Posts Tagged ‘tikkun olam’

Reparations in Exodus: Parshat Bo

January 24, 2021

It was my turn to give the D’var Torah (commentary on the weekly reading) for my Torah study group at Temple Sinai. This week’s parsha (portion) covered Exodus 10:1 through 13:16. The most prominent parts of Parshat Bo are the dramatic final plagues of darkness and death of the Egyptians’ first-born, and God’s instructions to Moses on how Passover is to be celebrated through the coming generations. But I chose instead to focus on a small part: The Israelites taking valuable items from the Egyptians as they prepare to flee Egypt.

One reference occurs in Exodus 11:1: 

And the Lord said unto Moses… Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharoah’s servants, and in the sight of the people. 

The other occurs slightly into next week’s reading, Parshat B’shalach, in Exodus 13:35:

And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

There is ambiguity in the Hebrew about whether the Israelites are asking to be given or to borrow all this wealth. Robert Alter and JPS translate it as “borrow,” while Soncino translates it as “ask.”  The medieval commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, interpreted the word as a gift, not a loan.

The Israelites taking the Egyptians’ gold and silver, The Golden Haggadah, f. 13, 1325–1349.

Personally I prefer the translation as “ask,” since it avoids the morally uncomfortable situation of requesting to “borrow” things that were never intended to be returned. So for now let’s assume it is an ask and a gift, not borrowing or a loan.

How then should we understand the decision of the Egyptians to give so many of their valuables to the Hebrews, who until then had been slaves, the lowest of the low?

One likely motivation might have been sheer terror. The Egyptians had just suffered the ten plagues; in the final plague, their oldest sons had been killed. In fact, the Torah tells us that “the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.'” So possibly the Egyptians may have been thinking, “Here, take whatever you want, take everything, just get out the Hell of here before your God does something even worse to us.”

Yet the verses talk about the Israelites finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which seems to be something positive rather than the negative motivation of terror. It implies a relationship of friendship between at least some Egyptians and some Israelites: “every man ask of his neighbor and every woman ask of her neighbor.” It implies a relationship where they lived close to each other: I imagine a Jewish woman crossing her yard to borrow salt or olive oil from the Egyptian woman next door, or an Egyptian man knocking on the door of his Jewish friend for help patching a hole in the roof. 

In this case, perhaps the valuables were given out of personal affection, the way many of us would chip in to help a neighbor whose house had just burned down. Yet that personal connection doesn’t quite seem to cover this situation, since so many Egyptians gave so much—not just blankets or food or even an extra donkey or two, but vast amounts of gold and silver. 

So perhaps the valuable were given because of something broader than personal friendship. The verses talk about Moses being “very great” in the eyes of Pharoah’s advisers and the Egyptian people. That leads me to picture a person with the status of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela, or a Mahatma Gandhi—a liberator of the oppressed whose integrity, perseverance, and eloquence won the respect even of many who had benefitted from that oppression. The verses talk about “the people finding favor” with the Egyptians, which could imply that the Egyptians understood the Israelites’ collective suffering as slaves and wanted to help them as a group, not just as an individual helping out a neighbor.

Which bring us to the modern-day issue of reparations for slavery and oppression. Could we view the Egyptians’ donations of valuables as a form of reparations for 400 years of unpaid servitude?

There’s a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91A) that indirectly supports such a view.

This story says that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians summoned the Israelites before Alexander, demanding that they repay the gold and silver that the Israelites had “borrowed” when they fled Egypt many centuries earlier. The sages granted a prominent Jew named Gebiah ben Pesisa permission to advocate for the people of Israel.

Gebiah asked the Egyptians what the evidence was for their claim, and the Egyptians answered that the Torah itself provided their evidence. 

Gebiah responded that he would also bring evidence from the Torah in Israel’s defense. He quoted the sections that talk about the Hebrews’ 430 years of enslavement, and how they left Egypt with 600,000 men, and he demanded back wages from the Egyptians for 600,000 men working for 430 years—which would have been a staggering amount of money.

Alexander turned to the Egyptians for a proper answer. The Egyptians said they’d respond in three days but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer and fled.

Today we as Americans have an opportunity to address the damage caused by 401 years of slavery and its aftermath of systemic racism. The first African slaves were brought here in 1619. Their forced labor didn’t just make individual white landowners rich; they provided the basis for the cotton and textile industry that built and underpinned the economy of our young country. In that sense, we all benefited, even if our ancestors never set foot in the south or owned a slave. 

