Sasso: Don’t cut funding for the arts

(Indianapolis Star, March 22, 2017)

The White House’s proposed budget for 2018 would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This exclusion will make barely a dent in federal spending. The NEH and NEA receive only .001 percent of a nearly $4 trillion budget. Compare the estimated cost of $38 billion required for a border wall between Mexico and the United States with the $148 million that supports the arts and humanities. The administration is making a statement about what it is we value as a nation.

There are those who believe by eliminating these agencies, they are “targeting waste.” They suggest that the arts are not really necessary; they do not rise to the level of national security that requires increased government resources. But the defense of democracy requires precisely what the arts and humanities give us. Studies have shown that exposure to the arts and humanities improves social and emotional development, increases empathy and generosity, encourages civic engagement and expands cognitive development. These skills are not a waste, but essential to the fabric of our nation.

The arts and humanities help us to understand our place in the world, to value complexity, to think critically and independently. In a world that is increasingly polarized, the ability to appreciate nuance and diversity are more essential than ever. Our democracy will wither if we do not cultivate the imagination, educate people with historic and cultural memory, train leaders with creative ideas and the ability to communicate them and inspire others.

Studies in neuroscience find that the arts have a strong impact on the brain’s cognitive and social development. Music improves spatial and temporal thinking, memory recall and mathematical ability. Engagement with the visual arts leads to greater creativity. The humanities and arts increase academic achievement and bolster confidence and teamwork. Contrary to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assertion that the NEA funds programs that are “generally enjoyed by people of higher incomes,” 40 percent of the NEA budget supports activities in low-income neighborhoods. The loss of funding will hurt rural and impoverished communities the most. Government funding catalyzes other investments and matching grants that provide exposure to the arts, poetry, literature, drama, history and music that make life worthwhile.

In Indiana, the NEA and NEH work through the Indiana Arts Commission and Indiana Humanities. Their work reaches all 92 counties.

The humanities help us reflect on our purpose in the world, on issues of authority and power. They give us the resources to face difficulties, loss and failure, to ask the hard questions and to live with the questions for which there are no answers. Art, literature and music offer us new ways of looking at our world and help us see things to which our presuppositions have blinded us. They give us all this, as well as moments of exquisite beauty and delight.

Books like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” have helped us look honestly at ourselves. Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” inspired us to dream.  Picasso’s “Guernica” and Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel” have offered us new ways of seeing the world. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6″ has stirred our souls. These are the weapons of civilization. Without them, our nation is at risk.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.

A force for change: Zionsville-founded advocacy group looks to expand around state

(The Lebanon Reporter, March 22, 2017)

By Elizabeth Pearl 

Like many, Jennifer Nelson Williams and Sandy Sasso were concerned about the state of their country after the 2016 election.

Like many, they took to social media to create an online-based group of women who shared their concerns.

Unlike many, the group ballooned to nearly 11,000 members, pulling in supporters from around the state who have attended rallies and workshops and volunteered to run task forces.

“We’ve touched the lives of 11,000 women,” Sasso, a retired Indianapolis rabbi and author, said. “That’s pretty incredible. To be able to create that kind of sisterhood is extraordinary. I think we are slowly but surely making a difference. We certainly are a voice in the room.”

The group got its start in November, shortly after the election. Sasso and Williams, who is the funeral director at the Aaron Ruben Nelson Funeral and Cremation Services in Zionsville, both had grown concerned about the vitriolic rhetoric on display for the months leading up to President Trump’s victory.

“It was kind of like, ‘Are we going to sit here and complain about it or are we going to do something?’” Williams said. “I’ve never had any political aspirations before. I’ve never been involved politically, so making that first call, like so many women who are now starting to call their legislators, I was intimidated.”

They decided to reach out to the community to see whether any other women shared their fears. The pair put together a panel on women’s issues that featured Betty Cockrum, president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky; Christina Hale, the Democratic contender for Lt. Governor; and Sheila Suess Kennedy, a professor of law and public policy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

They expected about 100 women to attend the panel set to take place at the funeral home. About 900 showed up, only 500 of whom could fit in the room.

Williams said all plans went out the window. She and Sasso ended up passing around index cards, asking the huge crowd of women to write down their top concerns about their state and nation.

The four most common concerns became the four pillars, and the four task forces, of Women4Change:

Dignity and safety: This group focuses on women’s health and safety concerns, reproductive health and LGBTQ rights.

Mentor and empower: This task force works to empower women to take on political leadership roles at the local, state and national levels.

Inclusion and civility: This group fights racism and promotes civil discourse in politics.

Restructuring and activism: This group fights to reform redistricting in Indiana and supports voter rights and civics education.

