We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.

 

 

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Things I Don’t Understand

I have a tendency to take things personally, including things that have nothing directly to do with me.  Things that I should be able to just shrug off and say “not my problem.”

Homelessness would be a good example.  I suppose it shouldn’t matter to me that people who are estranged from their families, face mental and social challenges, may have used illicit substances more than a time or two and have been in trouble with the law may have to sleep al fresco and store their worldly goods in a purloined shopping cart.  I have this crazy idea that everyone should be entitled to a roof over their head and food in their stomach without having to be booked into jail to do so.

But today I have something else on my mind.  Something I can’t begin to understand.  It’s been gnawing at me for the past few weeks that a couple from Utah, a regular Bonnie and Clyde apparently, drove the 80 west to California and went on a shooting spree.  They left two of our local sheriff’s deputies dead and a law enforcement officer and a civilian wounded.  The newspapers say that detectives are trying to piece together a motive.  One thing that’s known so far is that the husband was born in Mexico, entered the United States illegally and was deported twice.  One of the deportations was related to drug possession.

So take your pick of issues on which to cry foul:  Immigration/border protection, gun control, the war on drugs, a social fabric that is coming apart at the seams.  Everyone has an opinion and I’d love to hear yours.  What bothers me most, however, is that on a Friday in late October, Sacramento County Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County Deputy Michael Davis, Jr. went to work, faithfully performed their duties as public servants, and never made it home to their families at the end of their shifts.

“Maybe it was their time,” said Pastor Mom when I related that these local murders were hitting me hard.  I wish I could believe that.  But then she offered some wisdom that does make sense to me.  There are many things that we don’t understand, she said.  Yes, there are.  For one thing, I don’t understand what the pair who were charged with these crimes thought they could possibly gain by ending the lives of two of those who were duty-bound to protect us.  Were they venting frustration with their lot in life?  Did they for once feel powerful rather than powerless?  Did they think they could possibly accomplish anything by resorting to the depths of evil that would see them denounced by all?  Did they think at all?  Maybe this was just “one of those drugs and gun things.”  (As if I could possibly be so dismissive.)

So, yes, there are a lot of things I don’t understand.  And perhaps we’re not supposed to understand them.  Perhaps we are supposed to go through life shaking our heads and asking God “Why?”

One would think that I’m now old enough to have come to terms with the craziness of this world.  That I would long ago have stopped trying to make sense of the unfathomable.

So I opened the newspaper today and was greeted by the headline “Man Decapitates Mother, Is Killed by Train.”

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Unemployment Extensions Expire (Thanks, Congress)

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For a lot of us, Saturday was the end.  Adíos.  Sayonara.

Goodbye, federal unemployment extensions.

As Congress has failed to renew the four tiers of federal unemployment extensions, the enabling legislation passed last year quietly expired on Saturday.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Many of us will receive our very last unemployment benefit checks this week.  I am willing to bet a nickel that a good number of those affected have no clue.  Sure, they’ll get a little notice in their envelope.  As if anyone bothers to read those.

So, how many are being summarily cut off?  About 1.2 to 1.3 million nationally, 222,000 here in California alone.  By the end of 2014, it is estimated that nearly 5 million Americans could be affected.

I consider myself lucky.  I am still on my “initial claim,” receiving state, not federal, unemployment benefits.  But those only last for 26 weeks.  I was laid off on September 27, which means I am now halfway done.  If I do not obtain gainful employment by the end of March, I will be on my own.

I ought to add a sidebar to my résumé (not that anyone wants to see those anymore).  It should read something like this:  CONGRESSIONAL SPECIAL!  Halfway through and accepting deep salary discounts!  Call, text, email or tweet now!

In a couple of weeks, I will change the font and color for the next promotion:  MLK DAY SPECIAL!  Ten weeks left til I’m broke!  Hire now and pay me less!

A month down the road, I’ll cut and paste some little clip art silhouettes of George and Abe:  PRESIDENTS DAY SPECIAL!  Only six weeks til poverty!  Patriotic employers, hire now and improve the American economy!

As a last ditch effort, in mid-March I shall turn my entire résumé green:  ST. PAT’S SPECIAL, LAST CHANCE!  Final grains of sand in the hourglass!  Only two weeks left!  Hire me on the cheap before I’m out of luck!

Perhaps it won’t come to this.  There are currently six bills in Congress (three each in the House and the Senate) that would provide out-of-work Americans with various types of benefit extensions.  There is a possibility that one or more of these may be voted on and approved after Congress returns from its New Year’s break on January 6.  Personally, I think our elected representatives are lily-livered, insensitive, gutless wonders to allow federal unemployment extensions to run out and then head off on vacation.

