Face to Face

Justice begins next-door with seeing and being seen.

Years ago a bat mitzvah student challenged my then Chicago congregation to consider a twenty-first century question: Does God have a Facebook page?  Her contention was that God, as symbolic exemplar, craves real relationships and that Facebook and other social media which have the potential to foster relationships have also become a dangerous proxy for them.  The fullest example of a divine-human relationship is God’s with Moses, which the Torah tells us occurred, not through emojis or cat video affinity groups, but “face to face” (Deu. 34:10).  God doesn’t have a Facebook page because the Holy One wants to go deeper with us, and consequently encourages us to go deeper with one another, the kind of depth not likely achieved through a screen.

Arthur Aron (who happens to be my cousin) has done research to this effect, suggesting two people, even total strangers, are more likely to fall in love if they spend meaningful time looking into each other’s eyes.  In a widely read New York Times piece, writing teacher Mandy Lee Catron describes her attempt to employ Dr. Aron’s technique:  “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

Human beings need to be seen.  This is the impulse for social media, of course: if I can acquire enough likes and loves of my kids’ adorable pics on Instagram, then my contribution of them to the world matters.  Through the miracle of modern technology anyone, presumably everyone, all over the world can see me.  But there’s something risky about this too.  Jewish tradition proscribes many sins, but idolatry is considered one of most insidious because it reduces the irreducible, quantifies the infinite and gives substance to the intangible.  A video cannot fully capture a human interaction; a photograph isn’t a face, but a two dimensional impression of one.

If images can be misunderstood, words can be too.  Twitter is perhaps the ultimate example (thus far) of how brevity is not only the soul of wit but too often of wickedness as well.  We have come to see, not least from our cyber-bully-in-chief, the invidious potential unleashed from a mere 140 characters. In an insightful op-ed this past June, Bret Stephens said about Twitter: “Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive re-tweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.

This is why Beth Am’s community work is so relational as is synagogue work in general; we wish for more people to encounter one another, in person and face to face.  Our goal isn’t necessarily to get people to fall in love but to see and be seen, to look up from screens into each other’s eyes.  Dickens wrote: “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”  It’s a powerful thing for a stranger halfway around the world to like my picture, video or story.  But talking to my next-door neighbor, “seeing someone really seeing me,” means I’ve “arrived somewhere unexpected.”  Home.

A version of this post appears in the September issue of JMore

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Get Lost!

When is the last time you truly got out of your geographical comfort zone?

I write these words from Jerusalem where I am spending a month of study. This monthly JMore/Urban Rabbi column has been devoted to Baltimore justice, but what can I learn about justice in Baltimore from thousands of miles away? Jerusalem and Baltimore are very different cities. One is ancient, the other just old. One is the capital of Israel, the other home to well over 90,000 Jews on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Both, remarkably, have a pretty solid craft beer industry. And both cities, one just east of the Mediterranean Sea, the other just west of the Chesapeake Bay, feel to me at once familiar and foreign, comfortable and exotic.

My first Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, I chose the exotic. I awoke to the sun streaming in through the window of my apartment. As a pulpit rabbi, I don’t sleep in on Saturdays all that often. Not only am I in shul every week, but I need to be on time! Today, however, I slept late, and it was glorious. When I awoke a bit late to go to shul (Israeli shuls start and end early), I decided to take a walk.

I filled my Camel Back with water, pointed myself away from the usual paths, and set off deliberately toward the unknown. I wandered, sans map, sans iPhone, sans wallet, to the west and southwest. I navigated winding streets and circuitous footpaths. I ascended and descended Jerusalem’s undulating hills, asking myself what I might see around the next corner. I got lost! In doing so, I found myself noticing things I might normally ignore or overlook when heading from some point A to some point B: a memorial to soldiers who died in the 1948 War of Independence, a monastery, a beautiful playground with children frolicking in their Shabbat clothes. On my Shabbat morning walk I rediscovered wonder.

