Mentoring Isaiah

At the beginning of this past school year, I volunteered to tutor a student at a nearby elementary school through a program established by Madison’s 3 synagogues. On my first day, the school’s learning coordinator introduced me to a smiling 5th grader, Isaiah. She also asked me if I would agree to tutor a second child, who was in the 3rd grade, so I could maintain my relationship for a few years since Isaiah would move on to middle school next year. I agreed to an arrangement in which I tutored Isaiah for a half an hour once a week, and immediately tutored a 3rd grader, afterwards.

Both students were smiling, friendly, cooperative and eager to learn. However, both were significantly behind their peers in math, so that is the subject in which I tutored them.

After a few weeks of tutoring, it became clear to me that Isaiah had significant math challenges that my tutoring alone was not helping. I notified the school’s learning coordinator, and his teacher e-mailed me to thank me for my concern.

By November, I still saw no progress in Isaiah’s math skills, and I grew increasingly concerned that if he did not receive additional specialized instruction, he would face increasing academic barriers as he moved forward in his education. One day that month, I opened the folder the 3rd grader brought to me and noticed that his folder did not contain a new assignment and only contained the assignment he had completed with me the week before. I did not want to interrupt his teacher during class, so I simply made up some math work for that session.

However, I e-mailed the learning coordinator expressing once again my concern that Isaiah needed further evaluation to find out why he struggled so much in math. I also requested that the third grader’s teacher make sure that she always gave me work to do with him in the future. Little did I know that these simple requests would end my brief tutoring career.

Isaiah’s teacher e-mailed me to tell me that since I was clearly frustrated, perhaps I should stop tutoring him. I responded by telling her that I was fine, but I was concerned for Isaiah’s academic career. Fortunately, she decided to call me and during our conversation, she and I agreed that if Isaiah’s mother agreed, perhaps it would be better if I evolved my relationship with Isaiah into that of an after-school mentor. His teacher agreed to ask his mother, and his mother agreed.

Sadly, the third grader’s teacher took great offense at my simple request and rather than simply acknowledge her oversight, she ended my tutoring relationship with him. I contacted the principal who agreed to let me meet with with the third grader in the office to say good-bye to him. I hope he gets the help he needs from someone else.

Yesterday, Isaiah completed 5th grade and there was a lovely graduation ceremony that his mother and I both attended. The week before, Isaiah had been very concerned that he look good at graduation, and he showed me his unlaced shoes that were a size to small, and wondered if we could go shoe shopping so he would have nice shoes that fit him during graduation. While I regularly take Isaiah out for a meal and often take him to the movies, sign him up to play on a basketball team, have fun playing laser tag or at the trampoline gym, buying a new pair of shoes felt like something I should share with his mother. So, after he found a reasonably priced pair of shoes he liked, I told him that I would contact his mother to see if she would be willing to split the cost. After shoe shopping we went to Rockin’ Jump the local trampoline gym, which he loves.

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Over the weekend, Isaiah called me to see if he could help me in my garden. Gardening at his neighbors’ homes is something he has done to earn money in the past and although I was willing to have him do some gardening for me, I was out of town last weekend so that was not feasible. Since I had not heard back from his mother about splitting the cost of his new shoes, I contacted her to see if she would prefer if Isaiah earned half the cost of the shoes by gardening for me, and she thought that was an “awesome” idea.

Normally, I mentor Isaiah once a week, but since Isaiah needed the new shoes before graduation, and we had already agreed that after attending graduation, I would take him to see a movie to celebrate, I agreed to pick him up after school on Tuesday so we could buy the shoes. Afterwards, he came back to my house to do some weeding in my yard.

After graduation, the kids and their parents were invited to a reception in the school cafeteria to enjoy cake and lemonade. When Isaiah was ready to go, I suggested that he say good-bye to his teacher, so we both approached her. She gave us both hugs and whispered to me, “Please stick with him.” I promised her that I planned to do so.

