Jewish community

Passover Celebrates Freedom

Howard Packowitz


Moses Montefiore Temple, Bloomington

Moses Montefiore Temple, Bloomington

Jews around the world are celebrating freedom as the eight-day Passover holiday began at sundown (Monday), and one local man is remembering the lessons his late father taught him about the Israelites escape from Egyptian bondage.

McLean County Board member and retired professor George Gordon shares the story taught to him by his father, Rabbi Ted Gordon, who died in 2005 at age 96.

Gordon says the Torah, which is the Jewish law, is not clear how long Israelites were in bondage. It could be anywhere from 30 to 400 years.

Gordon’s father suggested the Torah might be intentionally vague.

“Dad speculated that was done by someone whose identity we’ll never know to emphasize the point even harder that slavery was not something we enjoyed or that anybody should enjoy and that freedom is a major point, but a point made more significantly by the addition of the number 400,” George Gordon said.

Gordon says each Passover, his father reminded him that no one really knows how long Israelites were in bondage.

“Emphasizing 30 years and 400 years makes the point more poignantly and more convincingly that the Israelites were in slavery for such a long time,” Gordon said. “That’s why we value freedom so much.”

Rabbi Ted Gordon was a reform rabbi in Philadelphia. In his 90’s, he led Bloomington’s Moses Montefiore Temple for two years.

IWU Workshop/Dinner Focuses on Religious Diversity

Tahera Ahmad, associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, will lead a workshop from 4 to 5 p.m. in Illinois Wesleyan University's Memorial Center Davidson Room.

This workshop is for all students, faculty, and staff, and is designed to sharpen skills in both recognizing religious intolerance (especially anti-Semitism and Islamophobia) and supporting a religiously diverse campus where all worldviews are welcome.

The campus community is also invited to a 6 p.m. dinner and keynote address.

Anti-Hate Rally Commemorates Kansas Murder, Seeks Unity

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

and Camille Taylor

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington asked people attending a Not In Our Town anti-hate rally Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University to join hands and repeat after her.

"We are not here to protest or rally against any group or individual, but to educate ourselves and our children and become more aware of what is happening around us. After you leave these doors, remember tonight, remember our stories, our cheers, our emotions and friendship, remember that we our one. Together, Let us be compassionate, kind, and respectful towards each other. We must see people for who they truly are and teach our children to take a stand against racism, bigotry and all forms of intolerance. Let us celebrate our diversity together and inspire and honor each other as brothers and sisters. -- Archana Shekara

“We are here. We are your brothers and sisters. We hear you. We believe you,” she said as the crowd of more than 150 people echoed her words. “Hatred and intolerance have no place here. We shall not fear. Love will hold us together as one family of humanity."

The gathering started with a mantra recited by a Hindu priest and the lighting of a candle to symbolize removal of darkness from the community.

Aishwarya Shekara (Photos by Mike Matejka)

Aishwarya Shekara (Photos by Mike Matejka)

Speaker after speaker talked about the need to support each other, to speak out against hatred and bigotry and to work for peace.

Imam Khalid Herrington

Imam Khalid Herrington

The rally took place in IWU's Hansen Student Center where the two dozen flags of other countries that ring the upper level took on special meaning.

“We are all here in solidarity as a community to stop hate together,” said IWU Provost Jonathan Green. “We are gathered here tonight to express love for our neighbors.”

But it was the personal stories of insults and slights, particularly those of high school students from Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5, that seemed to touch the crowd.

A student whose family is from India told of being asked in a social studies class what caste her family was from.

Another who is Muslim said the day she decided to wear her hijab to school she received "weird looks" or was ignored by people she knew.

A Hispanic student said she was told not to speak Spanish in school — “you're in America now,” they said.

And a student of mixed race related how, when she was only 6 years old, her mother, who is white, came to school for a program and another student asked if she was adopted.

Imam Khalid Herrington of the Islamic Center of McLean County experienced racism growing up in the 1970s with a mother who is white and a father who is black. When he became a Muslim in the mid-1990s, he encountered other bigotry, especially after the 9-11 attacks.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and local law enforcement officers were on hand at the event. Below, Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner stress the need for community solidarity.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and local law enforcement officers were on hand at the event. Below, Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner stress the need for community solidarity.

One day, Herrington, whose parents both served in the U.S. military, was told to “Go back to your country,” he said.

“I didn't know whether to laugh or cry,” he recalled.

But amid the stories of rude comments — or worse — there were also stories of feeling welcome in Bloomington-Normal and staying far longer than they ever thought they would.

Archana Shekara, a Not In Our Town member and one of the event's organizers, lived in India for 19 years, but she has lived in Bloomington-Normal for the last 24 years.

