Ken Marcus: One on One

During his Boston stay, Kenneth Marcus  answered these questions for The Journal:

JJ: How is the Louis D. Brandeis Center addressing preparing high school kids for what to expect when they arrive on campus?

KM: The Louis D. Brandeis Center prepares fact sheets and resource guides that help incoming Jewish college students know their legal rights. For example, we have a short guide to the laws against campus anti-Semitism that can be downloaded free from LDB’s website: brandeiscenter. com/ publications/ factsheets/title_vi_fact_ sheet. We also frequently speak on college campuses, including special presentations for undergraduates, law students, faculty and administrators.

Most importantly, college students should know that LDB’s lawyers are available freeof- charge to consult with them about any anti-Jewish discrimination or harassment that they might encounter. They can call us on the phone at 202-559-9296. Our lawyers are always happy to speak with students. That’s what we’re here for. Alternatively, if students are more comfortable reaching us over the internet, they can contact us here: brandeiscenter. com/contact.

JJ: Students for Justice in Palestine (an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian college student activism organization) is wellfunded, disciplined and aggressive. How can our Jewish students maintain the moral high ground of our heritage while not being steamrolled by this opposition?

KM: This is a very important question. It is important always to maintain the moral high ground. This means that our students need to maintain clean hands. In other words, they must always remember their values and their ethics. No matter what the challenges, we must respond in a way that we can be proud of. That means that we must never stoop to the levels of our adversaries, whomever they may be. In responding to adversity, students should do so in a way that maintains their personal safety and their ethical integrity. When they are in doubt, they should seek the advice of adults whom they trust, such as their parents, rabbis, professors, or Jewish communal professionals.

JJ: What are your thoughts about Jewish students who support BDS (the global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel)?

KM: People have many reasons for coming to their beliefs. I try not to cast aspersions. But the BDS movement is a very dangerous crusade. It is not only an affront to basic academic values, it is also the embodiment of double standards and defamations aimed at the Jewish people. Some BDS advocates are blatant bigots. Others have unwittingly made common cause with groups that seek to harm the Jewish people. If any Jewish students are attracted to the false rhetoric of BDS, I would recommend that they become better educated on the subject. One place to start is Cary Nelson and Gabriel Brahm’s important new edited volume, “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.” Students should be able to find this book in their college library or order it at amazon. com.

JJ: What do you hope conference attendees get out of the conference?

KM: I want attendees to know that if they face problems on their campuses that they are not alone. We are here for them. I want them to leave with a better understanding of how they can succeed in difficult campus environments, how they can thrive, and what they can do if they face injustice. Too often, Jewish students find that their voices are unheard, that their experiences are disbelieved, and that the challenges they face are denied. I want them to leave feeling stronger and more empowered. I want them to understand what their options are and how they can have the best possible college experience. And if they should find that classmates who are not Jewish are facing other forms of discrimination, bias, or harassment, I want them to be able to use our tools to help these other groups as well. After all, we’re fighting to achieve justice for all.

Pictured at top: Kenneth Marcus, founder and director of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, addressed the “Break the Hate” Summit at BU.

Opening the Door to Jewish Spirituality

For over half a century Rabbi Arthur Green has taught Jewish mysticism, Hasidism and theology. He recently noticed a new trend. “Young people are asking a question that was never asked in my generation. They are asking, ‘Why be Jewish?’” said Green, who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Brandeis University and Hebrew College.

To answer that question, the preeminent authority on Jewish thought and spirituality and author of more than a dozen books wrote “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide to Seekers.”

“I write for people who think they don’t have a home in Judaism,” Green said. “I want to show them that they do, that there is something interesting and spiritually fascinating and attractive about this tradition.”

The 100-page pocket-book reveals Rabbi Green’s personal understanding of Jewish tradition, based on his experiences teaching, studying and translating sacred texts. Ten chapters address the core tenets of Jewish life, such as simcha (joy), tikkun olam (repair the world) and Talmud (education) in a style that combines warmth and humor with practical applications for contemporary life. “Shabbat — Getting Off the Treadmill,” for example, offers ten pathways toward a new Shabbat with five “to do’s” and five “not to do’s.”

10 Best

“In this day of freer choices of identity, I want to show people that Judaism is an important tradition that still has something to say to the world.

I believe we have things to teach the world and that the best years of this tradition are ahead of us, not behind us. I’m an advocate, and that’s what this book is about,” said Green.

At Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004 and where he is Rector, ten percent of the rabbinical students are converts to Judaism. “These Jews by choice are among the most serious and dedicated future rabbis we have,” said Green. “One part of the audience for this book is people who are considering conversion to Judaism.”