Earlier in the year, I asked Isaiah what he planned to do over the summer. He responded with a smile and said, “spend more time with you.” As my mentoring is not organized by anyone other than me, Isaiah, and his mother, we will evolve our relationship in a way that makes sense for all 3 of us. He will attend summer school to hopefully get the math help that he needs and I will continue to take him for meals and other fun outings once a week.

My work as a civil rights attorney has given me many opportunities to resolve civil rights violations on both an individual and systemic level. But engaging as a mentor has opened my eyes to the reality that real change begins with personal relationships. I hope I am helping Isaiah see a bigger world and live a successful fulfilling life. It is clear that he also has my back. As we were driving from the movie yesterday, I changed lanes without checking my blind spot, but Isaiah was looking and shouted out that there was a car there, and fortunately helped me avoid an accident. Our relationship is mutual. we help each other. Indeed, that is as it should be. I look forward to growing that relationship with him for as long as he is willing.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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Please Don’t Feed the Narcissist

Even as young children, we are taught that when we go into bear country that we should be very careful not to feed the bears.

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After all, feeding bears is dangerous for humans and can also harm bears. It is a simple rule, although unfortunately many people disobey the rule in order to get pictures of bears. Of course, they do so at great risk to themselves.

During the presidential election, I urged my fellow Americans to Ignore the NarcissistUnfortunately, my advice was not heeded, and we now have a Narcissist in Chief as our President. However, how we deal with a leader who feeds on attention is still a matter of grave concern. Clearly, now that he is President, we can no longer ignore him. But, we can take care not to feed his insatiable narcissism.

The media, politicians of all stripes and advocates seem unable to resist giving the Narcissist in Chief all the attention he craves. It is worth remembering that narcissists crave all attention that is focused on them, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, so even those who poke fun at his tweets or other inanities are actually feeding his narcissism when they do so publicly.

This hit a new peak with the viral attention that his idiotic covfefe tweet received earlier this week. Sure, the tweet was idiotic and no leader of any nation should tweet idiotic nonsense as our Narcissist in Chief does on an all too regular basis. But, the better tactic would have been to privately notice how idiotic it was and then publicly take action against any one or more of the horrific policies which he and his administration are proposing.

Another example is the regular observation and critique that the Narcissist in Chief has failed to fulfill his promises and has left hundreds of positions in government open. From any reasonable opponent of this administration, this is not actually a critique. It should be noticed, smiled about, and then ignored, because the last things those of us who are resisting this administration want is for it to fulfill its promises and have full staffing to implement horrific policies.

The Narcissist in Chief may be the world’s greatest expert in utilizing social and other mass media to feed his insatiable need for attention of any kind. The best method of resistance is to deny him the attention he craves so badly and focus advocacy efforts on electing new and better leaders. As I have done here, he does not even deserve being identified by name.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Disconnecting from the Grid; Reconnecting with the Earth

We live in a hyperconnected world. Breaking news headlines come across our smart phones multiple times a day. We connect via text message, e-mail, social media and many other ways countless times per day. In fact, these connections are increasingly critical in our fast paced information sensitive world. Indeed, without this web of connectivity, systems change would be far more challenging to accomplish.

However, it is also important to disconnect from all that hyper-connectivity and take a break to connect with the basics of surviving in the world periodically to remind oneself that staying grounded with the earth is still a core part of who we are. Fortunately, I had that opportunity as I recently returned from a week long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, with one of my best friends, Bill Caplan.

Spending a week in the wilderness, especially during the cool rainy days of mid-May, requires advanced planning and preparation to ensure that we stayed sufficiently warm, had enough food, and the appropriate camping equipment to travel and camp safely. In addition, we needed to plan our route and obtain a permit for entering the Boundary Waters.

We launched on a windy morning and Forest Service staff asked us if we were getting a motorboat to tow us across Burntside Lake. Needless to say, their questions caused us some concern, but we believed we could safely paddle our canoe through the white capped waves to our first portage, and indeed we did. That first portage was a grueling 1.3 mile hike through the woods. At one point we thought we had reached Crab Lake, but it turned out to only be a beaver pond. By the time we got to Crab Lake with the canoe and one of our 3 backpacks, we were already sore and exhausted, but we knew we needed to return to retrieve the rest of our gear.

