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Dr. Joshua Miele lost his eyesight at age 4. But as an adult, he’s been finding ways to help blind and visually impaired people perceive the world through touch and sound.
On Tuesday, Dr. Miele was among the 25 people, including artists, poets, historians, and scientists, selected for a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, the annual “genius grant.”
Dr. Miele has been a pioneer in designing and adapting tech to make the world more accessible. “I come up with cool ideas to solve problems for blind people,” he told KQED radio in San Francisco in 2011.
What kinds of cool ideas? He’s leveraged the power of a smartphone, Bluetooth, and tiny accelerometers to build the wireless WearaBraille, a pair of high-tech gloves that turn any surface into a Braille keyboard.
He also developed a web-based program that generates tactile street maps of any location, and they can be printed on paper at home with a Braille embosser.
Now a researcher at Amazon Lab126, Dr. Miele helped create the “show and tell” feature on Amazon Echo devices. Hold up a food product in front of the Echo camera and ask Alexa to identify it.
“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible,” MacArthur Fellows managing director Cecilia Conrad said in a statement. “They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries.”
Dr. Miele has spent most of his lifetime defying limitations. Now he’s getting some recognition – and a bunch of cash – to fuel his creative juices.
When young adults leave for better prospects elsewhere, how does a community rebound? Our reporter found nimbleness, resilience, and a willingness to adapt in Newfoundland and Labrador towns working to change the narrative.
The view from Jim Larkin’s house in Cook’s Harbour, Newfoundland, is rough. The former fisherman turns in a circle pointing out all the empty dwellings around him.
“Nobody live in that one. Nobody live in that one. Nobody live in that one,” he says. “This used to be a real busy town. ... Now she’s gone to the bottom.”
In many ways, Newfoundland’s story is similar to those seen across the American Midwest and Europe. Its rural economy and aging population have hollowed out. Government services have become increasingly expensive and sparse. But there are also people here trying to tap into its long history of self-sufficiency and channel it into renewal and resilience. They’re fighting rural isolation with economic adaptation and community building.
Fishermen devastated by depleted fish stocks are giving tours of Viking settlements. In Norris Point, residents transformed an old hospital into a community center offering performance art space, a community radio station, a greenhouse, and a hostel.
“To survive in a rural region, you really must have a community helping one another and volunteering,” says bakery owner Carolyn Lavers. Adaptation is necessary, she says, because among the many people leaving are plenty who want to come back, or even stay here in the first place. “The plan is always to go back home.”
Halfway up Route 430, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, the tiny town of Port au Choix is postcard perfect. Caribou graze at sunset at the Point Riche lighthouse, a pepper shaker-like structure that has been guiding ships through the area since the late 1800s.
Waves from the Gulf of St. Lawrence gnaw incessantly at the craggy coastline. Whales frolic in the cobalt waters, while seabirds flit in the salt winds overhead. In the town itself, barnacled shrimp boats bob in a protected harbor, and brightly colored houses cling to barrens that have witnessed 6,000 years of human history. It is a sonnet of rock and sea.
For the people who live here, self-reliance is a fact of life. Locals forage for berries and fish in the summer. They hunt moose that’s stored in freezers through the winter. No one panics if the power goes out for days – a not-infrequent occurrence.
But that resourcefulness has been tested to the limits over the years. Ever since the Canadian government banned cod fishing in 1992, the story of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has been one of out-migration, decades of locals leaving their fishing communities for high-paying jobs, often to the tar sands of Alberta. Here the population has seen a nearly 40% decline in three decades. If once there were plenty of jobs and services to support a bustling workforce, now residents accept hourslong drives for basic care and know that if a showerhead breaks, they are on their own to fix it.
“People here are good at surviving; they are not good at understanding how to thrive,” says Rachel Atkins, who lives in Port au Choix. “There has to be a cultural shift to make that happen.”
And that’s why she has joined a group of residents building a regional collective for communities that will offer a range of services, from massage and acupuncture to community kitchens and community radio. It’s an effort to draw in residents and keep others here – and counter the narrative that these aging communities don’t have the resilience to adapt. It’s a rebellion against the idea that a centuries-old way of life is destined to disappear.
“We need to stop this doom and gloom we hear about our communities dying,” says Joanie Cranston, a local leader fostering rural resilience across what’s called the Great Northern Peninsula (GNP) of Newfoundland. “That narrative gives everyone an excuse to not invest. ‘Oh well, it’s dying,’ they say. ‘Why would you invest?’ We can create strong hubs that can reach others, and keep these communities strong.”
The work the collective and other grassroots groups are doing across the GNP could hold lessons for regions around the world facing a hollowing out of populations and economies. From small towns in the American Midwest to rural parts of Europe, many places face demographic shifts that are making depopulation a pressing issue in the 21st century. The question is whether the people of this isolated but beguilingly beautiful slice of Canada have found some novel ways to combat the decline.
“We’re a canary in the coal mine when it comes to our rural areas,” says Jamie Ward, manager of the regional analytics laboratory at the Harris Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. “Rural areas everywhere are old and getting older, and struggle with out-migration. But we’re a little bit older. We’re a few years ahead. So a lot of people are watching to see how this pans out here.”
The mood across the province is what Rob Greenwood, director of the Harris Centre, describes as “very conflicted,” given how the fortunes of the region have undulated over the years.
The province was growing during the heyday of cod fishing, and after the moratorium led to a sudden exodus of workers, Newfoundland and Labrador saw another economic turnaround, with the offshore oil boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then came the plunge in energy prices. The province faced deep fiscal challenges, exacerbated by mismanagement of a controversial mega-hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls in Labrador.
