Monday, April 15, 2013

Memorial Day: an IDF officer's perspective

Last weekend, at a Tel Aviv cafe, I met Shani.  At 24, she is an intelligence officer with the IDF.  I was introduced to her through her father, who suggested I speak with her in my quest to understand more about the Israeli observance of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day).  Over coffee, she told me the story of why she’s chosen a career in the army.

“My grandparents,” she began, “were a big influence on me”.  Holocaust survivors who met after the war, they lived with Shani when she was young.  She and her grandfather were extremely close. He was a brilliant doctor who spoke 8 languages and who had spent the war in a forced labor camp in Transylvania, after an informant turned him in for honoring his Hippocratic oath despite the ban on Jews’ practicing medicine.  “He couldn’t deny someone help,” she says.

Her grandmother had been taken from Hungary in the dead of winter and left to freeze or starve to death in the woods of Sibir.  A farmer offered to save her if she would marry him; she was a very beautiful woman.  She agreed, and her family lived; later, she ran away.  

Her American maternal grandfather was a pilot with the Air Force who spent a year in a German prison during the war.  (When he asked for something to read, the only book they had was Grey’s Anatomy; he read it so thoroughly and so repeatedly that when he enrolled in medical school after the war, he skipped his first year.)

These stories didn’t come to life until Shani was in 7th grade, when she interviewed her grandparents for a Jewish roots project at school.  Four years later, she and her classmates took a trip to Poland.  She showed me a handmade scrapbook from that trip: it begins with a group of girls striking goofy poses in the airport, and it ends with photos of the gas chambers, the ovens and the bunks at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek.  

In between are photos from a visit to a beautiful old synagogue in Poland.  The class visited the synagogue, and then they took a short walk down a path into the woods, where there is a memorial.  The Nazis had come to this synagogue, marched everyone out to the woods, and executed them en masse.  At age 16, Shani and her classmates reenacted this march.

Five years later, Shani came back to Poland as a second lieutenant with 50 people in her charge.  Having absorbed the initial shock of seeing the death camps in high school, she was able to move beyond shock when she returned.  Before she left, she recalls, her commander told her that “When you come home, we’ll meet you at the plane with two things: a piece of land, so that you can kiss the ground, and a contract {to sign on for long-term service}.”  She did. 

Shani says she is “very happy and fulfilled” by her position in the army.  The intelligence work she does is interesting (though she can’t talk about it.)  Her boyfriend has it harder; as a combat soldier, he is stationed in Gaza.  Because of her position, she knows what he is doing; she knows when he is in danger.  When I brought up the Palestinian question, Shani answered it simply: “In the army, you can’t talk about your political thoughts… Israel is surrounded by enemies.  We have to survive.”  

She thinks of her grandparents, of the things she saw at Auschwitz – and she carries a responsibility to defend the state of Israel so that these atrocities can never happen again.  But she also worries that she isn’t doing enough.  On both of her trips to Poland, a survivor came with her group.  In 20 years, who will come along?  She feels her grandparents’ experience receding from the collective conscience of young Israelis and resolves to do more to keep it alive.

As an officer, Shani follows a scripted ritual on Yom Hazikaron: she visits the grave of a soldier from her unit and performs a military ceremony.  She’s uneasy with the day; she feels as if it “makes it look very good” to die.  Still, given the alternative, she agrees: “Of course it’s very important to honor.”  It is a somber holiday in Israel; no retail establishments have Memorial Day sales.  The day is dedicated to remembrance.

Yesterday, the cab driver taking me to the airport pointed at the strings of colorful flags and lights going up around Tel Aviv.  “Too bad you’ll miss the fireworks,” he said.  “Independence Day.  Big parties.”

I had noticed the decorations.  “What about Yom HaZikaron?” I asked.  

He nodded.  “Yes, very sad,” he said.  “For all the people who died.  But then, big parties.”  Israel's Independence Day begins the minute Memorial Day ends.  For those reliving the loss of loved ones, it is not an easy transition.