“Bloomington-Normal is my town. It's where I live. It's my home,” said Shekara, prompting applause from the crowd.

A number of speakers, representing different races, religions and nationalities took the stage at one point — immigrants and children of immigrants from countries such as France, Brazil, Bangladesh, India and Venezuela.

“This is what Bloomington-Normal looks like,” said Shekara.

The Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard of rural Bloomington warned that hate speech is becoming hate action in parts of America, but she emphasized that hate should not be answered by hate.

“We have to guard against lowering … our behavior to that of the haters,” she said.

Shekara urged people to report instances of hatred.

Her daughter, 17-year-old Aishwarya Shekara, said, “See us as the next generation of leaders who have the power to change our nation, even in these polarized times.”

Baller-Shepard said, "Let's continue to celebrate diversity, not just tolerate it, not just moan about it, but celebrate."

Herrington reminded the crowd: "We are not going to agree all of the time. We can still respect each other all of the time. We can try to understand each other all of the time."

Four of NIOTBN's nine Not In Our School (NIOS) schools also were represented at the rally. An Indian student translated the gathering's Hindi prayer into English, while students from Bloomington Junior High and Bloomington High School read a post-election letter written to them by their teacher assuring them of their safety.

Another BHS student read a prepared statement from the Bloomington District 87 School District affirming its support of all students. A Normal West High School student read a similar statement prepared by the Normal Unit 5 School District.

Other Indian, Muslim, biracial, and Latina students shared personal stories about being stereotyped, feeling singled out, and wanting to be seen as a human being first and foremost. Some of the students were the leaders of NIOS clubs; others were members/students from their schools.

A group of children from BCAI (Breaking Chains Advancing Increase) performed with dances reflecting the Indian culture. Their sponsor, Angelique Racki, is on the steering committee of NIOTBN, as chair of its Arts and Culture Committee.

Stop Hate Together Event Counters Recent Violence

A NIOTBN “Stop Hate Together” rally is planned for Thursday, March 9, 6:30 p.m., at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Hansen Center, 300 Beecher Street, Bloomington.

March 9 would have been Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s 33rd Birthday; Kuchibhotla was the young Indian engineer shot in Olathe, Kansas on February 22.  On Friday, March 3, a Sikh American was shot and wounded in his driveway in Kent, Washington.  Meanwhile, threats against Jewish centers and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis have also raised concerns.

“As a South Asian community, we are tense and apprehensive,” said Illinois State University professor Archana Shekara, immediate past-president of the McLean County India Association.  “We appreciate Not In Our Town and the community coming together to affirm our positive presence in McLean County and to uphold our rights within this country.” 

Shekara estimates there are over 5,000 South Asians in Bloomington-Normal.

 Various faith leaders, immigrants from diverse backgrounds and area high school students will speak during the event.

 The event is free and open to the public

Twin Citians United in Face of Nationwide Violence


Residents came together from the community to remember the recent  victims of violence and racism throughout the country on Monday night, as Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Rev. Frank McSwain led the gathering in the rallying call, “United, we stand; divided, we fall.”

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Leaders from five area religious denominations came together at Bloomington First Christian Church for what is becoming a hallmark of Bloomington-Normal’s Not In Our Town efforts -- a bringing together of all faiths and even those questioning their faith. The prayer service included a reading of names, a lighting of candles, and a moment of silence for victims and the families of shooting victims in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana.

"If we don't start living together as people, I promise we are already dead as a community," McSwain warned.

The vigil included chanting, or a Sholka (Song) to bring in light by local Hindu Priest Divaspathi Bhat. Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla of the Bloomington mosque Masjid Ibrahim provided a meditation on light and the service included a later reference to the Martin Luther King quote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can drive out darkness," while Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington issued a call to action which could be different for each person -- "We can't just stand here after this night. Think about what you can do to make a difference in people's lives."

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

First Christian Senior Pastor Jim Warren, the father of a large multicultural family, said he's tired of holding vigils and rallies. "I'm tired of us saying we are going to do something and then we don't." He suggested, "reach out to those who are different from us.  Build a community of compassion."

“We really need to see each other as human beings,” said Mike Matejka from Not In Our Town . “That’s people in the community, that’s people of diverse background, that’s our law enforcement. There is so much tension in our nation right now, this is an opportunity to come together in our diversity and say we’re all human, we all support each other, we need each other to heal .”

“It is really beginning to seem that way, that we can’t find civil ways to discourse,” added Anne Libert, and retired teacher from Unit 5 and Not In Our Town volunteer.  “We seem to want to attack the other and blame the other, no matter who the other is.”