The abolition of slavery in 1863 didn’t end the inequality and exploitation of Black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the south and discriminatory policies and culture in the north meant that whites have had unfair advantages throughout the past century, up through the present day. 

Many of us who are Jews of European descent have traditionally taken moral comfort in thinking, “My ancestors were poor immigrants who came here in 1880, or 1920, or 1950. I never benefited from slavery or racism.” But in fact, white Jews—even those who came as poor immigrants to the tenements of the Lower East Side—HAVE benefited from what journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes in her recent book as a caste system. 

Because blacks were defined as the “other”—the lowest caste—European Jewish immigrants could define themselves as white. Yes, we faced anti-Semitism but we could also fit under the umbrella of being white. We were allowed to join labor unions, enter elite colleges (albeit with quotas), enter professions, obtain government-backed loans and mortgages, buy homes in many (though not all) white neighborhoods. 

Our immigrant grandparents, just a week off the boat, could apply for entry-level jobs that were not open to Black Americans who had been in this country for 300 years. 

Yes, we were poor immigrants, but we were also white, which gave us privilege. It allowed our grandparents and parents to start accumulating generational wealth—owning a home, building up savings accounts, perhaps investing in stocks—that they could pass on to our generation, either directly or through financing the education that allowed us to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

So even if our ancestors didn’t arrive here until 1920 or 1950, we benefited from these four centuries of subjugation of Black people. We have a moral obligation to take part in repairing that damage: The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.”

There has been so much written on this in the past few years, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic. I can’t possibly do it justice in a short commentary. If you’d like to learn more about the history of systemic racism and the idea of reparations, there are many resources including Coates’ essay, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.

There was also a terrific d’var Torah on reparations in this week’s email from the Union of Reform Judaism. Or see the URJ’s 2019 statement on reparations.

Over the past four years, we watched a presidential administration try to turn back the clock on civil rights. My hope with this week’s new administration is that, instead, we can enter into a national discussion of how to repair the economic and social damage done by slavery and institutionalized racism. 

It’s not just about giving people money. It’s not about expiating guilt. The gold and silver given by the Egyptians to the freed Israelites ended up providing the building materials for the tabernacle. So those Egyptian treasures were a kind of capital used to launch a new society—they helped take the Hebrews further than they’d ever been before—beyond that single family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, beyond twelves tribes—into the creation of an actual nation with a distinct and revolutionary monotheism and culture. Those Egyptian reparations helped build a new and better society. 

Similarly, a plan for American reparations should be something that acknowledges past oppression and uses that understanding to build something new and larger and better. Something that will provide more opportunity, dignity, and security for the broad community of Black Americans, and in so doing a better and more inspiring country for white Americans too. 

Let us move from a shehecheyanu for reaching this inaugural week, to a yihi ratzon for racial justice:

May it be God’s will. 

What the heck, it’s only a meeting: thoughts on a transition

May 21, 2010

This past Monday, I chaired my last board meeting at Julia Morgan.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, I’ve spent the past 13 years intimately involved with a start-up middle school here in Oakland, the Julia Morgan School for Girls.

The school started with about eight parents getting together in a living room in 1996. None of us were teachers, and none had ever run or started a school. I got involved when I heard about the group from my daughter’s day care provider. (Becca was not yet three at the time!)

I figured, “What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.”

Famous last words!

Here’s the fast-forward summary since then:

  • 1997: Sitting in another living room, we need to select officers in order to incorporate. Someone asks, “Who wants to be president?” Silence. More silence. People looking at their feet. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it. After all, it’s just a name on the filing papers.” (More famous last words.)
  • 1999: School opens with 35 sixth grade girls
  • 2000: School expands to 91 sixth and seventh graders.

Eighth graders work on a physics project in JMSG's early days / Photo credit: Julia Morgan School for Girls

  • 2003: School moves to a permanent site in a historic building designed by Julia Morgan (the pioneering California architect whom we chose as our namesake) on the campus of Mills College.
  •  2010: School has a $3 million budget, full enrollment of about 180 girls in grades six through eight, full accreditation, and alumni who are just starting to graduate from college.

Along the way, I got interested in the history of all-girl education and quit my job at the Chronicle to write a book about girls’ schools that was published in 2004. I wrote a ton of grants for the school, did countless individual solicitations, and learned a lot about fundraising. I presided over some good times and muddled through some messy times on the board.