Huge numbers of women began volunteering to head the task forces. A group of volunteers, calling themselves “Lawyers 4 Change” provide legal services to the group, while a group of volunteer accountants have helped file tax forms. A Women4Change member designed their website for free.

Williams said that group members have come forward to help every step of the way.

“The people I’ve met are incredible,” she said. “They are leaders in their field, in their respective communities. It’s just so empowering.”

In January, only about two months after the group’s founding, Gov. Eric Holcomb invited Women4Change’s leaders to meet with him on his inauguration day.

One of his staffers told Williams and other group leaders, “Right now you have a voice. If you want to be a force you have to be in every district around the state.”

Williams and the other women took his advice to heart.

Building a base

Ask any leader in Women4Change why the group’s message has proved so potent and they’ll all tell you the same thing: civility and inclusion.

On March 14, hundreds of men and women gathered at Beth-El Zedeck to hear Sheila Suess Kennedy, the law and public policy professor at IUPUI, speak about civic literacy. Before Kennedy took the podium, though, the crowd recited together what has become Women4Change’s mantra:

I pledge to be civil and respectful in my public discourse and behavior.

I will honor the dignity of others whether in agreement or disagreement.

I will respond to incivility and speak up in the presence of name-calling, stereotypes, slander and slurs.

I will do this for the sake of our children, for the healing of our country, for the future of democracy and peace.

“Incivility has always been around, but boy, in the last election it was taken to a level never seen before,” said Sujata Chugh, Women4Change’s director of policy and programming. “We want to push back on that and speak up for discourse.”

Sasso points out that the group makes an effort to include women from all religious, racial and political backgrounds in its leadership. The group actively seeks out Republican voices, finding value in civil discussion and differences of opinion.

The members don’t have to fall completely in line with Women4Change’s values to join, Williams said. She believes that the members’ shared experiences as women means that no difference of opinion is insurmountable.

When a friend told Williams that they were on different sides of an issue, Williams pointed out that that may be true, but that at the root they have something in common.

“I said to her that I have to believe that the bridge between us is much smaller than the bridge between me and a man who is looking at the world with different eyes,” Williams said. “We are mothers and sisters and daughters and friends. That has to make us closer together. I don’t see a way that it can’t.”

Another reason group leaders believe that Women4Change’s message has resonated with so many people is that it partners with well-established organizations to promote issues important to them. Partners include the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, Jewish Community Relations Council, Freedom Indiana, American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, among others.

Women4Change amplifies the needs of these organizations, rather than “reinventing the wheel,” Williams said. The partnerships have brought Women4Change members to the airport to protest President Trump’s immigration policy and to work toward getting a hate crimes bill measure passed in Indiana.

Since February, Women4Change has hosted events on feminism, civic literacy, redistricting reform and rape culture.

Across the state

As the group grows, the organization leaders have begun to discuss several innovations, including a statewide book club that would read books from diverse cultures; a speaking bureau to train women to give presentations on Women4Change around the state; a leadership series to train women in running for political office; a civility campaign for legislators; and a database for the organization’s members.

The biggest project of all, however, is to create Women4Change chapters in every congressional district in the state.

Williams said that she has heard from people in Fort Wayne, Evansville and even Florida asking her about starting their own Women4Change chapter, but for a while turned them down.

“Initially it seemed like a wild dream. … I answered back that I’m just a mom in Indianapolis,” Williams said.

But in the last month that dream, of becoming what Holcomb’s staffer called a “force,” has become a reality.

Chugh said that she plans to visit each congressional district to hold informational sessions and to visit with local women on the interest in starting a chapter. Then it will be a matter of setting up the infrastructure within those groups and determining their relationship to the larger Women4Change base.

The goal, Chugh said, is to “each morning, each week wake up and feel we’ve provided them with enough information and tools to be effective members at the grassroots level.”

Getting involved

Having nine chapters throughout Indiana will strengthen not only the organization, but women who want to become more involved in local politics but do not have a solid support system, Williams said.

“It really has to start from the very first circle,” Williams said. “Being involved in your party, being on the town council or the school board. You have to start somewhere. I think of it as a root system, like laying that system and letting it develop and mature.”

As the chapters are rolled out in the coming months, Williams said that she expects Women4Change to grow by tens of thousands around the state.

“When we voice our concerns, people are going to listen,” she said.

Williams and Sasso both said that they spend so many hours on Women4Change that it has become like a full-time job. But neither would give it up.

“It’s been absolutely worth it for a number of reasons,” Sasso said. “One is the pure delight in meeting so many incredible women wanting to work for change and for the values we care deeply about. Another is that we’re making progress.”

