Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Holidays (Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice, etc...)

Having studied so many religious traditions in my life I feel very
fortunate to feel the real meaning of this season within me. It's a
time when the weapons and politics should be put aside and like the
Whos in Whoville, we should stand side by side sharing in the joy of
living in this most amazing place, planet and universe. We've been
given a gift, by who it was given depends on your religious beliefs,
but it is here and it is now. Whether we choose to throw this precious
life away by only hating and keeping ourselves separated by trivial
differences, or whether we can join together in the spirit of love is
up to us.

This last week has made it difficult to enjoy the season. Three Jewish men
were beaten in New York for simply replying to someones offer of a
"Merry Christmas" with their own "Happy Hannakuh". In the same week
our congress passed a resolution to "protect" Christmas as a Christian
tradition, more important than any other traditions followed by the
citizens of our country. It seems that Americans are growing further
and further apart. But maybe we can borrow some of the old traditions,
just for a couple weeks. Pagans believed that mistletoe had the power
to bring "Peace and Joy" and so enemies meeting under the mistletoe had
to call a truce until the following day. In Finland and Sweden the old
tradition of the 12 days of Christmas prevail, and any crime committed
during this time receives a stiffer sentence than is usual. So maybe
we need to have some resolutions to this effect so that Americans can
have at least 12 days of the year when we practice kindness and

As I was getting more disillusioned about my countrymen, I came across a book call The Christmas Menorah, How a Town Fought Hate.
This children's book is based on a true story of just how courageous
and caring Americans can be. In 1993 a Jewish family in Billings
Montana placed menorahs in their windows. One night a brick came
crashing through their son's window but fortunately he wasn't in the
room at the time. The entire town rallied behind the family. Before
they new it, there were menorahs in all their neighbors windows, right
next to the Christmas trees. The local Christian clergy added their
support without hesitation. There was at first an increase in hate
crimes, including the destruction of the school's window which
displayed a large menorah in support of the family. But eventually
this community won out and the hate crimes disappeared. It brought
tears of inspiration to read that there are still communities like this
in my own country.

In honor of the brave people that have stood next to those minorities that
have been persecuted for their differences, Alexa and I will add the
menorah to our traditions. A couple of my Sunday school students are
in homes with both a Christian and a Jewish parent so I've been
learning a lot about how these two traditions can be mixed to deepen
the meaning of this holiday.

Below my signature is an interview with the author of the book (which is now also a play). This book will itself become a tradition for my daughter and me every
holiday and I would encourage any of you working with children to add
it to your repertoire so that maybe the next generation will be able to
enjoy our diversity rather than use it as a way to hurt each other.

We wish you all Peace, Love and Joy this holiday season, no matter what your tradition!


From Terri and Alexa

The Town That Fought Hatred

A true story about an American town has become a play that teaches children about goodness and courage.

By Janice I. Cohn

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"On December 2, 1993, someone twisted by hate threw a brick through the
window of the home of one of our neighbors: a Jewish family who chose
to celebrate the holiday season by displaying a symbol of faith-a
menorah-for all to see. Today, members of religious faiths throughout
Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah
as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in
harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty
embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United
States of America. We urge all citizens to share in this message by
displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas.
Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy
what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so
long to build."

--Editorial, Billings Gazette, Dec. 1993

In a world filled with fear, how can young people learn courage? In a
world filled with violence, how can young people learn peaceful
solutions? In a world filled with religious and racial division, how
can young people learn unity and cooperation?

Children learn in many ways: sometimes by example, sometimes by the power of a
compelling story, and sometimes by the realization that human beings
can be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and goodness.

All three elements came together in Billings, Montana, during the holiday season of 1993.

No one knew why it started, but 12 years ago the town of Billings began to
be infiltrated by skinheads and members of racist groups. The tiny
minority of Jews, African Americans, and mixed-race families who lived
there were immediately targeted for acts of hate. Though the vast
majority of residents were white and Christian, they chose to take a
principled stand based upon their conviction that an act of hate toward
one citizen was an act of hate toward all. Many individuals and groups
rose up to respond. For example, the Billings Painters Union offered to
repaint for free any houses or businesses that had been spray painted
with racial or religious epithets. And members of churches with
predominantly white congregations came to the African Methodist
Episcopal Church to pray with black neighbors when menacing skinheads
began to show up at church services.