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said he was heartened by the turn out at First Christian Church and the standing ovation given officers there, but he said the people who need to hear the call for unity, empathy, and tolerance were likely not there to hear it. The challenge, he says, is reaching that group. Heffner is interviewed in an upcoming Twin Cities Stories blog article, along with local NAACP head Quincy Cummings.

Bill Kellett of Normal said he came because he needed reassurance that something like the police shootings in Dallas, Texas, would not happen here. “I know our town is different and I can’t see that happening here,” he said. “Yet, I’m glad that we have people in this community who care enough that show that we won’t tolerate that kind of hatred here.”

Sam Ridgway of Bloomington said people need events like this where they could gather peacefully.

“I want to be around people who are committed to making this area a better place,” he said. “I am thankful that we are a smaller community and can have something like this in a church, rather  than downtown near a courthouse where it’s in an open area and you are a little scared.”

Janet Merriman of Bloomington argued “people are putting their lives on the line just by going out and protesting, but here, we are letting people know that we see what’s going on in the world and we aren’t going to let it happen here.”

“Brothers and sisters, whatever they are.  Black, white, tall, short, rich, poor. They are brothers,” said Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla.

“To claim light in darkness, to remember the lives and potential that have been lost as a result of violence against our brothers and sisters,” NIOTBN Faith and Outreach Chairman and First Christian Associate Minister Kelly Becker of First Community Christian Church maintained. “And to look forward to a different future for our neighborhoods, our community and our nation.”

Twin Cities Islamic Leaders Hail Interfaith Communication

Knowledge, communication, and understanding is key to countering extremism and “the essence of a very healthy, very dynamic community,” a Normal psychiatrist and Islamic community leader argues.

Faisal Ahmed, interim president with the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal, hails Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal in helping lead the way to interfaith, intercultural understanding. In December, reacting to Islamophobia sentiments in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings and inflammatory presidential campaign rhetoric, Twin Cities Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders united in a NIOTBN-sponsored vigil aimed at building solidarity and furthering the effort “to protect us from extremism,” said Ahmed, a pediatric psychiatrist with Advocate Children’s Medical Group.

Bloomington’s Masjid Ibrahim mosque recently held a public open house along with Moses Montefiore synagogue and the Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal – Ahmed stressed the need “to let people know actually who we are.” Ahmed argued “this community has been blessed.”

“As we’ve seen all around the world, extremism has been widespread,” Ahmed acknowledged at Tuesday’s NIOTBN’s “beautiful, wonderful” 20th anniversary celebration downtown in downtown Bloomington. “I think these events and these efforts offer a ray of hope that we can actually fight this. Better communication, better integration among us will lead to better results. We can fight this extremism at any level with more coordination and more interfaith effort.”

Mohammed Zaman, president of the mosque that has served local Muslims since 2007, agreed NIOTBN amd local spiritual leaders are “doing a really, really excellent job in bringing the communities together.” Tuesday night, Masjid Ibrahim Imam Abu Emad helped lead an opening blessing with Jewish, Christian, and Hindu community representatives.

“Basically, it’s about a dialogue between the communities,” Zaman held. “We need to come out of our isolation, get together, and have frequent dialogue between the communities.”

Watch Zaman and Ahmed’s complete interviews for more on communication between communities.

Kelley: A Safe Place For All in an Unsafe World

The Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

While attending the NIOT 20th anniversary celebration Tuesday night, I shared with a friend that I was thinking about the community events I have been part of in the last two days and how they are all connected. My friend reminded me that writing about these experiences might be a great way to process them. So, here are some thoughts as I initially process the last couple of days.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

On Monday night, I attended the 2016 LGBTQ Spirituality Forum, sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition. It was a moving experience to hear ministry colleagues speak words of welcome to members of the LGBTQ community gathered there. The faith communities represented were First Christian Church, New Covenant Community Church, Hope Church, Unitarian Universalist, Moses Montefiore Temple, and Illinois Wesleyan’s Evelyn Chapel. These communities have stated publicly that they are safe, welcoming, inclusive places for members of the LGBTQ community…and all of God’s people.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

One of the questions asked of the panel was, “Are there other faith communities in Bloomington-Normal that are welcoming of the LGBTQ community and if so, who are they?” That question opened the door for a conversation about the differences between welcoming people to attend versus welcoming people to be who they were created to be by participating fully in the life of the faith community. The Reverend Elyse Nelson Winger from IWU challenged us, as clergy, to encourage our colleagues to publicly support and fully welcome everyone, specifically the LGBTQ community. She said, “Now is the time…actually, it has been time for a long while, but now is really the time.” She is right. It is time. If you represent God, welcome and embrace all of God’s people. Now.