And gradually – no one ever taught me, and I truly had no clue what was involved in the role for the first three or four years – I figured out what it meant to be a board chair at a school. (Mostly. There are things that even now I’m still learning.)

Now I’m leaving the board.

I’ve been ready to leave for several years now, but it took until this year for the board to commit to coming up with a successor. There was a very inclusive and deliberative process, and we have a new chair, Jolie Krakauer, who will be terrific. It’s a strong board and I feel like I’m leaving it in good shape.

Julia Morgan students and staff today / Photo credit: Monika Chin, JMSG

So it’s all good. The board and school are secure. I’ll have more time for working on the next stage of my life:  Hacking away at my novel. Figuring out what my next job/career will be. More time for family. (Sam will be happy!) Friends. Getting involved in tikkun olam in new ways.


This is a transition. And like all transitions, there is something lost as well as gained.

I haven’t thought about this. I haven’t dealt with the emotional aspects of leaving my board chair role at all until now. But about two weeks ago it hit me. I was talking with Sandra Luna, our head of school, about the board’s annual end-of-year dinner where we say farewell to departing members. I had asked if the administrative staff wanted to come: In some years they had joined us but in other years, burdened by the slew of year-end school functions, they opted out. She said that yes, they definitely wanted to come since I was the one leaving this year.

It hit home for the first time. I am really leaving.

I’ll stay involved with the school in a lesser role, but it’s still a big deal. Julia Morgan has been a major part of my life almost as long as Becca. In some ways, it was my second child: All the time that would have gone into playing with and chauffeuring and worrying about and watching soccer games of child # 2 was instead able to go into JMSG.

It sounds clichéd or pretentious, but I do feel like I’ve gotten more out of the school than I gave. Hey, I got a book out of my involvement with JMSG! A really good book that I’m proud of. I got to feel part of a community. I met some of the people whom I came to respect the most in the world. I’ve gotten to bask in the reflected light of the brilliant teachers who made the school happen – for instance, I’ll meet someone at a party who will start waxing on and on about what wonderful things the school did for his neighbor/daughter/niece, and I get to smile and accept the compliments on behalf of the teachers and staff who worked those wonders.

And I’ve received the great gift of feeling like I made a difference.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from my JMSG years: You never know how you’re going to make an impact on the world.

Twenty years ago, if someone had asked me how I dreamed of being remembered, I would have said something like “Great novelist. Brilliant writer. Prize-winning reporter.”

Instead what it will probably say in my obituary is “One of the founders of the Julia Morgan School for Girls. Author of Where Girls Come First.”

And that all came about because I said, What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that leaving JMSG is not only liberating and exciting (all that additional free time!) but scary.

For the past 13 years, when other parts of my life have been frustrating or unstable, I have had the security and status of being a central figure at JMSG. I might have thrown away the prestige of working for a major newspaper, my novel might be stuck in a muddy ditch, my teenage daughter might be giving me the silent treatment, but at least I had Julia Morgan.

And now I won’t.

If JMSG is my second child, this is the moment where that child leaves for college.

If JMSG was my second-job-after-my-paying-job, this is the moment where I take the gold watch and retire.

I’m starting to feel sad.

Not regretful – it is totally the right time to move on.

But sad.

The Power of Half, and a girls’ school connection

March 12, 2010
The daughter-father team of  Hannah and Kevin Salwen have been making the media rounds recently – TV’s The View, Nicholas Kristof’s column in the Times, the Talk of the Town in The New Yorker

On Thursday evening they spoke at the Julia Morgan School for Girls here in Oakland as part of a tour promoting their book The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.

The Power of Half, by Kevin and Hannah Salwen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

The Salwens tell what is a counter-intuitive, man-bites-dog story in our very materialistic society. In a more ideal world their story would be unexceptional, but in our world it’s news.

The wealthy Atlanta family of four decided to sell their house and donate half the proceeds — $800,000 — to help poor villagers in Ghana.

Their odyssey began in 2006 when Kevin was driving 14-year-old Hannah back from a sleepover, and she noticed a homeless man on one side of the car and a man driving a Mercedes coupe on the other. Her gaze swiveled back and forth. 

“If that man didn’t have such a nice car, that other man could have a meal,” Hannah said. 

“Yeah,” her father responded, “if we didn’t have such a nice car, that man could have a meal.” 

The discussion continued at home, with Hannah harping on how the family – already active community volunteers – could be doing more. Her mother, in a fit of frustration, said, “What do you want to do, sell our house?” 