Green believes in opening the gate to Judaism and welcoming people who are seeking a spiritual path, whether they are Jewish or non-Jews. “This book is a door-opener,” explained Green.

In the course of his teaching and lecturing, he also met people who told him they didn’t believe in God but somehow believed in a soul and wanted to have an inner life. “They thought they had no home in the Jewish community because they didn’t believe in God. They found themselves attracted to spirituality through one Eastern teaching or another because Eastern teachers didn’t say, ‘You have to believe first.’ These too are precisely the people I am writing to,” said Green.

Although raised in a nonobservant home (“my father was a militant atheist,” he has said), Green found himself drawn to spiritual language after he read “God in Search of Man” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a high school senior. When he was 16 and a freshman at Brandeis University, he became interested in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism which originated in Hasidic Judaism) after he heard Zalman Schachter, a leading Hasidic Rabbi, Kabbalist and founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, speak at a campus event. “He impressed me tremendously,” Green said.

Green eventually founded Havurat Shalom, an egalitarian Jewish community in Somerville in 1968, and remains a leading independent figure in the Jewish Renewal Movement.

Although Green no longer teaches at Brandeis University, his connection to the institution spanned many generations. He attended as an undergraduate (B.A. 1961) and graduate student (Ph.D. 1975), and taught there from 1994 until 2004. He thinks of Brandeis as engaged in a continued struggle with its Jewish identity. “Brandeis positions itself as an American university. In its very short history, it has achieved a remarkable reputation as a leading American university, but with one difference: most of its support comes from the Jewish community. Does that make it in any sense a Jewish institution, and what might that mean?” he questioned. This is a question, he said, that Brandeis has struggled with throughout its history.

Despite Green’s busy teaching, writing and lecturing schedule, he does make free time for himself. “I have a mystery life as an antique collector of early American glass,” he confided. “There’s a group of people out there who only know me as Art Green, the glass guy from Boston. They have no idea that I do anything else. I’m happy to have a second identity. I treasure that.”

In Praise of Active Listening

We have grown used to the fact that there are many opinions in America about Israel’s actions, both from within our community and without. The settlements, possible peace negotiations and the country’s upcoming elections are a few hot button topics. Whether Israel’s future should be as a one- or two-state entity is a hotter one still.

These are complex political issues that deserve enthusiastic debate. All sides have a right to state their points of view, to argue, to express disagreement, to give reasons, to provide evidence and ultimately to try to persuade. Few disputes are black and white; it is the fleshing out of the gray area that is at the heart of our democratic freedom of speech.

All sides also have the obligation to listen to the other’s point of view. It is as important to understand why people hold different opinions as it is to hear them. After all, how can we truly grasp the issues and discuss them in a constructive and civil manner if we do not expose ourselves to thoughtful people with whom we disagree?

No side, however, has a right to vilify, belittle or marginalize the other. When Jews turn against Jews under the guise of the “pro-Israel/anti-Israel” litmus test, we do to ourselves what we would not let others do to us. We become a people divided.

That division is exacerbated when we add American politics into the mix. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to the U.S. Republican-majority Congress at Speaker Boehner’s invitation has created yet another opportunity for Jews to draw lines of separation. The media is rife with strident pieces equating Republicans with pro-Israelis and Democrats with anti-Israelis. These impassioned attacks leave no room for reasoned and reasonable discussion.

With media available in so many formats, it has never been easier to access information. While we may gravitate towards sources that philosophically agree with us, it behooves us to broaden our horizons and listen to people on all sides of the political spectrum. Not only does this bolster our own arguments, it also trains us in the crucial skill of active listening.

Rather than listening in order to react and argue back, the active listener makes a conscious effort to hear and understand what people are saying. A communication skill that can be learned and must be practiced, active listening is a key component to civil discourse and productive conversation.

We have deliberately offered two opposite opinions about Netanyahu’s March 3 visit on the facing page. We invite you to open your mind, open your ears, actively listen and then let us know what you think.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 26, 2015

He Wrote the Song

Last fall, when David Brook found out “Legacy,” a song he had co-written, would appear as track 6 on Eminem’s 2013 album “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” he ran down Madison Avenue screaming at the top of his lungs. “It was the most exciting moment of my life,” the 2006 Marblehead High School graduate said.

That was true until February 8, when the album won the Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year. “It was as climactic as it gets,” Brook said. “I’m still waiting for the alarm clock to wake me up and tell me it’s all a joke.”

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States awards a Grammy Award, or Grammy, to recognize excellence in the creation and production of musical recordings.

Brook credits his mom, Bonnie Brook, and Steve Geyer, his Lynn music teacher during his adolescence, for his interest and success in the music industry. “David has always been an exceptional young man,” said Bonnie Brook. “Living in a small town, I took every opportunity to involve my kids in going to Boston so they felt they were part of the larger world.”