Following that event, on Tuesday I participated in Beyond the Rainbow: Build Your Strength as an Ally for LGBTQ Youth training event, sponsored by Project Oz. Gathered there were teachers, social workers, crisis team members, and even a few ministers. We heard stories of people who have been deeply hurt because they have been designated the “other” by pockets of our community, one pocket being some faith communities. We learned new language, new ways to listen, and new ways to be allies to the young people in the LGBTQ community.

I was struck again by the importance of Elyse’s words. After hearing, again, the damage religion and other aspects of our culture are doing to the young people of the LGBTQ community and being reminded, again, of my own privilege, I am more committed than ever to leading in ways that breathe life and hope into my brothers and sisters of all faith traditions, gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, and abilities. When we, as leaders, are silent, we send a powerful message of apathy and exclusion. When we exclude anyone from our community, the community is less than it could be. We are better when we include and welcome. God created diversity on purpose. It is time we fully embrace this gift from God.

Finally, I had the privilege of welcoming my colleagues from Moses Montefiore Temple, the United Church of Christ, Masjid Ibrahim mosque and the Hindu Temple as they blessed the NIOT anniversary event last night. I was moved, first of all, that they said, “Yes,” when I asked them to participate in this event. And second, their words of welcome and community resonated deep in my soul. I thought to myself…we all want the same things. We want to experience sacredness in our community, and in each other, every day. We all want a place to belong…a place of safety.

And then Tuesday night, after a long day, I learned of the act of terrorism in Istanbul. I remembered anew that the glimmers of hope I have experienced in our community the last couple of days need to be more than glimmers. They need to be sparks that ignite a passion for justice and peace, not just in Bloomington-Normal, but all over the world.

Friends, the world is not as it was intended to be. We must continue our work toward wholeness in a world that is, in many places and ways, so broken. Let us do this work together, healing the pieces one heart at a time. Shalom.

Local Muslim, Jewish Leaders Decry Orlando Violence

Twin Cities Muslim and Jewish leaders joined in condemning last weekend’s mass murders at an Orlando night club frequented by LGBT individuals and cautioned against blaming the Islamic religion for the actions of a few.

In a letter to the Prairie Pride Coalition, the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal this week repudiated the Orlando shootings:

“The entire Muslim community of Bloomington-Normal, including Masjid Ibrahim and Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal, condemns the gruesome and barbaric attack in Orlando and we offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” it stated. “We join our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence and terror.”

Meanwhile, talking with WGLT Radio, the Islamic Center’s Sheheryar Muftee maintained attacks like the mass shooting at the Pulse night club might be less likely to happen here. Muftee held local Muslims are a tight-knit community that rejects violence, and “all of us know each other pretty well.”

“If people are not attending the mosque, we check on them,” he related. “We have contacts with the joint terrorism task force of the FBI and local law enforcement, so I think it's very, very unlikely something like this could happen, but no one can definitely say."

Muftee said leaders at Bloomington-Normal's three mosques often preach against the use of violence. "The three mosques are very proactive in preaching against hate of any kind, preaching against strong views on religion. We have lots of programs for kids and youth and we try to show them positive things in their religion and keep them away from minority hate groups that are out there," he said.

Muftee said ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as the San Bernardino and Orlando attackers, "call themselves Muslim but they are not practicing Muslims. They are taking the name of Islam and dragging it through the mud."

He called the phrase "radical Islamic terrorist" an unfair characterization ofthe vast majority of the world's 1.1 billion Muslims.

Muftee believes the Orlando attack was a hate crime directed at gays rather than a politically motivated act of terror. He said he also believes shooter Omar Mateen, who was killed by police, suffered from severe mental illness that was influenced by jihadist propaganda.

He said homosexuals would be welcome to join Muslims in prayer at the Islamic Center.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of Bloomington’s Moses Montefiore Congregation admonished against targeting the Muslim community as “scapegoats” for the Orlando shootings or other acts committed by extremists.   

“There are more good Jews and more good Muslims and good Christians that we do know about,” Dubowe argued. “We tend to be drawn to those individuals who claim that they represent us. We are all God’s children, and I was pleased to see what the Muslim community wrote – it was a very powerful statement, and it really said a lot about the Bloomington-Normal community.”

Dubowe participated in a December vigil with local Christian and Islamic leaders in response to concerns about growing Islamophobia. Rather than pointing cultural fingers, she believes Americans should focus after tragedies such as the Pulse killings on “what we should do,” whether it’s re-examining enforcement of gun regulations, fostering mental health resources, or generating dialogue on broader social attitudes.