Getting lost used to be more common. In the days before smart phones and GPS, people would get lost all the time, especially when on vacation. And they’d get unlost, simply by asking some passerby for directions: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Ben Yehuda Street or the cheese place on Emek Re’faim?” But today, virtually everyone has a smart phone, with GPS. Technology protects us from the unfamiliar. And that’s sad because getting lost is one of the most important things we can do!

This is where Baltimore Justice comes in. One of the things we know from social science is that implicit bias governs much of human behavior. All humans have biases and prejudices. These can range from quite benign (liking vanilla more than strawberry ice cream) to problematic (thinking boys are better at science than girls). Implicit biases are the ones we’re unaware of, which is what makes them more difficult to address. Many Americans believe black people are more violent or that white people are less likely to sell or use drugs – even though both claims are demonstrably false.

It’s human nature to feel most comfortable with familiar places and people. We also tend to lump people together because of something called “out-group homogeneity.” When someone belongs to a group other than our own (a man if you’re a woman, a gay person if you’re straight, a Muslim if you’re Jewish or Christian), we tend to assume most or all members of that group share the characteristics of the few we’ve encountered.

How to fight this bias, to mitigate these tendencies? Spend time with more people from these out-groups.  We may not change our actual biases, but we become less likely to act on them.  Neighborhoods, like so much of American society today, are echo chambers – particularly in still-segregated Baltimore. But if we explore the unknown, get lost in someplace a little unfamiliar, we can slowly begin to unmake the hidden and incorrect messages our brains tell us. And, who knows, maybe we’ll even discover beauty and meaning as I did wandering the unfamiliar streets of Jerusalem!

A version of this piece will appear in August at JMore

Tikkun Olam: Is the World Incomplete or Fundamentally Broken?

Living in the city, one encounters a disproportionate number of younger people in wheelchairs – men, usually, debilitated by urban violence or any number of adverse medical conditions. As an able-bodied person, I wonder what it would be like to have to negotiate uncut curbs, careening traffic and potholes.

A couple years ago, I was riding my bike near the shul on Election Day when I noticed a neighbor named Mike, his wheelchair askew, wedged in a sidewalk pothole. His electric wheelchair was revving, but he made no progress. He was quite literally spinning his wheels. I hopped off my bike and helped Mike get unstuck. We had a brief chat. He was on his way to Beth Am, our polling place, to vote. I let him know the new voting machines were acting up and there was a line out the door. He may want to come back later, I said. He thanked me for the help. I mounted my bike, and we rolled off our separate ways.

The image of Mike caught in that pothole sticks with me, though, not just because streets and sidewalks in so much of the city are abysmally maintained but because Mike’s predicament that day is a metaphor for so many impoverished and/or disabled Baltimoreans. Many are stuck. Many feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Many feel crushed under the weight of generational poverty, criminal injustice and structural racism.

Many feel that way. Others don’t. And still others, fully justified in losing all hope, make a choice to focus not on privation but gratitude.

I don’t know if Mike felt beaten down by his circumstances. Frankly, he didn’t seem to be. Many of my poorer neighbors greet passersby with a smile and when asked how they’re feeling, confidently reply, “blessed!” “Who is rich?” asks the Mishnah. “The one who is content with his portion” (Avot 4:1).

When Jews talk about social justice, we often use the term tikkun olam, repairing the world. Never mind that the origin of the phrase was not really about service or justice, tikkun olam has now entered into the lexicon of modern Jewry as a fundamental principle of our faith. The question, though, is what exactly does this phrase say about the world?

The story most commonly associated with tikkun olam comes from the Ari z”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist. Luria describes the world’s existence as having resulted from a powerful explosion, a big bang of sorts, called sh’virat hakeilim. In this primordial flash, vessels are shattered, suffusing the universe with shards of fractured matter. Humanity’s task, as explained by decades of twentieth and twenty-first century rabbis, activists and camp counselors, is to repair these vessels, to heal the world. This paradigm suggests the world is fractured because it is fundamentally broken.