And Hannah said yes. 

Hannah and Kevin were a delightful pair of speakers, at ease with the audience and playing off each other like a pair of longtime vaudevillians. They described “rattling around” in their old 6,000-square-foot house — with an elevator in Hannah’s bedroom! — and how downsizing in fact made the family both physically and emotionally closer. 

Kevin and Hannah Salwen

(They love ping pong, but the ping-pong table used to sit neglected in a wing of its own in the old house; when they downsized, it had to go in the center of  everything and so they are now constantly playing pick-up games together.)

Their decision-making process also made them closer: The parents accepted the two teenagers as equal partners in determining what to do with the house-sale proceeds, and the family held meetings every Sunday morning for a year to thrash out their values and social-change strategy. 

Ultimately, they decided to partner with a group called The Hunger Project that assists African villagers in planning and improving their communities – financing things like a $6000 mill for grinding corn. 

“The girls (in that village) used to walk six miles to mill corn, but now they can go to school,” said Hannah, who visited the town two summers ago. “It cost $6000, the same as my brother’s braces. I was astounded. In our country, we pay for tooth beauty, while they just want their kids to go to school.” 

The Salwens’ story is profoundly unsettling in that it challenges those of us here in America to look at just how much stuff we have – and what a difference giving up some of our stuff could make for people in poverty. 

In some ways, it opens a bottomless chasm. No matter how much we give away, we can always give away more. How do you know when to stop? Even if you move to a smaller house, you are still 1,000 times better off than those African villagers. Do you give up your house entirely? Move to a one-room apartment? Take your kids out of private school, give away their college fund, sell your car, forego orthodenture and prom dresses and ski trips? Are you a hypocrite or coward if you stop short of becoming a possession-less monk? 

That’s partly my case. Yes, Sam and I tend to volunteer like maniacs and give to a lot of causes. But when I was in my late teens, I was faced with a choice of whether to move to a kibbutz. I never seriously considered it. There were a lot of reasons – I felt at home in America, I wanted to go to college, I couldn’t face the daunting prospect of trying to become a writer in a country where I didn’t speak the language – but partly I was terrified of having to give over all my possessions to the common pot of the kibbutz. I was 18 and I didn’t have much, but it was still scary to think of giving it all away. 

The Salwens, though, deny that it should be such an all-or-nothing choice. 

They never committed to give everything away – just half. Of their real estate proceeds. 

And when they talk to audiences, they don’t browbeat people into sacrificing everything — just half of something or other. If you watch TV for six hours a week, they said, cut that in half and spend the extra three hours volunteering at a  cancer clinic. If you buy coffee every day, buy half as much and donate the savings to a group that fights addiction.

“We never pledged to be Mother Teresa,” Kevin said. “We pledged to do one thing. And it’s felt great.” 

“There’s an endorphin release when you give,” he continued. “Some people refer to it as a ‘giver’s high.’ You know the saying, ‘Give till it hurts?’ We don’t believe in that at all. Guilt is not a sustaining state of mind. We believe you should give till it’s joyful.” 

Meanwhile, you may ask: What about the girls’ school connection that I mentioned up top? 

The Salwens sign books for Julia Morgan students and parents. Credit: Monika Chin, JMSG.

Hannah is a junior at the Atlanta Girls’ School, a new independent girls’ school founded around the same time as Julia Morgan. (It’s one of the schools I visited when researching Where Girls Come First.) 

She started there in 7th grade – but only because her parents forced her. 

“I fought it and fought it and fought it,” she said. “I wanted that typical high school experience with stuff like an awesome prom. I think it was freshman year that I realized that I loved it. I changed, and the people around me changed, and I realized it was an awesome school.” 

She credits the Atlanta Girls’ School with helping give her confidence to push her family into their Power of Half journey.

Many of the places she’s been speaking on the book tour are girls’ schools – such as Julia Morgan in Oakland, the Marymount School in New York, and the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco.

“If I was still at (my previous) big coed private school, I don’t think I’d have been so eager to get the project going and keep nagging my parents about it,” she said.

P.S. Sandra Luna, our head of school at Julia Morgan, told me that three students came up to her on Friday morning and said they had decided to make changes in their lives after hearing the Salwens. Two girls had decided to give away half their clothes. The third said that her mother had decided to sell half their cars. “How do you feel about that?” Sandra asked.

“I guess a little scared,” the girl said.

And grinned.