As Dubowe along with spiritual leaders nationwide mourn the Orlando victims, emphasized that her temple embraces the LGBT communities and that while some within those communities may feel pressure to suppress their gender identity at church,  “our ‘closets’ are WIDE open.” Because of the Holocaust, earlier Russian pogroms against the Jews, and other assaults on her own community, Dubowe sees strong Jewish empathy with communities that also have been “pushed down.”

Moses Montefiore is a Reform Jewish congregation, “the most liberal of the whole Jewish community,” Dubowe notes. She stresses the need for the church to reach out to all those “on the fringes of society,” including LGBT individuals and those with disabilities, and the temple is working to connect with African-American members of the Jewish community.

“We have been very supportive in recognizing the LGBT members of our community,” the rabbi stressed. “We recognize that each one of us is a child of God – no one less than others. We’ve always wanted to create a safer space for them – not only in God’s eyes, but in our eyes. Everyone has the right to celebrate their life, their love, and who they are. Moses Montefiore Congregation welcomes all.”

Recently, the Reform National Federation Temple Youth movement issued what Dubowe deemed a “very powerful statement” recognizing that transgendered and other members of the LGBT community merit full rights and respect, and the federation is offering transgender training to help members better serve that community.

The Bookshelf: Sociopolitics, Sex, and Religion

In tough social, political, and interpersonal times, where do you go? How about the library?

The Normal Public Library's latest nonfiction acquisitions offer in-depth perspectives on the religious conflicts that continue to reverberate in the post-9/11 world, the racial dynamics that spark heated debate and dialogue in our cities, and the gender politics that influence individual rights and opportunities.

Here's a sampling:

Not In God's Name: In this powerful and timely book, one of the most admired and authoritative religious leaders of our time tackles the phenomenon of religious extremism and violence committed in the name of God. If religion is perceived as being part of the problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, then it must also form part of the solution. When religion becomes a zero-sum conceit—that is, my religion is the only right path to God, therefore your religion is by definition wrong—and individuals are motivated by what Rabbi Sacks calls “altruistic evil,” violence between peoples of different beliefs appears to be the only natural outcome. But through an exploration of the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, and employing groundbreaking biblical analysis and interpretation, Rabbi Sacks shows that religiously inspired violence has as its source misreadings of biblical texts at the heart of all three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Why Be Jewish?: Completed in December 2013, just weeks before he passed away, WHY BE JEWISH? expresses Edgar Bronfman's awe, respect, and deep love for his faith and heritage. Bronfman walks readers through the major tenets and ideas in Jewish life, fleshing out their meaning and offering proof texts from the Jewish tradition gleaned over his many years of study with some of the greatest teachers in the Jewish world. Bronfman shares In WHY BE JEWISH? insights gleaned from his own personal journey and makes a compelling case for the meaning and transcendence of a secular Judaism that is still steeped in deep moral values, authentic Jewish texts, and a focus on deed over creed or dogma.

We Too Sing America: Many of us can recall the targeting of South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh people in the wake of 9/11. We may be less aware, however, of the ongoing racism directed against these groups in the past decade and a half. In We Too Sing America, nationally renowned activist Deepa Iyer catalogs recent racial flashpoints, from the 2012 massacre at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to the violent opposition to the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and to the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Author Iyer asks whether hate crimes should be considered domestic terrorism and explores the role of the state in perpetuating racism through detentions, national registration programs, police profiling, and constant surveillance.

The Long Emancipation: Perhaps no event in American history arouses more impassioned debate than the abolition of slavery. Answers to basic questions about who ended slavery, how, and why remain fiercely contested more than a century and a half after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In The Long Emancipation, Ira Berlin draws upon decades of study to offer a framework for understanding slavery’s demise in the United States. Freedom was not achieved in a moment, and emancipation was not an occasion but a near-century-long process—a shifting but persistent struggle that involved thousands of men and women. Berlin teases out the distinct characteristics of emancipation, weaving them into a larger narrative of the meaning of American freedom. The most important factor was the will to survive and the enduring resistance of enslaved black people themselves. In striving for emancipation, they were also the first to raise the crucial question of their future status. If they were no longer slaves, what would they be?

The Black Presidency: A provocative and lively deep dive into the meaning of America's first black presidency, from “one of the most graceful and lucid intellectuals writing on race and politics today” (Vanity Fair). Michael Eric Dyson explores the powerful, surprising way the politics of race have shaped Barack Obama’s identity and groundbreaking presidency. How has President Obama dealt publicly with race—as the national traumas of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott have played out during his tenure? What can we learn from Obama's major race speeches about his approach to racial conflict and the black criticism it provokes? Dyson explores whether Obama’s use of his own biracialism as a radiant symbol has been driven by the president’s desire to avoid a painful moral reckoning on race. And he sheds light on identity issues within the black power structure, telling the fascinating story of how Obama has spurned traditional black power brokers, significantly reducing their leverage. 

