Friday, November 25, 2011

Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network Letter to Mayor Villaraigosa

Monday, November 28, 2011 The Hon. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa 200 N. Spring Street, Rm 303 Los Angeles, CA 90012 Dear Mayor Villaraigosa: We, the undersigned leaders of faith communities in Greater Los Angeles, became deeply concerned upon hearing Wednesday afternoon that the city has a very short timeline for final resolution of Occupy LA matters and for eviction of the occupiers from City Hall grounds. In our judgment, this very short timeline will lead to unnecessary conflict and violence. We understand the frustration and fear of many of the occupiers, some of whom treat the camp as their home after a period of weeks together in that space. Our highest imperative is to ensure that whatever unfolds happens peacefully. To this end we ask that sufficient time be afforded so that a transition can take place in an orderly and peaceful manner. This means weeks, not days. We appeal to you to take into account the way in which participatory democracy works in the General Assembly of Occupy LA. Finally, we request a meeting between you and representative faith leaders for the purpose of facilitating a happy outcome to an occupation that continues to stand out nationally on account of the city’s hospitality and lack of intimidation to date. Yours in and for peace,

 FAITH LEADERS (For a complete list of signers, please email OccupyLAInterfaithSanctuary(at)

To add your name to this list, click HERE.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy the Language, by Aryeh Cohen

(Photo credit: Jeffrey H. Campagna)
 Aryeh Cohen, the author of the forthcoming book (soon and in our days) Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation, is a professor, a social justice activist, a rabbi, and a lecturer.

One young man in Zuccoti Park in New York, part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, holds up a sign which boldly declares: “We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it.” This tongue in cheek message gets to the heart of what is uncomfortable for many in the media and the chattering class about the Occupy movement (OWS and its many many offshoots in all major American cities and many cities around the world). There is an expected, almost ritual nature to American political discourse. 

There are critiques, followed by demands, supported by emotional anecdotes and statistics, followed by the suggestion of legislative remedies. The chattering class then gets to work vetting these remedies on two levels. 

First, and most important, is the “horse race” analysis. The political climate will not allow this or the votes are there but only if the opposing party will compromise on this. And so on and so forth. Somewhere farther down, or on the inside pages, the wonks get to work dissecting the numbers. Within a week at most (usually a news cycle), its all old news. Nothing has changed. Perhaps a catch phrase has been added to the stump speech of this or that candidate. It is very frustrating when a large group of Americans peacefully assemble to air their grievances without participating in these tried and true rituals. When they do not attempt to position themselves behind a candidate or leverage a powerful constituency, but, rather display their disaffection without feeling the need to issue bullet points which any politician or pundit could easily digest and regurgitate. And then they stick around. For a long time. And they do not feel the pressure of the news cycle to make decisions or appoint telegenic spokespeople. They just put up tents, hold long meetings which need to reach a consensus for a decision, put themselves in danger by reclaiming public space and using non-violence as a trigger and a weapon to reveal the repressive reflexes of the financial and political elites. It is maddening.

Reflections on the Interfaith Sanctuary, by Shakeel Syed

Shakeel Sayed is the Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. 

Salam Alaykum & Peace be on to you.
I was introduced to the Occupy LA encampment on Friday, the 7th of October when along with hundreds of interfaith leaders and advocates for justice, we marched lamenting the decade long death machine launched by our nation on Afghanistan. We marched from La Placita Church located in the El Pueblo Los Angeles (if you don't know about this part of history, see Dr. Google) to the City Hall and walked around it. The occupants of Occupy LA came out of their dwellings and some gave us thumbs up and few others marched with us. Few hours later, we shut down the Los Angeles street and engaged in civil disobedience and got ticketed for "unlawful assembly!"  
Today, just about a month later, on Wed Nov 9th, I had the privilege to walk into the Occupy LA community and be embraced by the enlightened citizens of our country, mostly Los Angelenos and some from other cities and states. We were a dozen interfaith leaders who gathered around the common and core principle of our respective faith traditions that "All Religions Believe in Justice." Our collective concern is simple - "how can we be silent when our country is being raped by the merchants of greed?"
An "Interfaith Sanctuary" is established which will be open to people of all faiths and conscience. We belong to no special interests and subscribe only to public interest and the common good.  
W.E.B. Du Bois was right. Our nation is producing a new form of despotism - a democratic despotism! Someone needs to change the course. Will you join us?