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Bill Caplan refueling after our 1.3 mile portage.

We found a lovely campsite on Crab Lake and set up camp. Once we finished setting up camp, I noticed that on more than one occasion, I reached for my smart phone, despite the fact that I did not bring it with me since there is no cell service in the Boundary Waters. I hoped that reflex of mine would dissipate soon.

On our second day, we broke camp and set up a base camp on Cummings Lake, where we spent the next four nights. Overnight, the weather turned cold and rainy, as it would remain until the last day of our trip. Fortunately, we were prepared and for the most part we stayed warm and dry, although during much of this time, I was wearing 5 layers of clothing on top and 3 on the bottom.

Fortunately, a combination of the beautiful nature surrounding me on all sides, the need to cope with harsh conditions, and plenty of time to reconnect with the earth, cured me of that reflex to reach for my cell phone. Although Bill and I continued to guess what breaking news headlines we would encounter when we left the Boundary Waters, we successfully disconnected from the grid and reconnected with the earth.

Deciding to make a base camp on Cummings Lake allowed us to explore the nooks and crannies of the shoreline. One day, we paddled over to the 2 mile portage to Big Moose Lake and hiked it there and back without carrying our canoe or packs. This allowed us to enjoy the beauty of the forest far more without the added weight on our backs.

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Enjoying a 2 mile hike in each direction between Cummings and Big Moose Lake.

Bill enjoys fishing, but it is not one of my hobbies. Bill tried to fish on his own from our canoe, but it was difficult for him to fish while navigating an 18 foot 2 man canoe. As I watched him trying to do this from our campsite on our first night, I realized that he would enjoy fishing far more if I paddled the canoe while he fished. So, over the next few days we slowly circumnavigated virtually all of Cummings Lake while I paddled slowly and Bill fished.

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Although Bill expressed concern that I would be bored slowly trawling the lake, I assured him that I enjoyed slowly and quietly paddling as Bill fished. Unfortunately, Bill did not catch any fish until the 6th day of our trip. Of course, when he did finally catch a couple of fish, he was quite pleased.

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On our last night, we returned to Crab Lake, although we stayed at a different campsite just to explore another place. While much of the topography of the Boundary Waters is similar, upon closer examination, one encounters beautiful treasures such as this stunning piece of marble streaked granite at our last campsite.

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After 4 nights of cold rainy weather, our last sunset was a real treat.

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On our last day, we conquered that 1.3 mile portage back to Burntside Lake somewhat stronger, packs a bit lighter after eating 7 days worth of food, and a lot more relaxed having successfully disconnected from the grid for a week, and reconnecting with the earth.

Of course, after we loaded up Bill’s truck, we turned our phones on and as soon as we received cell phone reception hundreds of e-mail, text and social media messages poured into my phone. But that was ok. After a week of disconnecting from the grid, and reconnecting with the earth, my internal batteries are recharged and I am ready to engage in progressive systems change once again.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Growing Orchids

I derive great joy and satisfaction (as well as cleaner indoor air) from growing houseplants. While I do not talk to my plants, I do have a certain relationship with them. They are growing, living beings, that I am raising in an artificial environment. To do so successfully, requires careful attention to their placement in the proper sunlight, the appropriate amount of watering, and since they are indoors, periodic fertilizing. Unlike plants in the wild, indoor plants would simply die without proper care. Some plants are more challenging than others to grow indoors and part of the skill in growing indoor plants is learning which will thrive in a particular location.

About 30 years ago, I was at a potluck at a colleague’s home and noticed that she had a beautiful orchid growing there. While I had seen cut orchids before, as well as orchids growing in the wild in the tropics, and indoors in botanical gardens, I had never seen one in a private home before. My colleague told me about an orchid greenhouse which supplied florists, but also sold retail orchids to the public, and upon visiting that greenhouse, I became hooked to the idea of growing my own orchids.