It seems to sum up much of my experience of Israel: the juxtaposition of extremes. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Deliberate Acts of Kindness

I am prone to inspiration the way some people are prone to colds.  Even when I do remember to order decaf, the little sparks in everyday life tend to light me up and convince me that life really is good.  So, by nature, I am drawn to the notion of random acts of kindness.  They’re inspiring, they’re gratifying, they’re the spiritual equivalent of Kaizen: continuous small acts that collectively make a difference.  

And yet, there are ills that do not recede without deliberate and sustained effort; random acts might mow them down a bit, but they won’t kill them.  Random kindness did not pass the 13th Amendment, or the Clean Water Act.  In today’s world, I wondered, where so many have dismissed politics as a partisan shooting match, do we have the collective resolve to slog through the hard stuff?  

I decided to attend a Tikun Olam committee meeting at the synagogue last year, to explore whether I did.  I liked these folks right away: they were warm, smart, thoughtful people, willing to work hard to effect change, and I felt inspired (there I go again) by the discovery of this gem of a group within my congregation.  As part of a multi-faith umbrella organization called People Acting in Community Together (PACT), Tikkun Olam focuses primarily on social justice through grassroots community action.  

At the time I joined, the group had decided to focus on healthy aging – in particular, issues of senior transportation.  Sure, I said, thinking of Paula’s aging mother, that’s important.  I went and had coffee with the CEO of SilverRide to learn about senior transit from someone who had made a business of it.  I typed up my notes, sent them out, and looked forward to a lively discussion about senior isolation and how we were going to make a difference.  I was excited.

The excitement didn’t last.  Every month, I went to the Tikkun Olam committee meeting with a handful of fellow congregants, trying not to let my mind wander.  The pace of the conversation was painfully slow.  Compared to the agility and bias for action that a startup requires to avoid extinction,  PACT’s process made me want to chew my arm off.  Who was synthesizing the myriad research meetings into a compelling story?  Where was the PowerPoint presentation?  What is our objective here, folks?  And who’s in charge?  Every meeting had an assigned chairperson, but between those meetings… there was no continuity in leadership.

Still, I told myself, I don’t know anything about community organizing; maybe this is what it takes to get stuff done when it comes to government.  So I tried to remain patient as the conversations meandered back and forth.  

Last month, at the urging of our assigned PACT organizer, I attended a meeting of HALOC, the Healthy Aging Local Organizing Committee, which included members of two other synagogues and several area churches as well.  It was a three-hour meeting to get ready for the upcoming action, and I felt energized about emerging with a clear vision, a to-do list, and renewed energy.  

After 2 hours and 40 minutes, I walked out, at the end of my rope.  The meeting was dominated by a group of longtime members-- mostly seniors themselves-- who had no need for PowerPoints .  As we skittered through an agenda that afforded no latitude for dialogue, newcomers like me felt ourselves marginalized as we moved to vote on priorities we weren’t informed enough to set.  And, predictably, the outcome of the meeting was another set of meetings.  I sat there in frustration, realizing that I was the only person in that room with young children competing for those precious hours.  

After that experience, I concluded that I was going to have to find another way to change the world.  I started declining Tikun Olam meetings and relaxed into the familiar stress of startup life, replete with the comforts of a chain of command and a sense of urgency.  I rationalized my exit by telling myself that my presence wasn’t important.

But Margaret Mead’s famous words still ran through my head.  The process didn’t feel right to me… but the cause still did.  What if I actually had a lot to contribute to that group?  What if leadership and action bias and a little flair with communication were just what that group needed to propel its initiatives to success?  Around the room, there were lawyers, sociologists, retired doctors and teachers… but a striking dearth of business people.  I thought of the thousands of business leaders who have so much to offer our communities.  And then I thought of us all being too fidgety and distracted and impatient and—let’s face it— absorbed in our own lives to do it.

The healthy aging community action is happening in May.  After that, Tikun Olam will move on to other issues.  Rather than using my frustration as an excuse to opt out, I'm going to try to step up – and propose some changes that I hope will bring energy and purpose into the group.  If it doesn’t work… at least I won’t have walked away from the plate before I’ve even been struck out.

Maybe a few incendiary personalities, with our short fuses, short attention spans, and passionate temperaments, aren’t such bad ingredients in a recipe for social justice.  I guess I’ll find out.

To all the members of PACT and other community groups who put yourselves out there to bring on a brighter dawn: thank you for all you do.