Negroland: At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac — here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of author Margo Jefferson’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black generality while tirelessly measuring itself against both. Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.

Show Me A Hero: Not in my backyard -- that's the refrain commonly invoked by property owners who oppose unwanted development. Such words assume a special ferocity when the development in question is public housing. Lisa Belkin penetrates the prejudices, myths, and heated emotions stirred by the most recent trend in public housing as she re-creates a landmark case in riveting detail, showing how a proposal to build scattered-site public housing in middle-class neighborhoods nearly destroyed an entire city and forever changed the lives of many of its citizens.

Trans Portraits: A fascinating collective memoir of the lives and experiences of 34 transgender people, in their own voices.

The Gay Revolution: The sweeping story of the modern struggle for gay, lesbian, and trans rights—from the 1950s to the present—based on amazing interviews with politicians, military figures, legal activists, and members of the entire LGBT community who face these challenges every day. The fight for gay, lesbian, and trans civil rights—the years of outrageous injustice, the early battles, the heart-breaking defeats, and the victories beyond the dreams of the gay rights pioneers—is the most important civil rights issue of the present day. Based on rigorous research and more than 150 interviews, The Gay Revolution tells this unfinished story not through dry facts but through dramatic accounts of passionate struggles, with all the sweep, depth, and intricacies only award-winning activist, scholar, and novelist like Lillian Faderman can evoke. The Gay Revolution begins in the 1950s, when law classified gays and lesbians as criminals, the psychiatric profession saw them as mentally ill, the churches saw them as sinners, and society victimized them with irrational hatred. Against this dark backdrop, a few brave people began to fight back, paving the way for the revolutionary changes of the 1960s and beyond. Faderman discusses the protests in the 1960s; the counter reaction of the 1970s and early eighties; the decimated but united community during the AIDS epidemic; and the current hurdles for the right to marriage equality.

The Only Woman in the Room: In 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, asked why so few women, even today, achieve tenured positions in the hard sciences, Eileen Pollack set out to find the answer. A successful fiction writer, Pollack had grown up in the 1960s and ’70s dreaming of a career as a theoretical astrophysicist. Denied the chance to take advanced courses in science and math, she nonetheless made her way to Yale. There, despite finding herself far behind the men in her classes, she went on to graduate summa cum laude, with honors, as one of the university’s first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics. And yet, isolated, lacking in confidence, starved for encouragement, she abandoned her ambition to become a physicist. Years later, spurred by the suggestion that innate differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude might account for the dearth of tenured female faculty at Summer’s institution, Pollack thought back on her own experiences and wondered what, if anything, had changed in the intervening decades. Based on six years interviewing her former teachers and classmates, as well as dozens of other women who had dropped out before completing their degrees in science or found their careers less rewarding than they had hoped, The Only Woman in the Room is a bracingly honest, no-holds-barred examination of the social, interpersonal, and institutional barriers confronting women—and minorities—in the STEM fields.

Everyday Sexism: The Everyday Sexism Project was founded by writer and activist Laura Bates in April 2012. It began life as a website where people could share their experiences of daily, normalized sexism, from street harassment to workplace discrimination to sexual assault and rape. The Project became a viral sensation, attracting international press attention from The New York Times to French Glamour, Grazia South Africa, to the Times of India and support from celebrities such as Rose McGowan, Amanda Palmer, Mara Wilson, Ashley Judd, James Corden, Simon Pegg, and many others. The project has now collected over 100,000 testimonies from people around the world and launched new branches in 25 countries worldwide. The project has been credited with helping to spark a new wave of feminism.



Rebecca: In Interfaith Relations, Trust is a MUST

Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe  

A few weeks ago, the local Muslim community in Bloomington/ Normal offered an Open House to invite others to learn about their Islam faith. In fact, there was an overwhelming response from the community, which actually led to many people being turned away at the event only because the mosque could not fit everyone. Now this is what I call a good problem!

Rabbi Dubowe at December's NIOTBN-sponsored interfaith rally at the old courthouse in downtown Bloomington.

Rabbi Dubowe at December's NIOTBN-sponsored interfaith rally at the old courthouse in downtown Bloomington.

I know all about what happened at the event because our synagogue, Moses Montefiore Congregation, as the only Jewish community in Bloomington, was going to arrange for a group to visit the Open House. And then we were informed that there was no room! It was until then we all agreed that there should be another open house because of the outpouring positive response and interest for the greater Bloomington/Normal community to get to know their interfaith neighbors.  

