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February 2015

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“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” reads the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20). While immersed in teaching high school students at NFTY Convention and during L’Taken Social Justice Seminars about the connection between Judaism and environmentalism, reading this sentence struck me. This week’s parshah, which mostly focuses on priestly vestments and making the mishkan, or the Tabernacle, begins with a description of sacred oil. To my contemporary mind, oil translates as a non-renewable energy source that when burned in our cars and power plants produces greenhouse gases and accelerate climate disruption.

One of the first things I learned about as the legislative assistant working on disability rights was that February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) and that the RAC and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) (as the co-chairs of the Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of over two dozen Jewish organizations advocating for disability rights) plan an annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) to coincide with JDAM. However, none of the stories I heard about JDAD nor the planning of it could prepare me for the excitement of the day itself: an the amazing opportunity to see 90 Jews from across the U.S. converge on Capitol Hill to advocate for disability rights on Wednesday.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9vlTw5OUxU

Though I did live in Atlanta for the first few years of my life, the majority of my winters have been spent in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And in Boston, we are used to snow; despite my consistent efforts at the “snow day dance,” I had fewer than 10 snow days while I was in school

So yes, my home state is used to snow, but this winter has been far outside the norm. There have been over 63 inches of snow in the month of February, making it the snowiest month in Boston’s history – and February, the shortest month of the year, isn’t even over yet.

As we wrap up Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, we think also of people with disabilities in other countries. Worldwide, 650 million people live with disabilities, more than twice the population of the United States. In Israel, there are over a million children and adults of working age who live with disabilities, according to a report by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute. About one out of every five Jewish Israelis lives with a disability, and about one of four Arab Israelis.

By Tony J. Westbrook, Jr.

“So, you’re Jewish? Like full on Jewish? Like Drake.—Jewish? Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

These are the types of comments I often hear when interacting with new people. I am often surprised by the number of people that feel compelled to ask me if I am Jewish, as if it isn’t obvious from my kippah and tzitzit. I find it interesting that no one has ever said, “It’s funny, you don’t look Black.” The fact of the matter is I am both Black and Jewish (or Jewish and Black). I am a minority within a minority. When people meet me, the most common comment I hear is that I am nothing like they imagined, which leaves me wondering, what exactly do people see when they see me?  Do they see an individual, separate from the images that pervade the media? Do they see an individual who does not fit their narrow view of what it is to be a Jew, or what it is to be a person of color? Am I being thrown into the all Jewish box? The all Black box?

Last week I joined the Religious Action Center’s programming team at NFTY Convention 2015 in Atlanta, GA to help lead a social justice track.

On Purim, we celebrate a time of transition for the Jews, from “grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day—to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (Megillat Esther 9). As we prepare for Purim, we look forward to a time of “feasting and merrymaking” (Megillat Esther 9:22). Indeed, Purim is a time to celebrate the fortitude and resilience of the Jewish people, focusing especially on the impressive role of women leaders that is unique in the Purim story and throughout our history. Yet, as we celebrate our triumphs over the injustices of discrimination and exclusion, we must also reflect on the injustices that persist in our world today.

A new report by the Women in Prison Project, an initiative of the Correctional Association of New York, reveals one such travesty, finding that people do not receive adequate reproductive healthcare while incarcerated. The report, titled “Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons,” is an in-depth study of reproductive health care in the New York state prison system. Over the course of five years, researchers interviewed 950 inmates, visited prisons across the state, conducted surveys and reviewed medical charts to reveal “a shockingly poor standard of care, the routine denial of basic reproductive health and hygiene items, and the continued egregious practice of shackling pregnant women during labor and childbirth despite a 2011 law prohibiting it.”

Jews across the world are getting ready to celebrate Purim. Already, there are many Jews, from young children to grown adults, planning their Purim outfits. Some will be characters from the Purim story. Some will be famous actors. Some will be fictional heroes and villains. And no doubt, many people will cross-dress and dress up as someone of a different gender. Most people will not think twice about whether their costume will be accepted on Purim, as it is almost expected that people will dress up for the holiday.

I have always loved Purim. I remember eating hamentaschen in my religious school classes (deciding amongst the apricot, poppyseed, chocolate or strawberry flavors), playing bean bag toss at the Purim carnival, and waiving the groger enthusiastically as my rabbis, dressed up in costumes to accompany the theme of that year’s Purim spiel, recited the name of Haman, the wicked villain who tried to kill the Jews.

I remember feeling so honored when I got to wear my own costume as part of the Purim spiel and read the megillah the year after I became a Bat Mitzvah. We are taught that Purim is a time for “feasting and merrymaking” (Megillat Esther 9:22). However, there are also a number of traditional obligations we have as Jews in addition to feasting and merrymaking, which remind us of the struggles for justice that continue year round.

On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be addressing a joint session of Congress to talk about the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been vehemently opposed to these negotiations. The speech would have been a hallmark example of the cooperation between the United States and Israel, except for two facts: