Posted by Lia Mandelbaum
I am only one month into an internship with a mental healthcare agency serving South Los Angeles communities such as Lynwood and Compton, and as I heard a political speech in which the impoverished individuals in this nation were referred to as undignified “takers,” I am here to decompose and shed myself of that toxic paradigm.
I was having a discussion with my supervisor yesterday about how the media often portrays South Los Angeles as being full of gangs, violence, poverty and corruption. Although it is true that within these areas there is a greater percentage of homelessness, poverty, and criminal activity, those aspects should not define it. There are grandparents, parents, children, students, optimists, pessimists, realists, writers, and artists. There are athletes, teachers, business owners and people who love to cook. I am discovering how South Los Angeles is made up of an incredibly vast array of humanity. There is a great deal of attraction towards viewing the area through the lens of the media, however the majority of people who are Caucasian and/or have a higher economic status, will often only experience these areas behind a movie and television screen. If I am to be honest with myself, I must admit that this portrayal was partially why I wanted to intern in the area. I found the idea exciting. Through exposure to these different communities, instead of viewing them just through the lens of the media, I am gaining a more realistic perspective.
As I go out into the field to visit clients, my exposure and experiences have been very eye opening. It also raises a lot of questions such as: why are these areas predominantly black and Hispanic and how has racism shaped the communities? I think about the idea of the “American dream,” and how there is a glass ceiling that doesn’t allow everyone to achieve this dream. Before the Great Depression in 1929, it was religious institutions that deemed who were the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor of receiving social services. If you were physically capable of working, sometimes just by inquiring, you would be thrown in jail. After the Great Depression hit, and everyone was in the same boat, that sort of thinking changed. In our current society, you often hear of who is worthy and unworthy of receiving assistance, and the idea that you need to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get it together. I am discovering that there are many oppressive elements that make it incredibly challenging. As a very individualistic society, there is a mentality that can be found in this country that believes certain groups of people are dispensable. I think about the notion that the United States is a democratic nation, yet we aren’t always congruent with these ideals. A professor of mine once talked about how to truly be a democratic nation, there must be a level playing field, which does not exist within our country. I do not take for granted the freedom, opportunities and blessings that I have as a citizen of the United States, but as a “truth seeker”, I believe that these questions and realities must be faced and understood. I have realized that racism is so embedded in society that you have to dive in and explore these realities to truly understand what racism is. So far, I have only scratched the surface.
As I look into the eyes of the South Los Angeles community members, I do not see undignified “takers.” I see the profound impact of the toxic ideology that our society has had in oppressing and pigeonholing the less fortunate members of our community. It is in these moments, when societal barriers are down and I can truly see another individual, that I feel the most connected to myself. Whether it is with our clients who struggle with mental health, our diverse group of staff members, or the communities at large, I know that the moment I can no longer see a part of myself in another human being, I am not looking deep enough.
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October 8, 2012 | 9:33 pm
Posted by Lia Mandelbaum
Last year, I went to a park in Ventura County, to attend the joyous 80th birthday party of my Aunt Ruth’s mother, Ann. Every single birthday has special significance for her, because she is a survivor of the Holocaust. As I looked around the party, I was profoundly moved by all of the guests that were there celebrating her life. I thought about how differently her story could have ended. It was empowering to think that because she survived, there are now several generations of my family that can carry on her legacy.
Ann was not the only survivor at her birthday party. I had the pleasure of meeting another couple Bernd & Judy Simon. From the moment Ann introduced us, it was obvious that they both had a very special presence. He began to share a bit of his story with me, and spoke in detail about the horror he experienced on Kristallnacht. I knew that I wanted to hear more about his life and asked if it would be possible to meet again. He embraced me with open arms and invited me to come to his home. We set a date and my friend Laurel Johnson and I traveled to Ventura to conduct an interview and to capture some photographs to use for this blog.
Bernd Simon was born in North Western Germany on May 20, 1920. He is now ninety-two years old, and lives at home with his wife Judy. His life was changed forever on November 10, 1938, the night that we now refer to as Kristallnacht. It was on that tragic night that Gestapo came to his family’s home. They busted down the doors in early morning, chased them into an ice-cold cellar and then raided their apartment. All of their belongings were thrown out into the street and into the backyard over the balcony. The Gestapo then told him he had to clean up the street so that the traffic could pass. The Gestapo did not take Bernd that day, but later came back for him and forced him on to a freight train heading straight towards Dachau concentration camp. For two horrific days and two painfully long nights they were packed into the freight train, riding the “journey into hell.” People died standing up, and fell to the ground when the doors were opened as they reached the gates of Dachau.
During Bernd’s time as a prisoner in the camp, he was shot at three times, and lived with the reality that any day could be his last. But he never gave up hope, and lived his life with faith.