Growing orchids indoors presents special challenges and many people are never able to get them to rebloom. However, the helpful staff at the orchid greenhouse provided me with some good advice, including informing me about which orchids are easier to maintain in a home (as opposed to a greenhouse), what type of light they need, which orchids should be placed outdoors during temperate weather, and the necessity of using special fertilizer.

Orchids are epiphytes, which means that they grow on the bark of other trees, rather than sinking their roots into the soil. In their natural state in the tropics, orchids use their aerial roots to collect nutrients from the rain and humidity. Since we cannot replicate that nutrient rich humidity or rain indoors, the only way to get orchids to rebloom in one’s home, is to give them special orchid fertilizer, which I do once a month.

Right now, I have 5 orchids in full rebloom in my home.

One of the loveliest things about growing orchids and getting them to rebloom is that their blooms will usually last for 2-3 months, so we will continue to enjoy them for quite awhile, as long as I continue to provide them with the proper care.

Growing orchids has many of the elements of systems change:

  • Patience;
  • Perseverance;
  • Attention to detail; and
  • Proper setting and care.

While I wish I could claim that every orchid I have ever owned successfully reblooms year after year, like systems change, not every effort is successful. However, with patience, perseverance, attention to detail, and the proper setting and care, I am able to succeed in both orchid growing and progressive systems change more often than not. Equally important, I enjoy the challenge, including the lessons I learn even when I encounter the occasional failure.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

The Need to Connect

A few days ago, I was reading an interesting article entitled Separated at Birth in which the author seeks out adults who were born on the same day in the same hospital as he was in 1949. He describes a variety of common themes that he has with his fellow baby boom generation members, but one particular quote from one of his birth mates struck a chord. He suggested that the reason the author, Daniel Asa Rose, was on this quest was that,

You’re interested in what connects Homo sapiens. You grasp the plain, astronomical truth that we’re on a microscopic pebble hurtling through space at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour–and in a very real sense, connecting with one another is the only thing that matters.

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Since November’s election, I have received daily inquiries about how to respond. My usual quick response is to advise people to act locally and give hugs. While this may seem simple, what I am really suggesting is that the more we connect with each other, the harder it will be for those who seek to divide and conquer us to succeed.

Ever since he started his campaign, and throughout his first few months in office, the President has utilized classic demagoguery to disconnect us from each other. He and his allies actively encourage hatred, arrest and deportation of those who do not look like him. That is why so many of us have such an unsettled feeling. Since a healthy society requires that people connect with each other, living under the leadership of an administration that seeks to destroy that state of connection raises our anxiety level to unprecedented societal heights.

While I support those who seek to change the leadership in Washington, this task truly starts by digging deep community building roots at the local level. For me, it includes;

  • making eye contact as I walk down the street, thereby acknowledging the humanity of every stranger I encounter;
  • living in a neighborhood with sidewalks where neighbors and strangers regularly encounter each other on a daily basis;
  • mentoring youth who face daily struggles with poverty and discrimination;
  • supporting those released from incarceration to succeed upon entering our community;
  • leading my religious community in a manner that helps our community connect with disenfranchised communities in order to combat racism and xenophobia;
  • providing support to friends and family both near and far to maintain connections and offer help when needed;
  • leading a local lake district to work together to protect the environment;
  • engaging in genuine dialogue to build consensus to solve problems rather than sow divisiveness; and
  • providing unique legal and consulting services to disenfranchised clients who likely would not find the help they need elsewhere.

These paths of connection are simply the ones that I choose. Everyone can choose their own path to connect with friends, family, neighbors and strangers, but connect we must. Through a web of connection, we can build hope. Failure to do so will allow demagoguery to prevail.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Sensory Summer

Since last fall, I have been engaged by the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM), to help facilitate the implementation of a generous 3 year grant it received to improve its services to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families. This has been a unique opportunity to bring together parents, self-advocates, providers and educators to engage with MCM staff in order to map out a strategy that will not only improve MCM’s services to this group of children and their families, but to provide a national model for other museums to improve their services.