According to the Pew, Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Americans. About 1.8 million are adults, and if Muslims of all ages are counted, the total Muslim population in the United States comes to about 2.75 million. These small numbers may mean that most Americans will never come across a Muslim in their day-to-day life, and therefore, they may sometimes make biased assumptions about the entire community. This also means that approximately 8% of Americans may have met a Muslim when it should be 100%.  

Here in the Bloomington/Normal, our chances of meeting a Muslim is far greater than 8% because we have indicated the essential value of knowing our neighbors. When people get to know each other and are willing to listen with open hearts, they are more likely to understand and discover how much they have in common. The efforts for inter- community dialogue are one of the most effective ways to break down stereotypes about race and religion. And this is how trust is built!

The commandment—the obligation to establish relationships with our fellow Muslim neighbors along with our Christian neighbors— is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. In the Torah, the Jews are taught to accept others without prejudice or bias. The Torah states, "You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal.” In order to wholeheartedly embrace the Biblical teaching of loving one’s neighbor, trust must be taught and shared among us.

As we eagerly proceed with the goal of increased dialogue and interaction with our neighbors, I believe that these principles of Interreligious Dialogue would be a valuable source for us to consider.   Principles for Interreligious Dialogue (Adapted from Leonard Swidler, “The Dialogue Decalogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20/1:1-4).

1. Enter into dialogue so that you can learn and grow, not to change the other.

2. Be conscious of the need to allow people the space to enter the discussion. Some people are less assertive about offering their thoughts, but will be encouraged to do so if more outspoken persons avoid dominating the exchange.

3. Be honest and sincere, even if that means revealing discomforts with your own tradition or that of the other. Assume that everyone else is being equally honest and sincere.

4. Everyone must be permitted to define their own religious experience and identity, and this must be respected by others.

5. Proselytizing or seeking to “convert” the conversation partner is not permitted in an interreligious dialogue setting. Participants should feel free to express their own faith traditions and beliefs, but not try to persuade others to assent to them.

6. Don’t feel that you are the spokesperson for your entire faith tradition or that you ought somehow to know everything there is to know about it. Admit any confusion or uncertainty you might have if a puzzling question arises.

7. Don’t assume in advance where points of agreement or disagreement will exist.

8. Everyone should be willing to be self-critical.

9. All should strive to experience the other’s faith “from within” and be prepared to view themselves differently as a result of an “outside” perspective.

10. Trust is a must. Trust is a must and may we, as the Bloomington/Normal community, look forward to many more Open Houses filled with celebration of diversity, respect, and love.

Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe currently serves as the Interim Rabbi for Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington.

Multi-Faith Activism: Unplugging the Peace Process

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peacemakers from Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Galilee will gather at Illinois State University to talk about what happens when the peace process stalls.

Eliyahu McLean, Ghassan Manasra, and Jiries Mansur will give a talk titled Multi-Faith Activism When the Political Peace Process Stalls: An Evening With International Peacemakers at 7 p.m. October 20, in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center. The event is free and open to the public.

The three are members of Abrahamic Reunion, a multi-faith group of peacemakers from Israel who seek to use religion as a force for peace. McLean is an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, co-founder of the Abrahamic Reunion, and director of the peace organization Jerusalem Peacemakers. Manasra is an ordained sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order of Islam, and director of the Peace Center in Nazareth. Mansur is a Christian Arab and deacon in the Greek Orthodox Church, and principal of a middle school in the Arab village of Kfar Rame in the Galilee.

“The Abrahamic Reunion represents something that is rarely seen when people think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–the cooperation and willingness to work for peace across faiths that occurs in Israel and Palestine,” said Associate Professor Michael Gizzi, who worked with McLean when he visited Jerusalem last winter to lay the foundation of a possible study abroad class. “Bringing the peacemakers to Illinois State University provides our students and the community with a great opportunity to learn about peacemaking in the Middle East.”

The talk is sponsored by Illinois State University Diversity Advocacy, Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Hillel Student Union, the Presbytery of Great Rivers, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Moses Montefiore Temple, Illinois Wesleyan University’s Evelyn Chapel, the Harold K. Sage Fund, and the Illinois State University Foundation.

For additional information, contact the Dean of Students Office at (309) 438-2008(309) 438-2008. To set up an interview with Michael Gizzi, contact Media Relations at (309) 438-5744(309) 438-5744, or

The Bookshelf: Rights, Rites, Race, and Roles

The Normal Public Library continues to replenish its storehouse of cross-cultural reading, offering insights into the peoples who make up the U.S., the forces that drive them, and the issues that challenge all of us trying to live under a single flag.