But another paradigm can be found in the Torah text itself. The very first verse of Bereishit is usually translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But, an equally plausible rendering is, “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The tikkun olam paradigm means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit, though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.

When I found Mike spinning his wheels near Eutaw Place, my first emotion was pity. However he ended up in that wheelchair, what a pitiful fate: to be rendered inert on one’s way to the polling place! What a metaphor for futility in West Baltimore! But Mike had no interest in despair. Mike had an election to get to!

A broken world can feel paralyzing. However, if the world is not essentially damaged but unfinished, it is not about what’s missing but what is not yet found – and only then what must be done. In this model, the world isn’t a shattered urn, a conduit to be mended. The world is a tree, absorbing the light of heaven and converting it to energy in a complex biological and spiritual process called living. The world is a scroll being written, a song waiting to be sung.

The problem with sidewalks is they are (quite literally) concrete, so it’s hard to see cracks and potholes as anything but brokenness. The Jewish task, as we roll along, is to see the journey in the sidewalk, the places it brings us from and gets us to. Only then will we know how to refashion pathways in sustainable ways, so that more of us have a smoother ride.

A version of this column will appear in the July issue of JMore (www.jmoreliving.com).

Who’s Going to Start the Druid Hill Park Conservancy?

The “Central Park” of Baltimore is great but it could be glorious.

Years ago, I wrote short blog entry after returning from a visit to L.A. During the trip, we were strolling along the ocean-front path in Venice when we chanced upon an impressive beach home with a whimsically tiny patch of AstroTurf in front. The sign read: “World’s Smallest Front Yard.” The irony, of course, is that the home had an enormous front yard: the sand and grassy areas of Venice Beach and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Worlds smallest front yard

At the time, we lived on Druid Park Lake Drive (what locals call “Lake Drive”), and I couldn’t help but think of my own neighborhood named Reservoir Hill for the large source of drinking water that serves as an aquatic gateway to the “Central Park” of Baltimore.  In our nearly seven years in Baltimore, Druid Hill Park has been our lush, vital and undulating front yard. My children both learned to ride a bike around the lake. We walk our dog there, play tennis and visit the zoo, conservatory or farmers market. We have attended concerts and art exhibitions in the park. In nice weather I jog or cycle there, enjoying the interplay of forest and grass, whimsical historic pavilions, invigorated by numerous public and private celebrations. The park is alive, and I feel more alive within it.

Druid Hill Park has deep Jewish and African American resonance, making it the perfect front yard for a neighborhood like Reservoir Hill. Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a longtime Beth Am congregant, authored a paper in honor of the park’s 150th.  “From 1920 to 1960,” he said, “Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community.” Generations of black Baltimoreans have also come to rely on the park as a place to break bread or BBQ, swim, play basketball or tennis (Arthur Ashe used to play on the “negro” courts when the park was segregated).

The park is clean, beautiful and well used. But despite its noteworthy pedigree of Olmstead influence, it has yet to reach its modern potential. Why? Funding, of course! The Park Service does its utmost to keep up with the massive task of mowing grass, maintaining pools, playgrounds and pathways and creating new ball fields and cycling tracks. But more resources are needed to make the park worthy of being what in many ways it already is: a hub of green activity and leisure for Baltimore’s vital urban center.

lake renovation

The timing is right for catalytic investment in Druid Hill Park. The reservoir, one of the largest earthen-dammed lakes in the country, is scheduled to undergo a multi-year upgrade this summer. Two enormous tanks will be buried beneath the western portion of the lake, meeting a federal guideline for open-air reservoirs and allowing for recreational use. The city plans to put in a new fountain, an amphitheater, fishing and perhaps rowboats or paddleboats – Baltimore’s second waterfront! In addition, our area was just selected for up to $750,000 in targeted grants  for improved pedestrian and cycling access. This is an opportunity, as Councilman Leon Pinkett of the 7th District put it, …”to re-focus our priorities on improving quality of life for people living in and around Reservoir Hill, making jobs to the east and our world-class Druid Hill Park to the north safely accessible to residents who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.”