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After my first meeting with MCM staff, I noticed this light on the main floor of the museum and it truly represents the vision of the incredible staff with whom I work on this project . Deb Gilpin, the Executive Director, has been very supportive of this truly unique project. The project lead, Sandra Bonnici, pours a tremendous amount of effort and passion in order to make sure this project succeeds. She considers it, “a great opportunity to truly understand community aspirations and challenges for people on the spectrum and their families and to collaborate with the ASD and SPD community improved experiences and genuine inclusion for these children and families both at MCM and within the museum field.”  Her very capable colleagues, Heather Davis, Kia Karlen and Anneke van Lith, have provided the support she needs to carry this project to fruition.

After getting substantial input from the Advisory Group, MCM staff realized that the museum needed to conduct an assessment of itself in order to determine both its strengths and weaknesses when serving children on the autism spectrum and their families. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the Advisory Group has resulted in a steady flow of participants eager to help with that assessment. University of Wisconsin Professor Karla Ausderau has recruited some of her students to help with this assessment, which will include gathering information from museums around the country to determine what they are doing in terms of serving children on the spectrum.

In additional to a professional assessment, Dr. Ausderau recommended that we use the museum itself as perhaps the most critical assessment tool. As a result, the museum is now engaged in planning a Sensory Summer. While the museum is still working out details and will get more input from the Advisory group, the basic idea is twofold:

  • Provide free passes to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families over the summer and request that they fill out on-line or paper surveys to let the museum know which parts of the museum work well for them and which do not. Of course, the museum will also seek information regarding suggested improvements which it could make to enhance the experience of these children and  their families; and
  • Schedule 4 sessions when the museum is normally closed (early weekday evenings and weekend mornings) to allow children on the spectrum and their families to enjoy the museum without the normal chaos of many other children participating in the many activities which the museum has to offer. During these sessions, the museum will create some quiet and sensory spaces and provide some assistive devices that may help some of these children enjoy the museum more. The museum will also engage well trained friendly observers to make note of what works and what does not work with the children who attend these sessions.

Before Sensory Summer begins, we will engage a planning committee composed of volunteers from our Advisory Group, and the museum will contract with an expert trainer to provide basic autism and sensory processing training to its entire staff.

In my nearly 25 years of disability advocacy experience, this is the deepest engagement I have seen a non-disability public entity voluntarily take on to better serve a generally underserved group of children and their families. This is truly systems change at its best. It is voluntary, enthusiastic and inclusive. I am truly honored to help the Madison Children’s Museum become a national (and perhaps international) model for how to best serve children with autism and other sensory processing disorders in a public museum setting.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

The Air we Breathe

It seems so simple. Unless we have asthma or another breathing disorder, we never think about the thousands of breaths we take every single day. Perhaps that is why the human race is often inclined to take the air we breathe for granted.

In my recent travels to Israel and Mexico, while my wife and I enjoyed our visits with friends and family tremendously, the air pollution in both countries was visibly obvious.

In Israel, everyone called the pollution  haze, but it is fairly obvious that the virtually constant haze contains significant air pollution. In Mexico City, I could tell the air pollution was not as bad as the last time I visited 25 years ago, but nevertheless, it was constant and still significant.

Upon our return to Madison, we immediately noticed the clean air, both visibly and in our lungs. We literally breathed easier.  Especially noticeable was the clean air this past weekend at our vacation place on Goose Lake in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin.

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I am not an air pollution  expert. Nor, am I suggesting that Israelis and Mexicans care about clean air any less than Americans do. In fact, the challenge of clean air is a global challenge as the atmosphere moves all over the world.

Asthma rates are soaring and exposure to pollution caused by vehicular traffic is one culprit. Indeed, the traffic in Mexico City and in much of Israel was horrendous, both of which are a result of both population increases as well as improving economies.

