Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Security: A modest proposal

Why is the federal government responsible for airplane safety? Seriously; why is it a federal concern? Why does each airline, from small regional to transcontinental, have the same standards and practices?

Here's my thought: make safety the airlines' concern.

Sure, maybe there can be some slight minimum standards that apply to all, but in general let the air lines get their own equipment and make their own policy.

I think this would actually make a better experience for the customer, by balancing security procedures against market forces. If one airline let their standards dip too far, and their safety rating started to fall, they would have incentive to ratchet security back up. Of course, if they relax security protocols and, as I suspect would be the case, nothing happens, then travelers would have a less annoying, less invasive option. One airline could still be the "strip search and MRI for everyone!" airline, so those looking for a more "secure" experience would be satisfied.

It would give airlines something to compete on besides just price and who has the best peanut-alternative in-flight snack.

It would also provide benefits by allowing individual airlines to act as a lab, of sorts, to test new policies. I'm sure there are measures the federal government has not attempted because they are too expensive/impractical to roll out country wide. Smaller and more adaptable, individual airlines could innovate new security measures. The ones that work become part of the "minimum standards".

Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking out

Last Friday ginandtacos asked, at what point should you speak up when you see a stranger is in trouble? 
Being a generally nosy and outspoken person, it's rare that I see her without wondering If I Should Say Something. Of course I never do. The excuses for avoiding it are so numerous. It's none of my business. She wouldn't care what a stranger says anyway.... Her friends and family are probably already intervening. I'm being paternalistic and sexist. And so on.
Like Ed, I am a generally nosy and outspoken person, so this is an issue I struggle with as well. Even in smaller, less life-threatening ways, like when I see people committing a faux pas because, apparently, they're new to the area and don't know the culture. Does my attempt to help them fit in override the rudeness of pointing out their mistake? What about confronting people who are themselves being rude? Like asking the guy sitting on the metro to give up his seat to an obviously pregnant woman; am I the hero for helping out - and helping this guy be polite, which he probably wanted to do - or a jerk for embarrassing him?

But those are trivialities. The more frightening examples are the ones Ed points to. Do I speak out when a friend seems to have a problem? What about a co-worker? A complete stranger? Especially if I'm acting only on my amateur analysis of the situation.

Sometimes, I've learned, people don't want - or aren't ready - to be helped. With my friends I've learned to be present and supportive without trying to change them. It's not easy. In the past I have had to essentially cut some of my friends out of my life - temporarily - because they were not ready to change and I could no longer be part of their self-destruction. At some point it's what they need from me in order to get better; at some point it's what I have to do to keep myself from going down with them.

But again, strangers are harder. Ironically, this is a place where "nice people" have more trouble precisely because they are nice. They - we, I hope - care about the other person's feelings, even if the other is acting a manner not deserving such compassion. Our desire to help runs into our desire to avoid embarrassing or upsetting them. I think that's why characters like House have so much appeal; here's someone that won't let hurting patients' feelings get in the way of helping them. We envy that...freedom. That ability to speak, to act, without reservation when we know it is right, regardless of the harm it may cause, secure in the belief the greater good will be served.

Because without it, all to often, we just watch. In silence.

There is a prayer in Judaism which asks God to open our mouths that we may pray properly. Several, actually. I have come to love this prayer. It addresses directly the issue Ed and I face. It asks God - whatever that means to you - to help us find our voice.

To give us the strength to speak.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

With all my heart

A couple weeks ago I got very excited by the idea that the name for our historical priests ("Levi") was very similar to "Lah-vi", which means "my heart". Further research dispelled this notion; there are two letters that make the "v" sound, and the similarity of the two is merely coincidental, not indicative of a linguistic link. Still, the idea intrigued me enough that I wanted to spend some time playing with it.

Following the link in one direction, the priests become the heart of the community. The vital organ that keeps blood and life flowing through our communal body. While the modern rabbi is very different in many ways from historical priests, this part remains the same. More than leading prayers, more than teaching the youth, the rabbi's job is to keep the vital energy flowing through the congregation, spreading prayer, education, and administration where they are needed like nutrients through the bloodstream.