Occupy Hope, by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He delivered this sermon on October 28, 2011:

There has been a pretty funny cartoon floating around Facebook this week related to parshat Noach.  It shows two animals sitting on the shore, looking out to see the ark sailing away and the speech bubble says, “Oh no, that was today?”  While this is funny, it actually flies in the face of the great divide between humans and animals, for animals don’t really have the capacity to evaluate time, understand their own emotions or communicate in the way that we humans do.  I know that animals have a great many attributes and do express feelings, and as my dog never fails to show, have great capacity to show love and affection.  But tonight, I am not concerned as much about the animals as I am about the humans.  For we do have the capacity to evaluate time, understand our own emotions and communicate.  We have the capacity to think, rationalize, correct mistakes, acknowledge wrong, celebrate success and many other things that make us the unique creatures we are.  And, we also have the capacity to live in denial, to ignore realities that don’t suit our comfort level, either out of fear or inertia, and we can be convinced to believe in things, even if they are not true, if we are told them often enough.  That challenge got a whole lot harder to break through with the advent and mass acceptance of social media, cable television and the internet.  What is true, what is false, what is okay to disagree on, what are red lines that we can’t cross, how do we analyze clearly enough to distill the reality from the illusion?  These are the great questions of humanity, questions that we are faced with in every generation.  

I have not yet spent any time at the Occupy LA protest site, but as a fervent proponent of social and economic justice, I feel that I support the idea of the movement that is seeming to take hold in many, many cities around the country, and in other parts of the world.  I plan to be down there in the coming days.  The protests, which are leaderless and without an organized structure at the moment, seem to have been inspired by the social protests that took place in Israel this past summer.  As with any large movement, there will be lots of different kinds of people that attach themselves or show up at protests, which may include racists, bigots and anti-semites, but it doesn’t appear that any of this ugliness is actually a part of the protest movements as a whole, either in the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party.  Now, the big questions to ask, in my mind, are these: what are the fundamental elements of our country that are not working which have brought out these protesters?  I am not an economist, but it seems to me that, according to most studies, it is a truth that in the last 30 years the richest members of our country have gotten tremendously richer while the middle and lower classes have gotten poorer.  As a rabbi and spiritual leader, this deeply concerns me as a truth we have been choosing to ignore or deny, and these Occupy Wall Street protests are an explosion, to a certain extent, of that anger and fear, which has been greatly magnified by the current recession, which is deeper and more troubling that anyone knew or understood.  And, on the other side, it seems to me that the Tea Party folks are fed up with government that is not working and they want to do some things differently as well.  As a nation, we have to examine all sides, listen to people and then decide what direction we want to go.  We are a democracy but it seems that the capitalist side of our country is winning over the democratic side.  I am not against capitalism but I am against unfairness and inequity.  If capitalism’s job is to make money, then it needs to be tempered by the values and commitments to all people that live within our democracy.  I don’t think that is socialism or communism, I just think it is not unfettered capitalism.  People have lost their homes, lost their jobs while the big banks got bailed out and didn’t do what they promised us they would do by helping folks in trouble.  I think that both Occupy folks and Tea Party folks would agree that this was a huge moral corruption that we witnessed to the tune of $700 billion.  There may be more than one way to fix the problem, but the first step is to acknowledge that a problem exists.  This is one of the big distinguishing factors of being human and right now we are struggling to understand what this means for us as a nation.  