But then, as the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah approached, Jews became a special
target. Windows in Jewish homes displaying Hanukkah menorahs began to
be smashed. Jewish families were advised to remove their menorahs until
the perpetrators were caught, but they resisted. And so menorahs
continued to be displayed and windows continued to be smashed.
Ultimately, in a show of solidarity and support, tens of thousands of
Billings residents displayed paper menorahs in their windows.

What gives people the courage to fight against hatred and the wisdom to
understand just how important that fight is? What causes some
communities to come together when faced with acts of bigotry and
violence, while other communities split apart? In Billings, it was a
combination of factors including:

* A family, victimized by bigots, who spoke out eloquently and refused to be intimidated.

* A police chief who understood the
seriousness of hate crimes and was determined that they would not be tolerated under any circumstances.

*A lay church leader who remembered a story she had heard as a child,
about how Christians in Denmark led had stood against the Nazis to help
Jews in 1943, and used that event to help inspire her community.

* Clergy of all faiths who were committed to genuinely practicing what they preached.

*A newspaper that investigated and published the truth about local hate
crimes and then used its editorial pages to urge the community to take
a stand on principle.

* Town residents who were willing to learn from history and be guided by their own conscience and religious faith.

Along with many other people, I was deeply moved by these events 12 years
ago. As a practicing psychotherapist specializing in loss and life
transitions, I'd witnessed the power of courage and goodness firsthand.
I'd seen how those traits could enable individuals to surmount life's
greatest challenges. But here was an entire community acting together
on the highest principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. How did
this happen, and what could we all learn from the events in Billings?

My desire--indeed, my compulsion--to know more drew me to interview the
people in Billings and resulted in my children's book, "The Christmas
Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate," published in 1994. Since that time,
in schools, churches and synagogues, I've spoken to thousands of
children about what happened in Billings and have seen how they've been
affected and inspired by this story.

Now more than ever, it's crucial that children learn true stories of courage and goodness. That
is the best, perhaps the only real antidote that we can offer them in
dangerous, unpredictable times.

I clearly remember discussions I had with youngsters in Billings in early 1994. Even in the early
elementary school grades, they were all aware of what had happened in
their community. "You just have to show people that you care," one
fourth grader explained to me. "If you don't stand up to bullies,
they'll just keep pushing you around," a fifth-grader stated flatly.
"We were scared," said another child, "but my dad, he said it was the
right thing to do."

The lessons of Billings can be taught in many ways. Sometimes heroism
consists of simply doing the right thing and setting an example by
one's everyday actions. When children see their parents, and other
adults, helping others, standing up for a belief and actively working
to improve their communities, it makes an impact - perhaps more than
people realize.

In fact, research studies focusing on people
who have shown extraordinary courage, such as the "Righteous
Christians" who risked their lives to rescue victims of the Nazis, and
civil rights leaders who fought segregation in the South, concluded
that many of these individuals were greatly influenced by the quiet,
everyday acts of kindness and goodness they observed on the part of
their parents, teachers, and neighbors.

Research emphasizes that it is essential for the adults in children's lives to
explicitly and strongly condemn acts of hatred, violence and bullying.
When parents and other adults fail to do this, children can
misinterpret their silence as agreeing with or condoning these acts,
says Dr. Ervin Staub, a prominent researcher at the University of
Massachusetts, who has conducted several studies in this area. "They
may assume," he says, "that their parents do not think such acts are
morally wrong. Even more troubling, they may come to the conclusion
that this is simply the way people operate and that evil, and a lack of
resistance to evil, is the norm in this world."

Hatred, intolerance and compliance with evil need not be the norm-that is the
enduring legacy of Billings. "We must constantly remind ourselves and
our children that what we become depends on what we believe," the Rev.
Robert Massie, formerly of Harvard Divinity School, points out in my
book, "Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World."
"If we believe the problems in this world can't be solved, the chances
are they won't be. If we believe that we can make a difference, then
that belief begins to come true, too. The amazing thing is that it
doesn't take very many people to believe in change, for changes to be

"Think what our country would be like if families sat down and talked together
about how our immediate communities could be better, and what we each
could do to make that happen. If every parent asked their children,
`What do you think we should be doing as a family to make our
neighborhood better?' they would get ideas back. The more people
actually talk about what kind of community they want to live in, and
the more they visualize it and see what it might be like, the more
likely it is to come true."