Sassos: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans

(Indianapolis Star, March 7, 2017)

Some have suggested that President Donald Trump’s recent speech before Congress offered a more conciliatory and collaborative tone than previous pronouncements. But tone does not override content.  Particularly egregious was Trump’s call to the Department of Homeland Security to establish VOICE, Victims of Immigration, Crime Engagement, a program that would focus on crimes committed by illegal immigrants. During the speech, Trump recognized four people whose loved ones had been killed by immigrants. Certainly, our sympathies go out to all who have lost loved ones. But Trump’s message was ideologically tainted by the claim that violent crime in America is the result of an irresponsible immigration policy. This initiative is eerily reminiscent of 1940s Germany, where “immigrants” (Jews) were singled out and listed as criminals. (more…)

Scenes of creation

(Greenfield Daily Reporter, February 17, 2017)

GREENFIELD — Arms outstretched, she falls.

The woman depicted in artist Cagney King’s work “Fall from Grace” is a light spot on the canvas.

“She’s falling because there’s that unknown,” King said. “She’s that figure that represents all of us as lights in the world.”

King created the work at her studio in the Creative Arts and Event Center in downtown Greenfield, with texts of the creation narrative as a starting point.

King and 13 other Indiana artists came together to explore those texts and offer their interpretations of them through works of art. They will share those works in an exhibit that opens at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Christian Theological Seminary, 1000 W. 42nd St., Indianapolis. (more…)

Women4Change Indiana creates an activist sisterhood that fights for all

(Nuvo, February 15, 2017)
So, what happens when a rabbi and a funeral director get together to talk about the state of the world? You get women championing for change.

It’s not the set-up or the punch line of a joke, nor was it meant to be.

It’s the truth of how Women4Change Indiana began.

Like a lot of women in our community — and around the country — Rabbi Sandy Sasso found herself disheartened by the national results of the general election.

“Some people say our hearts were broken,” says Sasso. “But more than that there was a sense of despair and we were hearing that from a lot of women.”

Sasso heard the sentiment from so many women, including Jennifer Williams, president of Aaron-Ruben-Nelson Mortuary (ARN). It didn’t take long for the two to decide that they should offer the women they knew — and others they didn’t — the chance to talk about the despair all were feeling. (more…)

Sassos: ‘We stand with immigrants’

(Indianapolis Star, February 7, 2017)

On Jan. 29, more than 1,000 people came together at the Indianapolis International Airport to express opposition to the president’s ill-conceived and prejudiced Executive Order barring immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations.  We were privileged to be among the speakers at that gathering.  Following are our remarks, first Dennis’ and next, Sandy’s:

Dennis: “I stand with you as an immigrant to this country.

I stand with you as a descendant of Jews who, escaping the Inquisition, came to the New World, found refuge in the Caribbean islands and arrived in this land before the birth of the United States. (more…)

Read Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s “We Are Not Going Back” Speech From the Indianapolis Women’s Rally

(Indianapolis Monthly, January 27, 2017)

Is #teaspoon trending yet?

Indy’s esteemed Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was one of several speakers at a women’s rally that drew an estimated 7,500 people to the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday. Her speech was simple yet potent, recalling basic rights minorities lacked as recently as 1960. Some women in the crowd nodded along, remembering when those limitations existed. The crowd joined Sasso in punctuating each statement with a refrain of “we are not going back.” The oration ended with a teaspoon metaphor that illustrated the power of many small contributions. Here is the full text of the speech (written and copyrighted by Sasso) and a photo gallery from the event: (more…)

Sasso: An open letter to the incoming vice president

(Indianapolis Business Journal, December 17, 2016)

Dear Vice President-elect Pence:

Congratulations on your election to the vice presidency of the United States of America. As rabbis in the city of Indianapolis, we have had the honor of knowing and collaborating with you frequently over the past decade. We have valued your graciousness and your friendly manner.

It will not surprise you that we have often viewed with concern several of your policies and comments as governor, which, despite their calm and civil tone, have sometimes yielded discrimination and disenfranchisement. As you assume the vice presidency of our country and take the national stage, allow us to add to our congratulations the following pleas.

Please advocate and advance the welfare, rights and privileges of all citizens, residents and visitors, regardless of race, gender identity, religion or ethnicity, within the boundaries of our nation. May your oft-proclaimed identity as “Christian, conservative and Republican” be practiced in the service of your identity as an “American,” the vice president of a diverse nation. Please respect and honor the religious differences and the spectrum of deeply held moral values on women’s rights, reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights. Please always see to it that the Constitution of the United States of America be enshrined above any one community’s scriptures or interpretations thereof.

We ask that you encourage and guide our new president-elect to be discerning in word and in deed, in intention and execution, that he may create a climate of civility, harmony and hope. His campaign and early transition have not always inspired confidence in this regard. We hear daily from Hoosiers who are afraid, who experience intimidation and bullying, who are being told there is only one America and that it is white and Christian. This should be repudiated in no uncertain terms. Children should not be made to feel unsafe because of who they are, because of their race, faith or where they came from.