Moving in the other direction, I love the image that each of us has our own personal priest residing in our chest. We do not need external clergy to regulate our connection with the divine; we can create prayers, interpret the law, and talk or listen to god all on our own. This is the voice inside us that reminds us what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the written Torah and the oral Torah we have this inner Torah; we study the others just to remind ourselves of what our hearts already know.

It's probably because of my love of puns, but I am less willing to believe in pure coincidence than most scholars when it comes to words sounding alike. Granted, every language has words they assimilated from other cultures, which greatly heightens the evidence for "coincidence", but one of these terms is a name. That means at some point someone said, "I like the way this word sounds! I want to be called that for the rest of my life." Someone else, knowing the meaning of the name, chose it for their child. Interestingly, the name "Levi" is translated as "joining"; some sources attribute this to Leah's desire for Jacob to join with her. Even if it is a coincidence, there is a very pleasing resonance between "joining" and "my heart".

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

He no go to Meatland!

This pretty well sums up organized religion. Follow my set of arbitrary rules for a theoretical reward that may or may not exist, and anyone that questions it gets kicked out.

Sometime it's necessary to kick out the questioner, as they seek not knowledge and understanding but chaos and disruption of the community. Usually, though, kicking out the questioner is the issue single most responsible for everything that goes wrong with religion.

Ask questions; there will still be meat.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jewish kids are volunteering, just not for Judaism

And is anyone surprised?

From the article:
Of those polled, a whopping 80 percent [of Jewish youth] reported having volunteered during the previous twelve months. This puts Jewish youth far ahead of the general American population, among whom, in the past year, even the most educated showed only a 42-percent rate of volunteerism.

But in one critical area, Jews are not only failing to hold their own but are markedly underperforming. When it comes to volunteering for religious groups, a venue that commands the primary attention of about one-third of Americans in general, the comparable figure for young Jews is only 22 percent. The remaining 78 percent report indifference to the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish venues, with 18 percent of these actually expressing a preference for the latter.
Interestingly, the surveyed students were primarily Birthright participants. Which means that, in theory, they should be the most involved Jewish youth, or at least so fresh off this "life-changing experience" that they're looking for ways to help out. It makes the lack of religious volunteering even more notable.

Thinking back to my own experiences with Birthright, I'm not very surprised to hear they got these results from polling the participants. While I did have very intense personal and spiritual moments on the tour, one of the major take-home themes was that Israel is as modern a nation as the US. Tel Aviv might as well have been next to Miami instead of Jaffa, and the locals we met were "Jewish" in the same way most Americans are "Christian". I wonder if this message is backfiring by showing youth they don't need to do Jewish things to be Jewish.

Furthermore, generational research suggests the current crop of high school & college students are very resume minded. They are genuine in their desire to help others, but are very aware that it also looks good on college applications and the like. Given that, is there a concern that "limiting" themselves to Jewish organizations pigeonholes them too much? Are teens volunteering at Jewish agencies also applying to Jewish schools, and working in the Jewish community? Is it too defining, too limiting of the public perception of your personal identity?

A question arises: how is the study defining "religious groups"? Is it enough that a food pantry is funded primarily by Jewish charities, or are we looking specifically at teens helping out around the temple, joining youth group, etc? I assume they mean the former, which makes it a direct apples-to-apples comparison where the primary variable is Jewish affiliation. So we're teaching our kids to help others, and they're helping causes that relate to Jewish values, but they're not identifying as "Jewish" in the process.

And why should they? What are we offering them that enriches the experience? In a way I see this as the over-success of integrating "Jewish" and "American" identities; if the two are combined, why should I self-segregate by volunteering at specifically Jewish agencies? Modern Judaism is at a crossroads, and right now has stopped to consult the map, look both ways, and ask for directions. Meanwhile teens see a religion that's moving away from a stuffy, melancholy past, but not yet moving towards anything new and meaningful.