How to fund the gap between what the park ought to be and city’s limited budget? Look to the actual Central Park! For years, New York City has depended on the generosity of donors to its Central Park Conservancy. Such an idea has yet to be tried in Baltimore, but it seems to me this is the moment. With societal energy around sustainability, green-space and urban renewal, Druid Hill Park is ripe for visionary leadership to invest in our verdant gem. The gauntlet is thrown. Who will raise their hand and create the Druid Hill Park Conservancy, a tool for maximizing the potential energy of Baltimore’s enormous front yard?

A version of this column appears at Jmore

What the New Jewish Neighborhood Isn’t

The German novelist and dissident Thomas Mann wrote, “Everything is politics,” while screenwriter Aaron Sorkin offered, “Politics is perception.” Which is to say, so much of life hinges on the perception of those around us. All content-generators, from software engineers to journalists, must confront, in some fashion, the ways in which the words or images we put into the world are perceived.

Art is meant to be seen. Books are written to be read. A gift is not a gift until it’s received, and sometimes it’s received poorly.

In previous columns here and elsewhere, I’ve mused on the concept of a “New Jewish Neighborhood” which some Jews and non-Jews have understood differently than I intended. The time has come to better elucidate what the New Jewish Neighborhood is by clarifying what it is not.

  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is not a neighborhood for Jews. I’ve suggested (See: Make Baltimore Great Again) we should “… explore ways we might have deeper local impact by realizing Jewish values in heterogeneous context … To better inhabit our Jewishness we must be expansive in our concept of community.” I wish to challenge assumptions about Jewish neighborhoods whose measure has always been numbers of Jews and Jewish institutions. My hope is that a New Jewish Neighborhood is one measured by Jewish values lived, where the Jews of that neighborhood are concerned with the how’s and why’s of Jewish living. While I am thrilled to have Jewish neighbors in Reservoir Hill, and that number has grown some in the time that we’ve been here, I am under no illusion that our neighborhood will (or should) become a majority Jewish neighborhood again.
  • The philosopher George Steiner suggests the Jew’s mission is to be “the guest of humanity.” (See: He may be our greatest Jewish Thinker...) I differ with Steiner in that I believe it critical there be a national homeland for the Jewish people as we, like other nations of the world, exercise our right to self-determination. But Israel isn’t an excuse for Jewish parochialism or triumphalism. For generations, our people have been shaped by our minority presence in other people’s lands as, indeed, we have by our aspiration for political sovereignty.
  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is meant to articulate a new vision for Jews and Jewry, not to impose Jewishness on others. Save for a brief and regretful period during the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews have never been a proselytizing people. One need not believe in our God to be saved; we have no monopoly on virtue. Not long after I coined the phrase New Jewish Neighborhood, it became apparent that such a framing is useful as an invitation to (or quasi-polemic for) my fellow Jews. Once we began reaching out to our broader non-Jewish and largely non-white community in Reservoir Hill, we needed different nomenclature reflecting a shared set of aims and principles. Hence, IFO (See: inforof.org/)  ) (In, For, Of) was born.
  • The New Jewish Neighborhood is not only about race, but it is about race. We cannot appreciate Jewish urban/suburban migration without understanding racism and how Jews fit in. As neighborhoods transitioned from white to black, it was often Jews who played the relay. Understanding Jewishness in America today is to grasp the complex and evolving relationship between Jewishness and whiteness (at least for the 80 percent of Jews who are not black, brown or Sephardic). Race is a social construct, but those of us who look white cannot wish our whiteness away any more than African-Americans can their blackness. The New Jewish Neighborhood is where we stop wishing or pretending and start listening and doing.
  • The Neighborhood cannot be located (only) on a map. On one hand, it is a neighborhood, a place where actual Jews, with intention and self-awareness, live with majority non-Jewish neighbors. (This is not Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic,” in which assimilated Jews in a WASPy community feel ashamed of their Orthodox Jewish neighbors.) It is also my specific neighborhood of Reservoir Hill, a rare locale where a nearly 100-year-old synagogue building supports a thriving congregation in what has for decades been a black neighborhood.