While the United States has made great progress in cleaning our air since the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, that progress is under threat, as the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 13 times when he was the Oklahoma Attorney General, has been called, “the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.”

The bigger puzzle is why, in an era when everyone knows about the negative health impact of air pollution, anyone would want to relax air pollution controls. Many argue that the current administration is beholden to big business and industry resulting in its desire to relax anti-pollution regulations. Yet, our President, the CEOs of industry, and Scott Pruitt must breathe the same air as everyone else.

Indeed, we are one world, with one atmosphere. We pollute it at the peril of every single one of us. No one is immune. Everyone must do their part to keep our air and other national resources clean.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Mexican brother, Mexican son

I have previously written about my Mexican family and the efforts we make to stay connected despite thousands of miles between us. Recently, I had yet another wonderful opportunity to reconnect, this time in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico’s two largest cities, which are both vibrant and fascinating with a rich history. On this occasion, my cousin Miky’s daughter Natalia, was getting married. Since I consider Miky a brother, as we lived together in 1973-74 in Oak Park, Michigan, when we attended 9th grade together, despite having recently returned from Israel, we certainly did not want to miss Natalia’s wedding. In fact, my wife and I also flew my son in from Israel, where he is attending college, so he could attend the wedding. To further cement the family bonds, I convinced my brother and sister to bring their families to the wedding as well, as neither had been to Mexico to see our family there in a long time.

There are many reasons why I consider Miky as a brother. Not only did we live and go to school together for a year, but we share many attributes. We both work for ourselves and seek to make our own way in the world. In addition, we both prioritize family connections. We married the same year (1982) and both continue to have happy and fulfilling marriages as we approach our 35th anniversaries. As you can see below, my wife and many others also think that Miky and I look a lot like each other.

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Mi hermano Miky

Of course, the wedding was beautiful and so much joy was shared by those in attendance. In fact, at one point during the party, my wife turned to me and said,

“Mexican people are the nicest people I know.”

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Father/daughter dance: Miky & Natalia

While we could have returned home after the wedding, we had another important stop to make in Mexico. In 2008, Miky and his wife Alma asked my wife and I if they could send their son Miguel to live with us for a year and attend 8th grade in our local middle school. We were glad to do so and continue what is now a 3 generation tradition of having a Mexican family member live with one of our family members (Miky’s Aunt Nitchy lived with my mother for 2 years as teens). Now, Miguel is on the verge of finishing his undergraduate degree at the Panamerican University in Guadalajara and we wanted to see his life in Guadalajara.

It was well worth the extra time and effort to visit Miguel in Guadalajara. Not only did we enjoy Guadalajara, with side trips to Tequila (yes, that’s where they make it) and Tlaquepaque (a beautiful artisan town), but more importantly, we saw where and how Miguel lives and goes to school. We got to know his lovely and charming girlfriend Vanessa, and it warmed our hearts to see how he has grown into a truly fine young man with a bright future ahead of him.

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Miguel with his second mother, my wife Sheryl

On the last evening of our stay in Guadalajara, the breaking news popped up on our phones that the U.S. had bombed a Syrian air base, as we were going out to dinner with Miguel. Sheryl and I expressed our fears of how this bombing could potentially unravel into World War 3, if Russia and Iran reacted violently. Listening with a son’s concern, Miguel said, “you can always come to stay with us in Mexico where you will be safe.”

My wife and I were deeply touched by Miguel’s genuine offer in many ways. First, he truly understands that we are family in the deepest way. We will always be there for each other to protect each other. In addition, perhaps without intending to make a political statement, he made a very profound one. With all the anti-Mexican bias coming out of the White House, thinking about the possibility that we might actually be safer and better protected in Mexico was both ironic and heartwarming.

We will continue to maintain our strong family bonds with my Mexican family. After all, with a Mexican brother and a Mexican son, how could I do otherwise?