The latest new non-fiction offerings look at the history of culture and conflict, the role of technology in both exposing hate and bullying those online, the roots and rituals of a key holiday, and the rights of immigrants, women, and tenants. Included are:

Considering Hate -- Over the centuries, American society has been plagued by brutality fueled by disregard for the humanity of others: systemic violence against Native peoples, black people, and immigrants. More recent examples include the Steubenville rape case and the murders of Matthew Shepard, Jennifer Daugherty, Marcelo Lucero, and Trayvon Martin. Most Americans see such acts as driven by hate. But is this right? Longtime activists and political theorists Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski boldly assert that American society’s reliance on the framework of hate to explain these acts is wrongheaded, misleading, and ultimately harmful.

Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress. In this follow-up to the award-winning classic Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang brings fresh energy, style, and sweep to the essential American story.

A War for the Soul of America illuminates the most contentious issues of the last half of the twentieth century. In lively, elegant prose, Andrew Hartman explains how and why the consensus that appeared to permeate the nation following World War II frayed and fractured so dramatically in the 1960s. With keen insight and analysis, he shows that the Culture Wars were not marginal distractions from the main issues of the day. Rather, they were profound struggles over the very foundation of what it meant to be an American.

Detained and Deported takes an intimate look at the people ensnared by the U.S. immigrant detention and deportation system, the largest in the world. Author Margaret Reagan examines how increasingly draconian detention and deportation policies have broadened police powers, while enriching a private prison industry whose profits are derived from human suffering, and documents the rise of resistance, profiling activists and young immigrant “Dreamers” who are fighting for the rights of the undocumented.

U.S. Immigration Made Easy meanwhile helps prospective immigrants navigate a complex legal system. Every Tenant's Legal Guide elaborates the rights and expectations of those trying to find housing in a potentially discriminatory environment.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed: For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us - people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they're being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Ronson reviews modern cyberbullying and use of the social media as a "social control."

Hannukah In America: In New Orleans, Hanukkah means decorating your door with a menorah made of hominy grits. Latkes in Texas are seasoned with cilantro and cayenne pepper. Children in Cincinnati sing Hanukkah songs and eat oranges and ice cream. While each tradition springs from its own unique set of cultural references, what ties them together is that they all celebrate a holiday that is different in America than it is any place else. For the past two hundred years, American Jews have been transforming the ancient holiday of Hanukkah from a simple occasion into something grand. Each year, as they retell its story and enact its customs, they bring their ever-changing perspectives and desires to its celebration.

On Your Case: Television legal analyst and attorney Lisa Green offers something new: a witty, direct and empowering legal guide for women, filled with accessible information they can employ to understand and respond to common legal issues throughout their lives, from dating, marriage, and kids to jobs, retirement, aging parents, and wills.

Financial Aid for Asian Americans and Financial Aid for Hispanic Americans outline a wide range of options for minority families looking to fund higher education.

Illinois Prairie Community Foundation Announces Grant Opportunities


IPCF is accepting applications for four types of grants through Feb. 23, offering opportunities for cultural, arts, education, and health.

Applicants must represent a 501(c)3 organization or one that operates under fiscal management of a 501(c)3, a branch of local, county, state or federal government, a nonprofit school/college/university, or a religious organization as recognized by the IRS. Programs must be available to residents of McLean, DeWitt, Livingston or Logan Counties but need not operate in all four counties (one exception is the Shulman Grants, which must be available to residents of McLean County).

For each specific program application, a group may choose only one grant type. However, you may apply in multiple grant categories if the applications are for distinctly different programs and fit the criteria for that particular type of grant.

IPCF General Grants are open to programs and projects that focus on education, environment, health and wellness or youth.

Mirza/IPCF Arts and Culture Grants are open to programs and projects that focus on performing, visual, or literary arts and/or art education/enrichment.

Youth Engaged in Philanthropy (YEP) Grants are conducted by Illinois Prairie Community Foundation’s YEP group consisting of 24 area high school youth. Projects must be youth focused or significantly impact youth; adults and youth alike are encouraged to submit an application.

Sol Shulman Jewish Life and Education Grants are open to educational programs and materials for residents of McLean County that focus on Jewish-themed arts, music, and theater or Jewish cultural enrichment. Examples include books for libraries, lectures, school curriculum or the like.

More information and applications for all four grant types are available at Direct questions to Kathi Davis, associate program director and grants coordinator, at (309) 662-4477 or (309) 662-4477 or

IPCF supports local solutions to local needs by growing and preserving permanent funds