But the New Jewish Neighborhood is also a state of mind. Or as I wrote a couple months ago in Jmore (See: A New Way to View Tzedakah), “The neighborhood is all about posture — how we are as much as who we are.” In this sense, any community with Jews can become a New Jewish Neighborhood and any Jew, no matter where s/he lives can be a New Jewish Neighbor, a better “guest of humanity.”

A version of this piece appears in Jmore.

Conservative Rabbis From Around the World Come to Reservoir Hill!

Photos by Greg Bowen, Human Being Productions

Pesach, which begins Monday evening April 10, is the most observed Jewish holiday on the calendar.   A staggeringly high percentage of American Jews hold or attend some version of the seder.  There’s much speculation as to why this is with theories including the robust and malleable nature of the ritual or the fact that the primary observance is home-centric and includes lots of good food!  Both of these rationales clearly hold sway, but I believe there is something more profound (and simpler) at play: Pesach provides that elusive thing religious traditions strive for but often miss: relevance.  It’s no accident the theme of the Hagaddah (that we were slaves in Egypt who left to serve a greater calling in a land of our own) constitutes a full four-fifths of the Torah’s story.  And the notion that our experience of suffering and marginalization ought to sensitize us to the needs of the marginal and maligned in our day is a message conveyed more frequently in Torah than any other. E.g. “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deu. 10:18).

B. Cole, co-owner of Dovecote Cafe around the corner from Beth Am speaks to rabbis about the vitality of black neighborhoods.

It’s this fundamental urge and striving that animates the Jewish impulse to work for a more just society.  It’s also one at the core of my own Conservative movement.  Nevertheless, the prophetic voices of A.J. Heschel, Harold Schulweis, Brad Artson and others have at times been lost in the din of other often legitimate but sometimes less broadly compelling concerns.  The annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention has been a case in point.  While each convention is different, there has not always been a robust exploration of what I would call applied Torah.  To their credit, over the past several years this has begun to change, the most recent manifestation being the February RA here in Baltimore.

Spoken Word artist Mohamed Tall performs for the whole convention before rabbis head to 5 locations throughout Baltimore

I was invited to speak to my colleagues, hailing from across North America and around the world, about the history of Baltimore, its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the ways we as a city (and a nation) have struggled to reach our best potential.  I told them, “As someone who has lived [in Chicago] blocks from a Whole Foods and who now lives in a food desert, I promise you, there is as much brokenness in Roland Park as there is in Sandtown.  There are two Chicagos, two LA’s, two Detroits, two Philadelphias, two Baltimores – two Americas.  But these binaries are not just about rich and poor, they’re about how we see the world and whether we truly view every person as a reflection of God.  This is our goal for today,” I told them, “from our perch in Baltimore’s beautiful inner harbor, to introduce you to that other Baltimore.”

Rabbi Dina Shargel of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., reads prayer book with IFO co-chair Amani Warren. (Coincidentally, this photo includes shots of Rabbi Paul Schneider, long time head of KSDS where my kids go to school and Rabbis Matt Futterman and Elliot Cosgrove with whom I was privileged to work during my time at Anshe Emet in Chicago)!

Then, at the request of convention chair and Gaithersburg colleague Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, I introduced two award-winning spoken word poets who offered brilliant and provocative original compositions, and we sent the rabbis off to one of five different site-visits.  In addition to Beth Am, rabbis visited the Center for Urban Families, The 6th Branch, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, and Paul’s Place.  Some also heard presentations from Holistic Life Foundation and Wide Angle Youth Media.  Each of these organizations is doing important and impactful work in Baltimore City.  I encourage JMore readers to learn more and support them!