Bernd managed to survive Dachau ultimately because of a brilliant and heroic act performed by his mother. She devised a plan to falsify documents claiming that Bernd was requested for work out of the country and that he was needed immediately. Her plan worked and amazingly, he was released. With four dollars to his name, he went and lived in Cuba for two years before moving to the US and joining the US military. Initially, the military thought that he was a spy for the Germans, but he was able to prove otherwise. Bernd became an Army Air Core Intercept Officer and flew a B24 four-engine bomber. After his Air Corp discharge in 1945 in Vienna, he became a U.S. War Department Intelligence Officer with the CIC. His job was to track down, interrogate and arrest Nazi war criminals in post-war Europe, which he did with a vengeance until 1948.
© Laurel Johnson Photography
There are so many amazing and courageous accomplishments that Bernd has achieved in his lifetime. I could spend all day writing about the heroic and honorable life he has lived. I was blown away by his ability to transform the darkness and despair he was forced to experience into a life filled with light, love, purpose, gratitude and service to others. From 1975-1985 Bernd worked as a full-time employee with the Ventura County Sheriffs. He worked with the inmates in booking, providing support services and making sure that every inmate was given food and clean clothing. He knew all too well how it felt to be hungry and believes that every person on this earth deserves to be treated with dignity.
As Bernd and I sat in his living room that day, it became clear to me why I was so drawn to his energy. He is a perfect example of transforming darkness into light.
© Laurel Johnson Photography
A short time later, as I began to go over my notes from Bernd’s interview, I glimpsed down at the cover of Astronomy Magazine. I was drawn to a headline on the cover titled “Turning clouds of darkness into Stars of light” by Bruce Dorminey. I instantly thought of my friend Bernd Simon.
I learned that there are places in our Galaxy that are so dark they actually appear to be nothing at all. When the shadowy patches of clouds in the Milky Way were first seen through a telescope, astronomer’s actually thought that they were seeing holes in the fabric of space. These dark clouds, called bok globules, are the coldest objects in the natural universe. “Despite their apparent nothingness, these molecular clouds turn out to be exceedingly important: They are the places where stars are born.”
The connection was so clear to me. It is often in the darkest of places, that you can find the brightest of lights.
To see a short video of Bernd Simon, please click HERE
To see more work from Laurel Johnson Photography, Please click HERE
October 5, 2012 | 2:58 pm
Posted by Lia Mandelbaum
I had the honor of being a part of the production team for this years Jewels of Elul VIII. Craig Taubman started this project eight years ago, to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery, during the month of Elul and right before High Holidays. Jewels of Elul are a collection of short stories, anecdotes and introspections. The topic this year was The Art of Aging.
For the Jewels of Elul website, I wrote a piece expanding upon a particular passage. Out of all twenty-nine Jewels, the one that spoke the most to me was Elul 1: Mohini, written by Rabba Sara Hurwitz. She is the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as spiritual leaders.
As we age, our brains are hardwired to reject change. We are conditioned to resist new challenges and remain within our comfort zones. However, growing older should not mean that we must exist within self-imposed boundaries.
In the 1960s, President Eisenhower received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini. For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage. Finally the zoo decided to build her a larger cage so Mohini could run, climb and explore. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself, and paced there until her death, never enjoying the new opportunities in front of her. Mohini exemplifies the classic conditioning most of us live within. Although she was a magnificent, powerful creature, Mohini was convinced her “place” was just a 12-by-12 foot square. We all have the propensity to behave exactly like Mohini. Based on our conditioning, we create invisible cages for ourselves, limiting our lives within their boundaries.
But we don’t have to succumb to our internal imprisonment. Throughout the High Holidays, we will hear the shofar blast. Historically, the shofar signaled the release of all slaves at the end of the Jubilee year. That sound should make us ask, “What enslaves us? What weighs us down? What baggage do we hold onto?” And then, let it go. The High Holidays present us with a tunnel, an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and live life with renewed passion. The shofar inspires us to free the Mohini inside and move beyond our boundaries.
In Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s Jewel titled “Mohini,” she manages to gracefully and compassionately touch upon the significance of the internal struggles that can present themselves while aging. Although I am only 29-years-old, I have gained a unique insight into the depths of the aging process through being on the career path of a geriatric social worker, relationships and as a hospice volunteer. Through what I have observed, some of the challenges include: the progressive loss of independence, friends frequently passing away, loneliness, constant doctor appointments and the fear of undiagnosed illnesses. I understand what my grandmother means when she tells me “growing older is not for wimps.”
This piece is meant to acknowledge the reality of how difficult it is to age. Younger people often don’t understand what it is like, nor do they want to think about it. It is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we all face with our parents but is often not talked about until it becomes a crisis. There is a major lack of social workers in geriatrics because of their own avoidance with this difficult topic. I have come to understand the dire importance of facing and understanding the reality of aging, and how it can help us to live more full lives.
I cannot express in words the deep level of respect and admiration I have for those who are walking through the challenges of aging. While aging can be extremely tough, it is also very beautiful at the same time. I have also learned that aging does not have to be a struggle, which has a lot to do with one’s attitude and perceptions.
From the words of Rabba Sara Hurwitz, “the High Holidays present us with a tunnel, an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and live life with renewed passion.” One of the biggest gifts in life is the discovery of our own unique route towards this freedom.
To read all the Jewels, click HERE.