The Democrats are blaming the Republicans (what else is new?), but not everyone on the Democratic side of the aisle wants to spend the $26 billion needed to renew unemployment benefit extensions either.

President Obama, who has taken so much flak for the Affordable Care Act, unsuccessfully urged Congress to extend benefits rather than allowing them to expire.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urges the restoration of unemployment benefits to be Congress’ first priority upon legislators’ return to the Capitol.

One thing that seems fairly certain is that if any extensions are approved, they will not be retroactive.  So let the suffering begin and, hmm, happy new year?

It is no secret how being cut off from unemployment benefits will affect the 1.2 million.  Many have no savings and will effectively have no source of income whatsoever.  They will be unable to pay their bills, right down to food, rent and heat (um, it is wintertime, folks).  There will be an increase in evictions, with homeless families crowding the shelters or sleeping out of doors in the cold.  Food banks, churches and emergency assistance services will be taxed even more than they already are.

And we can expect an increase in crime.  Who is going to blame a parent for taking whatever measures are necessary to feed his or her children?  Panhandling?  Check.  Shoplifting?  Check.  Petty theft?  Check.  Breaking and entering?  Check.  Better put out the “Welcome, Unemployed” signs at the entrance of the county jails.  Police departments and hospitals had better add overtime shifts to their schedules.  Why hospitals?  Can you say “substance abuse?”  How about “depression?”  How about “domestic violence?”  Try this one:  “Hypothermia.”  It’s a very big word, but I bet you can say it, children!  Even you with the frostbitten fingers and toes.

Congress, however, has no problem with its extremities; it is its heart that has been frozen.  From what I’ve been reading, it appears that our elected representatives feel no sense of urgency in this matter, as employment has been increasing nationally.  In November, unemployment decreased from October in 45 states, falling 7% nationally.  Here in the West, however, we continue to deal with the highest regional unemployment rate in the nation.  Ironically, California was the exception, with the greatest drop in unemployment in the whole country.

The worst increase in unemployment was in Ohio, where 12,000 joined the ranks of the jobless last month.

But you know what they say about statistics — it’s a primer in how to lie with numbers.

For one thing, I have to wonder how many of the lucky people who found jobs in November were signing on for seasonal work?  You know, employers beefing up the staffs of discount and department stores for the holidays, hiring bodies to load and unload trucks in warehouses, bringing on bell ringers and sign wavers?

I think about my nephew, who was one of those warehouse workers until he was laid off a few days ago.  Christmas is over, don’t you know.

And what do the unemployment numbers really tell us?  How many people are on the unemployment rolls — in other words, how many have open claims and are still receiving unemployment checks.  What about the hundreds of thousands who have already run through all available federal extensions?  Federal and state agencies refer to those who have been out of work for more than six months as “the long-term unemployed.”  But what about those who were laid off back in 2012 or earlier? Many of them are still out of work, but are not counted in unemployment numbers because they are no longer eligible to draw benefits.  These are the unseen unemployed, the invisible ones.  It is no surprise that many who fall into this category have become discouraged, depressed and have given up looking for work altogether.

But, hey, look on the bright side.  Eliminating these slackers from our unemployment figures makes the American economy look ripe for investment in the eyes of world markets.  And the news is about to get even better.  As of last Saturday, we have 1.2 million fewer on the unemployment rolls!  Imagine that!

I think the solution to all our unemployment problems is totally obvious.  Simply cancel all unemployment benefits of every kind, both state and federal.  Then our unemployment rate throughout the nation will be . . . (drum roll, please) zero!

Who says full employment is just a pipe dream?

 

References

Fox, Emily Jane, “Unemployment Benefits for 1.3 Million Expire,” CNN Money, December 29, 2013. http://money.cnn.com/2013/12/27/news/economy/unemployment-benefits-expire/

Lauter, David, “Q & A:  Why Unemployment Benefits Expire for 1.3 Million,” Politics Now, Los Angeles Times (December 27, 2013).  http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/politicsnow/la-pn-q-and-a-unemployment-benefits-20131227,0,1111524.story#axzz2p1oXeJcn

Lowrey, Annie, “Benefits Ending for One Million Unemployed,” New York Times (December 27, 2013).  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/28/us/benefits-ending-for-one-million-of-unemployed.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Plumer, Brad, “Unemployment for 1.3 Million Expire Saturday.  Here’s Why,” Wonkblog, Washington Post (December 23, 2013).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/20/unemployment-benefits-for-1-3-million-workers-expire-next-week-heres-what-you-should-know/