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

We Can’t Bury Ourselves

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a dear friend, who was one of the wisest women I have ever known. I first met Judy Zukerman Kaufman nearly 30 years ago, when she was one of a small group of people, including my wife and I, who decided to form a new inclusive Reconstructionist synagogue in Madison, which became known as Shaarei Shamayim

Judy was a strong believer in a feminist Judaism because religion without equal participation simply made no sense to her. Indeed, before Shaarei Shamayim was formed, she became the first woman President of Madison’s Conservative synagogue, Beth Israel Center. It was fitting therefore, that at yesterday’s funeral, both the current and former Rabbis from Beth Israel Center were there, as well as the Rabbi from Shaarei Shamayim.

Judy never missed an opportunity to teach. In fact, throughout her adult life she taught hundreds of children and adults, many of whom were at her funeral. When our son, Josh, was 12 years old, my wife and I had no doubt when we chose Judy to tutor him in order to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. Our confidence in Judy’s teaching ability was reinforced immediately when she made clear that a Bar Mitzvah is not an event. Rather, it is a process, and through that process, our son learned not only how to read Torah and lead a Shabbat service, but more importantly, he learned important lessons that Jewish sages have provided the world for thousands of years about how to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world). In fact, Josh enjoyed studying with Judy so much that he voluntarily continued tutoring lessons with her for over a year after his Bar Mitzvah.

Although we had been friends prior to Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, the process of Judy’s tutoring Josh helped to bind our families much closer. We celebrated many holidays together and supported each other through a variety of health crises.

Judy’s last health crisis involved an infection that she was unable to fight off. After her first hospitalization to treat the infection, she was sent home with daily (though not constant) home health care, as she was still on IV antibiotics. Since she did not have round the clock assistance, and lived alone, I went to help her out one afternoon to bring her food, and keep her company. We had a lovely visit, though I recognized that she was very frail, and I worried about how long she would be able to live alone. Fortunately, my son Josh was available during my visit with Judy, and I connected them on a video phone conversation. Of course, none of us knew that this would be our last chance to talk to and see each other.

Shortly after my visit with Judy, my wife and I left for Israel to visit Josh, where he has been attending college at the Technion in Haifa. Before Josh left for college, Judy informed him that when she and her husband Jerry lived in Haifa many years ago, her favorite place was a lovely sculpture garden overlooking the city and harbor. Josh took us there during our visit with him which gave us another way to connect with Judy. This particular sculpture evokes the way Judy cared for so many children over her long, fruitful life.

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Judy’s funeral was longer than most because so many people had so much to say about her remarkable life. Rabbi Ken Katz, who presided over the funeral, made clear that these things just “take the time that they take.”

When Judy’s husband Jerry died a little over 2 years ago, they decided to opt for a natural cemetery outside of Madison, called Natural Path CemeteryJudy was buried right next to Jerry. The day before, her children and some friends dug the grave and I had the honor of being one of the pall bearers and lowering her simple unfinished pine casket into the grave.

After her casket was at the bottom of the grave, and we removed the ropes which we used to lower it, Rabbi Katz reminded us that, “we cannot bury ourselves,” and therefore it takes a community of friends and family to receive a proper burial. For what felt like a very long time, many of us took on the burden of doing what she could not do for herself, and filled her grave. We initially put flowers on her coffin and then topped off the soil with more flowers.

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As I contemplate the many lessons which Judy taught me, this last one, that we can’t bury ourselves may be the most profound. In addition to being a Jewish educator, Judy was also a civil rights advocate. Indeed, during our last conversation, she told me about her advocacy for the home health care workers who cared for her. We both shared grave concerns about the trampling of civil rights which the current President seems so eager to do. Yet, remembering that we can’t bury ourselves serves two important lessons.

  • We must support each other in community from birth until death, because as independent as many of us may hope we can be and may wish others were, we truly need each other to survive the many challenges which life presents; and
  • While many of us may wish to bury ourselves under our blankets while demagoguery oppresses others, we simply do not have that option. We can’t bury ourselves because we have a duty to help each other.