The thirty-five rabbis who came to Beth Am studied a text from Mishna, learned about our sister 501(C)3, In, For and Of, heard Baltimore stories from legendary Gil Sandler, met our new community resource specialist, and packed into the Dovecote Café as its visionary owners challenged assumptions about what makes a “good neighborhood.”  One 78-year-old rabbi told me of all the RA conventions he has attended over the years, his visit to Beth Am was the single most meaningful experience.

Beth Am’s Community Resource Specialist speaks to the group demonstrating our approach to tzedakah

Torah is equated to a “tree of life,” and just as life demands to be lived, torah demands to be learned.  The New Jewish Neighborhood is a place where we recalibrate Jewish souls, realigning our ancient wisdom with society’s most pressing concerns and its most demanding opportunities.

The inimitable Gil Sandler regales us with stories of the Old Jewish Neighborhood

A version of this piece can be found at Jmore

 

 

 

Why I Went to the Women’s March (But Not the Airport Protest)

National protests and local person-to-person legislative advocacy are mutually reinforcing.

The Women’s March on Washington was an extraordinary affair, and I was honored to be part of it. I was not planning to attend. As someone who is shomer Shabbos, I didn’t see how to make it work.  And as much as I felt called to the moment (and knew many of my congregants would be there), my first responsibility is to my shul. Our monthly Kesher L’Neshama (soulful Shabbat) service was planned for that day, and I was already to be in Israel the following week due to a long-scheduled trip to continue my studies as a Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative fellow.

As the day of the march drew near, my resolve to speak out against the incoming administration’s demeanor and approach was reinforced by the then-president-elect’s choices of Cabinet members and advisers. While the march highlighted a number of significant societal challenges, I was and am increasingly worried that (very legitimate) concerns about refugees/immigrants, racism, Islamophobia and more are overshadowing pervasive misogyny laid bare in this past election. What’s more, living where I do, I am cognizant of the recent Department of Justice report that identifies “serious concerns of gender-biased policing” — a reminder that from pay inequity to police brutality, women of color are disproportionately affected by gender bias.

As a man, and particularly a white man, I felt called to bring my 9-year-old son to march with my wife and 11-year-old daughter. So I decided to join Miriam and our children in Washington. It would not be easy. We had a room lined up within walking distance of Independence Boulevard, one of many in D.C. homes made available free to strangers by their owners in support of the effort. Then Friday, we got a call from our would-be-host; in tears, he explained he had a family emergency and could no longer have us.  Plan B was to crash at a cousin’s place near the zoo, but that was a full three miles from the Mall. So our first stop as we entered the District before Shabbat was to buy prepaid Metro passes — an imperfect but manageable solution.

Friday night and Saturday morning, we joined hundreds at the Sixth & I Synagogue for uplifting services and poignant words of Torah. And we marched. We navigated the sea of 500,000 bodies, positioning the children where they could see and hear some of the speeches. We crossed the Mall and marched past the new African-American museum to the Ellipse. By the end of the day, our legs were weary but our hearts were full.

We resolved to fight. Which is why when the Trump administration saw fit to ban refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries, and protesters converged on BWI, I was not there. You see, that evening was a long-scheduled meeting with newly appointed State Sen. Barbara Robinson at the home of a congregant and neighbor.

Marches galvanize support for causes. They foster a sense of shared responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, they are the embodiment of one of our most precious rights: the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The next line of the First Amendment, however, is even more important: “[The right] to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Representative democracies are only as strong as the extent to which we the people hold our elected officials accountable — and local politics are where most of the impactful work can be done.

The meeting that evening was convened by Jews United for Justice to address a number of local concerns including police accountability, paid sick leave and rent court reform. The senator heard us out as we sat in my neighbor’s living room and shared stories of brokenness. Our bodies were stationary. Our stories and concerns were true, and our truth goes marching on.

A version of this post can be found at JMore