On Dec. 2, 2005, 12 years to the
day when a cinderblock came crashing through young Isaac Schnitzer's
bedroom window because it displayed a menorah, I returned to Billings
for a very special event-the theatrical premiere of my children's play,
"Paper Candles: How Courage and Goodness Triumphed in an American
Town," which is based on "The Christmas Menorahs." For me, the play is
a natural outgrowth of my book, giving young people the
opportunity--through the dramatic process--to actually be a part of the
acts of courage and goodness that occurred in Billings. This is
important, because research indicates that children who are exposed to,
and participate in such acts, are much more likely to want to emulate
them in their own lives.

I wrote the play to be performed by children in upper elementary and
middle school, and it has been performed and discussed in classrooms
across the country. Afterwards, kids always share their feelings about
the events and the main characters. They often go on to talk about what
they could do to deal with bullies and bigots in their own lives, and
in their own community. As one child in Montclair, N.J., said to me,
"The important thing is not to give in...the important thing is not to
turn away."

In Billings that night after the play, a resident told me, "It's still a
little hard to grasp that we were starting a movement. We just wanted
to do the right thing."

A fifth-grader in the cast had known very little about the 1993 events until she did the play. "It was nice to find out about everything that happened. I started asking my parents
questions, and I didn't even know that they put up a menorah. I wish
they had told me that. I think it would have given me with
the play, I'm going to try to be a better person."

Perhaps we all will, as the result of the actions of one American town. As Rev.
Massie says, "If we believe that we can make a difference, then that
belief begins to come true."

Friday, December 7, 2007

You're so lucky I'm pro-choice!

I took my daughter to OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) a couple weeks ago. They have the biological life science displays back in place. In that section is an amazing display of the embryo development in the womb. All stages are represented. These displays are not wax mock ups - they're the real thing. These little clumps of preserved flesh represent contributions from hospitals and labs where a mother and/or her unborn met with an unfortunate end. Their end offers the opportunity for all to see what that amazing transformation within the womb looks like.

There are so many emotions surrounding the concept of innocence captured and floating in these jars. I couldn't help but wonder if they were the wanted or the unwanted, the loved or the hated. The pro-life advocates would insist that each of these jars were lost potential, worth more by far than the female host that carried them. And yet, when an unloved and unwanted child misbehaves or ends up in juvenile hall, these same prudent judges turn their vicious eyes of blame again to that woman. She is not only to carry the child to term, but then expected to bond with it and love it more than life itself. But the reality is that the female animal, human or otherwise, that is living under duress will not love it's offspring, but will abandon it. In nature a stressed mother will even eat her newborns. We suspect it's because she is herself starving, but maybe she is attempting to end their suffering the quickest way possible. But when a human mother is starving or scared she finds a toilet, dumpster or slave trader to rid herself of the unloved child. Or worse yet, she turns on the child and inflicts her own pain in very physical ways. Which animal is more compassionate?

Pro-lifers want to force life, no matter its level of suffering, on every human. If one is on life support they refuse to terminate it. You can beg for mercy but the pro-lifer will insist that you endure your evil fate. I used to watch the pro-life demonstrators at an abortion clinic in Florida and I noticed that they were always women and none of their faces looked like it had felt the grace of a smile in centuries. They were hard, angry women who seemed hell bent on punishing any woman that thought she might cheat God's punishment of Eve. I felt pity for them and anger at the same time. I recognized these women. It was the same face I'd seen in my childhood. My Mother.

My Mom is pro-life. One day in an argument she told me how I'd ruined her life. Years later as we talked about abortion she told me that I was "lucky she wasn't pro-choice". Hmmm. Lucky. How lucky was I to be reminded throughout my life that I was the unwanted, the unloved? I contemplated suicide from the time I was seven years old. Until I left home I didn't know that life could be good and full of joy. But I survived, and I found that there were better ways to live, joyful ways. But if it would have brought a better life to her, I'd have gladly given my life in a quick and painless abortion. It wasn't my choice, it was hers.

One day I will look into the beautiful, loving, blue eyes of my daughter and I will proudly say to her, "you're so lucky that I'm pro-choice" because I've loved you since the moment I felt your gentle spirit move with mine.