May Judy’s memory be a blessing. I know that the many lessons she has taught so many will continue to make this world a better place for many years to come.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Diaspora Gathering

My wife and I just returned from spending over 2 weeks in Israel. This trip was not your typical tourist trip. In fact, with the exception of one night in Mitzpe Ramon, home to the gigantic and beautiful Ramon Craterwe spent every other night staying with family and friends.

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Sculpture overlooking the Ramon Crater

Our son, Josh, is in his second year of college at the TechnionIsrael’s Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and this was our first opportunity to visit him there. He plays hockey with the Haifa Hawks, and coincidentally, the first thing we did on our arrival was watch him play hockey.

Josh also led us on a walk on  the beach of the last Arabic town on the Israeli Mediterranean, Jisr al Zarkawhere beauty, history and poverty are all intertwined.

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Fisherman pulling in their net on the beach at Jisr al Zarka

In addition, my mother and her husband are spending the winter in Netanya, where they have spent every winter except last year for the past 12 years, and we spent most of our nights with them. It was a pleasure to spend quality time with them in the place that has become their home away from home.

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My mother Rachel and her husband Peter

As I reflect back on what was primarily a visiting trip, I realize that, like most Jews, while my family is spread around the world in what is known as the diaspora, as they fled oppression in Europe prior to the Holocaust, Israel is the place where some of the family with whom I am closest as well as childhood and college friends, have returned and made a life for themselves.

Part of my family fled Europe, but were not allowed into the United States to join the rest of their family in the 1930s, so they settled in Mexico. One of my Mexican cousins, Isaac (Pelon) Leventhal, immigrated to Israel when he was 18 years old in the early 1970s. After meeting him in Mexico City at his sister’s wedding just before he emigrated, I have visited him numerous times in Israel from 1976 through this most recent trip. As he and I have grown older, we have married and had children, and now he and his lovely wife Eli, have 8 grandchildren. Our son has had the opportunity to get to know these cousins better while he studies in Israel, and we were able to visit all of their homes and families during our stay. The warmth of my Israeli family will stay with me for the rest of my life even though time and distance separates us.

I even had the opportunity to visit friends on Kibbutz Ein Gev, where I volunteered during the winter of 1979-80, while my cousins Pelon & Eli lived there. Coincidentally, a friend from England, whom I volunteered with so many years ago, was visiting the kibbutz at the same time we were there and we had a small reunion with our friend and kibbutznik Uzi.

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At the end of our trip, we traveled to Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem to stay with an old college friend, Richard and his lovely wife Michal. They led us on a beautiful hike on Har Eitan, after which we traveled into the city of Jerusalem to visit an old childhood friend, Galia, and her husband Roni for lunch.

It is truly an understatement to describe Israel as one of the most controversial nations in the world. Almost everyone has strong feelings about it, both positive and negative, and while I love that Israel has provided refuge for millions of Jews, including family and friends, it saddens me that Israel has been unable to resolve its generations old conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Due to my love of Israel and hope for its survival as a just, peaceful and democratic state, I have taken on a leadership role in advocating for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by becoming Chair of the Madison chapter of J Street, which advocates for a two state solution to resolve the conflict. My advocacy is quite public so both my family and friends in Israel are quite aware of my positions, most of whom do not agree with me.

Despite our political disagreements, our love for each other is not diminished. In fact, my choice to repeatedly visit family and friends in Israel to maintain our relationships and better understand their lives there serves to enhance our relationship. On a few occasions during our recent trip, both friends and family were clear that they disagreed with my positions, but I often successfully found small, but important points where we did have common ground. Equally important, our disagreements never interfered with our ability to have warm and loving relationships.

As I reflect back on how my friends, family and I can agree to disagree, and not let that poison our relationships, I hope that the lessons I learned in Israel can be applied to the often poisonous political conflict in the US. After all, when friends and family can love each other despite their disagreements, one realizes that one warm hug can overcome virtually any political dispute.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.