Please counsel President-elect Trump to build an infrastructure of tolerance and trust so that we might achieve the greatness of the America we love, with freedom, liberty and justice for all. Help him to speak out against the increasing and emboldened acts of hate and vandalism, so our children and grandchildren learn that bullying, disparagement and antagonism are not tolerated in our nation and are not paths to success or models of leadership.

Dear Mr. Pence, you brought a touch of civility and reason to the angry rhetoric of the campaign. But Hoosier hospitality is only true if beneath it lies respect for all people, even those with whom we disagree, and respect for a broad spectrum of truth.

We are emerging from the current electoral season with a sense of mistrust, insecurity and fear, with a sense that America is divided and polarized, that we are no longer “one nation under God.” May the pronouncements, directives and decisions of the newly elected leadership dispel any apprehension that we are entering a period of fractured trust. May the words and deeds of the new administration yield conciliatory purpose and constructive endeavor.

In the spirit of hope of our state’s bicentennial and of the approaching holiday season, we wish you and Mrs. Pence blessings of health and fulfillment in Washington, D.C., as we pray for harmony, goodwill and peace upon America and the world.

Respectfully yours,

Rabbis Dennis and Sandy Sasso•

The Sassos have served as spiritual leaders of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck since 1977. Sandy Sasso is director of the religion, spirituality and the arts initiative at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary. 

Sasso: A vision for the third Hoosier century

(Indianapolis Star, December 14, 2016)

We stand on the brink of a new century for Indiana. This past year as we have celebrated the state’s bicennential we have remembered stories that have made us proud and others that were a source of shame. Examining the truth about our past without cliché or nostalgia affords us the wisdom to move forward into the next century.

We remember; not to live in the past but with it. Memories teach us. They are mirrors into our own souls, windows into the hearts of others and gateways through which to ignite the future.

The prophet taught, “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.” We have dreamed of all that has made us Indiana. Now it is time to envision the future.

Let me share with you what I have learned from the visions of the young Hoosiers whom I have come to know:

They envision more green spaces, clean air and waterways, safe places to explore.

They want quality education and economic opportunity, equality for men and women, an environment free from fear of violence.

They want an end to bullying, intimidation, words and acts of hate.

They value science, not just so they can have the next new gadget, but so that decisions about their future are based on reasoned inquiry and accumulated knowledge.

Our young people want Hoosier hospitality to extend to everyone regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity or religion, and to wrap its arms around diversity, while uniting us in the bonds of responsible citizenship.

Our youth imagine a state known for its ideas and its talents, for its science and technology, its music, art, literature and theater. They dream of a place with a soul.

To ignite the future requires us to take risks and admit mistakes, to listen and embrace civility, to be open to new ideas in a state where all Hoosiers have a future, where everyone is welcome, everyone is in.

As we enter our third century, let us learn from the past, affirm the present and shape the future.

Let the waters of the Wabash wash away willful antagonisms.

Let the sands of the Indiana Dunes bury old grudges.

Let the springs of West Baden invigorate and renew us.

Let the bridges of Madison County carry us safely over the divides-rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old, black and white, immigrant and native born.

Let the example of men and women whose words and deeds have made us proud, continue to remind us of the power of human kindness, of creativity, of philanthropy and entrepreneurship to change the world;

Let Indiana limestone soften our resistance to change and build monuments to human dignity;

Let sugar cream pie teach us the sweet art of mixing and the mingling of people.

As we enter the next Hoosier century, let us recall the words of our poet, James Whitcomb Riley, “the future will come with the honest hand of labor, the honest heart of loveliness, the honest soul of love.”

With these hopes and commitments, let us go forth and ignite the future.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.

Indiana Board of Rabbis

(Indiana Board of Rabbis, December 12, 2016)15392845_1129495793829781_3944760787324098424_o

As we move out of an election that has been contentious and disturbingly divisive, the clergy of Indianapolis are united in condemning the hateful rhetoric that was let loose during the campaign. We are all managing the pain of some in our congregations, while supporting those celebrating the victory of President-Elect Trump. We can all agree that we must stand for tolerance, love and for the preservation and protection of the diversity that is the hall mark of our country.

There is work to be done in order to heal our nation. We are not naive or bright eyed on that truth. We also think there are, in the short term, meaningful acts that will signal hope and connection across faiths. We thought this simple project would spread a message or peace, hope and tolerance as we welcome in 2017.

We gather as diverse group of clergy – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish in support of “Forward Together Toward A Year Of Light” sponsored by The Wexner Foundation, 92nd Street Y, and Partnership of Faith in New York City. We are neighbors standing for common purpose.