Music was one of the ways in which David expanded his horizons. He started writing songs as a middle schooler and made his first real demo while in high school. After learning that his cousin was friends with the wife of Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, David begged her to pass his demo along. It was 2006 and Brook was a freshman at Northeastern University.

“I knew it was a little bit of a stretch, but I thought that maybe if his wife liked it, she would pass it off to Craig,” Brook said. “Maybe something would happen.”

Indeed, something did. The executive loved the song. He flew Brook to New York for a meeting which was leveraged to get a manager and collaborate with “some big writers and producers.” Upon graduating from college in 2011, David penned a deal with Universal Music Publishing Group.

One of his first writing sessions for Universal was with singer-songwriter Polina Goudieva. “We sat down and wrote this ballad on the piano. We thought it was a good song, but didn’t really know what to do with it.” Brook said. The song would become “Legacy.”

Polina played it for an Interscope Record executive who sent it to producer Emile Haynie, who had previously worked with rapper Eminem on his last album. Haynie loved the song and sent it to Eminem after production.

“We sent him that song in late 2011 and the album didn’t come out until fall 2013. There was a gap of two years when we didn’t know what was going on,” Brook said. The selection process is shrouded in secrecy; he knew the song was in the mix for inclusion on the album, but he didn’t know whether it was chosen. “With an artist as big as Eminem, the process is kept very close to a select few,” said Brook. “I later found out he recorded around 200 songs for the album; 16 made the cut.”

One day an employee at Universal called him and told him that the MMLP2 track list had leaked online and “Legacy” was included as Track 6 on the new album. The song included verses by Eminem, which told the story of his troubled childhood growing up in Detroit.

Brook heard the finished version for the first time when it was released to the public. “Eminem is one of my favorite artists of all time. I was expecting it to be great,” he said. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 Charts and had the second biggest first week sales of the year behind Justin Timberlake. It has sold over four million copies worldwide. “Legacy” peaked at number 44 on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-hop Charts.

Bonnie Brook was confident her son would succeed. “David is someone who really takes advantage of what’s there and is cognizant of how to work the system,” she said. “[Music teacher] Steve Geyer gave him incredible confidence in himself.”

Contrary to the glitz and glamor of the televised award announcements, many categories are announced via the internet on before the show begins. Brook found out the album won Best Rap Album of the Year when a fellow nominee texted him, “Dude, the album won.”

“My mom thought I would go on stage and be on TV for a half hour,” Brook said with a laugh.

Brook watched the Grammy Awards show with friends, his girlfriend, and his sister Alexandra (MHS ’03) at his downtown Manhattan apartment. He could have attended the event, but wanted to spend the night with the people closest to him.

When asked if he will receive the famous gold statue, David replied, “I think I get a certificate or a plaque that says, ‘Congratulations.’” The intangible benefits, however, are priceless. “I wrote a song that’s on the album that won a Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year,” he said. “It’s been a cool year.”

To listen to “Legacy,” go to vimeo. com/78224432.

Every Month Should Be Inclusion Month

There is nothing inherently Jewish nor unique about disabilities. Nor is February a month when inclusion is more important than any other month. Nonetheless, setting aside a specific time each year to draw awareness to those who live with all kinds of challenges has a fundamental place in Judaism.

Started by a cadre of Jewish special education colleagues who promoted inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, Jewish Disabilities Month is observed nationally.

Some of our greatest Torah figures lived with disabilities. Isaac was blind. Jacob was lame, and Moses had such a severe speaking impediment that he argued with God about whether he was the right choice to lead the Israelites.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their limitations, these leaders rose above their physical restrictions and achieved their great goals for the Jewish people. Imagine if they had been excluded from their communities because they were considered “disabled.”

Twenty-first century Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families are often not as fortunate as our Biblical heroes. Many describe feeling left out of their Jewish communities, where pejorative attitudes and inadequate physical accommodations still exist. Some describe uncomfortable situations where they end up leaving a synagogue service after their children behaved in a way deemed unacceptable.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, inclusion is “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular classes” so that each student has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Jewish inclusion, by extension, may mean removing barriers that contribute to others feeling isolated, unwelcome and unaccepted. After all, who among us (especially as we age) doesn’t have a “disability” of some sort? How many of us wear glasses, walk with assistance or hear with the help of a device?

Our Torah commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). Jewish tradition also teaches us that tikkun olam (repair the world) is one of our greatest virtues and most important duties.

Removing stumbling blocks that keep some from participating in a full Jewish life is a good place to start. Our Jewish community should strive to prevent anyone from feeling separated or left out. Jewish Disabilities Month offers the platform to do so.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 12, 2015.