and its creation stands to do long-term harm to the City’s efforts to build a stronger police accountability system.”

At the following City Council meeting, you jailed your political opponents for speaking out against you and blocked off the public from the meeting itself. This is anti-democratic, unconstitutional, illegal and un-American. Once again, I was not allowed to testify. Yesterday, a week after your latest abuse of power, you decided you would get your contract passed by any means necessary. You closed off the public from City Council, sent armed police officers to protect their wage increase, beat women and children, and arrested innocent protestors. None of us were allowed to testify, none of us were even allowed to be in there. We simply listened in horror in the halls of City Hall as your officers laughed at us. This is why we protest. We are not looking for any reason to protest, you just keep giving us reasons why we need to protest. Please watch the footage of the incident and tell me it looks fun to be there. Tell me that it looks enjoyable. Locking up and shutting out your political opponents is not how democracy works. Beating women, children, the disabled and the elderly is not how policing should work. For these reasons, along with the human rights abuses of your homeless sweeps including the Springwater Corridor, and your reluctance to act on corruption, the housing crisis, addressing homelessness or police accountability; I am calling on you to resign. I understand that you are on your way out but we have no time to spare. Lives are on the line. We will protest against you until you resign. This begins October 14.

Shabbat Korakh: We Need Light Now

Things are going from bad to worse, worse that we thought they could get, in our parashat hashavua, called Korakh. Hundreds of Israelites, led by Korakh, rise up against the leadership. Hundreds of people die as a result, and – most horrifying – the situation at the end of the day is not fundamentally changed. We are still lost in the wilderness, still doomed to wander for a generation – and still angry.

These repeated cycles of rebellions put down, deaths of guilty and innocent alike, and growing discontent produces a certain demoralization for the survivors. And so we feel in these days, after a week of three shootings that we know about, three separate instances of gun violence that we know are connected. They are linked by our common sense that we are lost, and wandering through a wilderness of anger that grows with each tragedy.

“It produces a certain fatigue,” said Teressa Raiford, an organizer with Don’t Shoot Portland, on OPB’s Think Out Loud today. It makes you want to throw up your hands with a defeated sense of helplessness. And, more significantly, it makes one tend to move toward abandonment of the rest of the world for the sake of trying to keep one’s own loved ones safe. That way lies another generation of wandering, and we dare not take that road.

How did this happen? The Rabbis ask the same thing about Korakh’s rebellion. Perhaps considering the one will help shed light upon the other – and we need some light right now.

Korakh is Moshe’s cousin, a Levite just as thoroughly. He and the others who rebelled against Moshe’s leadership were passed over for positions of priestly authority. When G*d handed out the duties of the Levites, they were assigned chores of porterage, roles of singing Psalms, and, according to Divre HaYamim (the Book of Chronicles) the Korahites were also doorkeepers of the Mishkan, the holy space.

Korakh rebelled because, as he put it, “all the people are holy” (Numbers 16.3). He wasn’t wrong. So why does he die, along with those who rebelled with him? 

Some commentators find him arrogant: Korakh and those others with him should have accepted their lot in life. But I see his mistake as one of timing. Yes, all the people are holy, and his anger is genuine. But last week the Israelites experienced a terrible national trauma, and their ability to tolerate this uprising was seriously impaired. There could be no realistic attempt at rational discourse while they were still in the midst of mourning the loss of the Promised Land.

And so we are commanded by Jewish tradition: Do not try to console a mourner while her beloved dead is still before her.

Our United States society is plunged into mourning. We have lost, and are still losing, so much: our sense of safety, our trust in the public square’s security, our ability to see a way forward. We are doing terrible things to each other on a national scale. Even as the July sun, obscured by dark clouds, casts a gloomy darkness over us, the darkness of rising fear and anger and confusion is upon us. 

We have no clear answers for the healing of our society anytime soon, yet we cannot give in to helplessness or cynicism any more than we can rush to false conclusions. Yet our Jewish tradition offers us a powerful way to respond: light a candle.

Every erev Shabbat we are bidden to kindle the light of Shabbat at sundown. On this erev Shabbat, join me in lighting one extra: a light to shine against the darkness, a declaration that ner HaShem nishmat adam, “G*d sees by the light of the human soul” (Proverbs 20.27). Declare with me that every human soul increases the light of the world; every death brings darkness. Light an extra candle on this Shabbat in memory of a tragic death, among all those who are murdered by the violence in our midst.

And after Shabbat is over, and you have rested your soul, consider how you want to act. Because we must, if we would bring light to this darkness. This must be a summer of action for us: if not now, when? Here are three ideas to get you started:

*find out the Black-owned businesses near you, and choose them when you can

*sign up with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice) and support them

*demand, agitate, and vote for gun safety laws