In our Torah portion this week, Noah, we see that people have sunken into depravity, selfishness, greed and corruption, which leads to violence which leads to destruction.  God apparently had no choice but to save one righteous family and enough animals to start over, promising us, through the rainbow, that divine destruction will not be a viable choice ever again.  Human destruction, however, is never taken off the table and we are still struggling.  Another one of these Facebook wall photos that I have seen lately is a statement that says, “We ask God how can God allow for a world with hunger, pain, suffering and inequality.  If we listen, we find God asking us humans the exact same question.”  The midrash, commentary on the Torah portion this week tells us something interesting and important: the downfall of the generation of the flood rested on their stealing from one another.  But, it was not great theft that did it; rather, it was petty theft, theft in the market place small enough that it couldn’t be prosecuted.  A little here, a little there, people were cheated, stolen from, taken advantage of by the merchants and businessmen.  It was this chipping away of values that led to the violence of the people that was too great for God to stop.  This sounds very familiar, in my mind, to what we are seeing today.  While the bank bailout could be seen as a huge theft, it is the chipping away at the lives of ordinary and working people, at the expense of massively increasing the wealth of the super rich, that I think is finally bringing out people into the streets.  We know that these protests are quite diverse, and that not all of the people are hardworking, honest Americans who are camped out in cities around the country.  But, many of them are and I feel compelled to support the cause for justice and equity.  This movement doesn’t have a Dr. King, a Stephen Wise or a Yitzhak Rabin, and we shall see if a leader will need to emerge to help shape the vision and the demands of this group.  What it does mean, no matter how we look at it, is that our country is in need of a course correction and we shall see how that unfolds in the coming months and years ahead.  What I know is needed is a return to the central values upon which we were founded and a return to having hope in the future.  We need to Occupy Hope and share it with others.

Rabbi David Wolpe said something very interesting this week in one of his columns.  He was commenting on one of the early morning prayers, where we say “what are we, what is our life, what is our strength...” a section I have taught here many times.  At the end of this section, there is a startling statement, which says, “the advantage of humans over animals is nothing because all is futile/nothingness.”  This totally seems to contradict what we started with, namely that humans have a distinct purpose and unique life, even if it is true that we are mortal just like the animals.  Rabbi Wolpe brings two explanations for how to understand this piece of liturgy not as a contradiction.  First, he shares a teaching of Rabbi Simon Greenberg, a lesser known giant of Jewish thinking in the 20th century, who says that the Hebrew word “ki” in the phrase, usually translated as “because,” can be translated as “when,” namely, we are no different than the animals “when” we see that all of life is just futile.  However, his own explanation is even better.  He writes, “Another explanation is that unlike beasts, our nature is not a given — in our "nothing" is our advantage. Beasts are pre-set; they do not change their personalities through efforts at self-improvement. This is why God says at the outset of Genesis "Let us make man." To whom is he speaking? To human beings. We are co-partners with God in shaping human character. We make ourselves together, from the element of nothing — of not-givenness — in our composition.  Treasure your 'nothing' — the not yet shaped part of you. It is a blessing and an opportunity.” (Rabbi David Wolpe)

It is here that I see our greatest potential to overcome the current financial hardship, which is challenging the very fundamental nature of who and what we are, not just as Americans, but as humans.  It is in the “not yet formed” aspects of our humanity, the place where we learn from our mistakes and grow to new heights, that separates us from the animal world.  Like the animals in the opening cartoon, we too are sitting on the shore watching.  My prayer is not that we make it onto the ark, but that this time around, together, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, Americans and the world community, the human family, all of us, heed the call of the storm and work now to avoid needing an ark again.  Shabbat shalom.

Beginnings: The Interfaith Sanctuary at Occupy Los Angeles.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein and Muslim Leader Shakeel Syed

Various faith leaders and groups have found their way to Occupy L.A., in various ways. Some groups have come with sandwiches. Some have come to join in actions, such as the march on the banks. Some have come simply to be available for discussion and support. Today, November 9, 2011, a small group of leaders representing various faith communities met to think about how we might sustain a coordinated presence at the Occupy L.A. site at City Hall. Watch this site for posts from the faith community, as well as our calendar of events. And, please join us at the various events we'll be holding at on site. (Currently our space is located on the west side of City Hall, just south of the steps.)

Like the rest of the Occupy Movement, we are simply a group of concerned people-- our participation is not on behalf of any one group. Collectively, we are people of faith coming together to affirm our commitment to economic justice, human dignity, respect for creation, and the hope we share that change is possible if we work together.