Still, those in St. John’s, the quaint provincial capital, are now feeling the dynamism of a new tech boom, Dr. Greenwood says. The mining sector is thriving, too. And most Newfoundlanders appreciate the singular beauty of the land and the freedom inherent in the local lifestyle, especially those who are retired and don’t have to worry about earning a living.
And yet, the province struggles to provide services to communities along its isolated coasts as the population ages and the number of people in the workforce who can support those on the public dole shrinks. Indeed, according to federal statistics, 30% of the province’s residents will be over age 65 by 2043, the most of any Canadian province. At the same time, Newfoundland and Labrador’s fertility rate in 2019 was the lowest in the country. Within the province, the GNP is suffering the greatest demographic challenges – a 2016 study found it could lose 39% of its population by 2036.
This summer the provincial government unveiled a new $8 million (Canadian; U.S.$6.3 million) plan to attract 5,100 immigrants each year through 2026 to help increase the population.
“Our government has really put a push on [immigration] because we need to see a huge influx of people from everywhere else come here,” says Andrew Parsons, minister of industry, energy, and technology for Newfoundland and Labrador. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to save our province.”
That might work if you live in vibrant St. John’s, with its colorful row houses pitched on rocky cliffs. It easily draws newcomers, especially since the pandemic, from international students to remote professional workers.
Take the case of Kay Naji. She decided to uproot her life in Brampton, a densely populated city outside Toronto, to move to St. John’s with her two sisters after she lost her job as a flight attendant with Air Canada. The three now own Figs & Fromage, which offers picnic charcuterie boxes. Aside from the wind, she says she loves her new life in Newfoundland.
“I really feel a huge difference in the fact that there’s a very big sense of community here, especially with the business,” she says. “We have so many people that support us so much as a local business.”
But newcomers don’t tend to settle in the rural areas that need them the most, the places where ways of life are built upon generations of a distinct kind of settlement.
The remoteness of the towns in the province is partly a quirk of history. In the 1600s, as Newfoundland was emerging as a prodigious fishing center, the British monarchy banned women from venturing to this part of the New World. It didn’t want permanent settlements taking root that could compete with its own fishing industry. It wanted to keep Newfoundland a fishing colony.
So families hid in isolated enclaves in the bays. The scattered settlements created a culture of self-sufficiency and stoicism, celebrated in song and oral history.
Over the centuries, as fishing techniques advanced, the stocks of cod and other species eventually declined. At the same time, fertility rates dropped as education levels advanced.
These twin forces have beset the province ever since it first became an official part of Canada in 1949. The first premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Joey Smallwood, instituted a far-reaching and controversial policy to try to deal with declining rural populations and modernize the province. He relocated thousands of fishing families from remote communities to a handful of “growth centers.” The idea was to establish a few thriving cities rather than have to service hundreds of fading “outports,” as they were called.
This official “resettlement policy,” which started in the 1950s, saw 28,000 people moved from 307 communities by the time it ended in the mid-1970s, according to the Maritime History Archive. Resettlement has been so emotive that one doesn’t have to go far to find a novel or poem penned about it. (On the one evening this reporter could attend a production at the summer Rising Tide theater festival in the town of Trinity, the offering was a production of Al Pittman’s “West Moon,” a haunting story of a community’s relocation.)
Those passions remain raw to this day. Driving from the east to west coast of Newfoundland, one passes Arnold’s Cove, off the Trans-Canada Highway. Cecil Penney was 16 years old when his community of Tack’s Beach, on an island in the middle of Placentia Bay, was relocated across the water to this small town, which to his eyes seemed like a megalopolis. He worked his first job on the barges that transported entire houses – including his family’s.
In all, more than 100 homes were transported to Arnold’s Cove, says Edna Penney, a town councilor and historian, who met her husband, Cecil, after he relocated. She recalls the population tripling while she was in elementary school, from about 300 to 900. The town had to build new schools to accommodate the influx. It’s such a classic story of Newfoundland resettlement that Ms. Penney helped design a walking tour about the experience. Even though it’s been more than 50 years since Mr. Penney reluctantly left his quiet enclave, the retired fisherman still tears up when he talks about Tack’s Beach.
“It’s so peaceful,” he says. “There’s no cars, no nothing. More home is up there. It’s just the way I feel.”
Resettlement is a term that politicians no longer dare utter. But there remains an official “community relocation policy,” under which residents in small towns that have become too expensive to service can vote to relocate with a government payout. Several communities have. Two years ago, the town of Little Bay Islands, connected to the mainland via a 30-minute ferry ride, made international news as residents left the enclave in Notre Dame Bay off central Newfoundland.
And many see hints of resettlement in an economic recovery report released this year called the “The Big Reset” to address the province’s debt. A paragraph in the executive summary underscores the enormity of the challenge facing the government: “Running this sparsely populated province and maintaining its infrastructure is expensive. An abundance of government-run infrastructure is spread across significant geography, including 259 schools, over 180 health care sites, 12 ferry routes, 20 airstrips, over 9,000 kilometres of highway, 1,300 bridges, 12,000 kilometres of forest access roads, over 800 government buildings and structures, and thousands of kilometres of electricity transmission and distribution lines. All of this for a relatively small population of 522,000 people.”
For Yolande Pottie-Sherman, an associate professor in the department of geography at Memorial University, the report could lead to more cuts that make rural life untenable, such as reducing ferry services. “The reality is, if you do restructure ferry services, that’s a form of passive resettlement, even if you’re not saying, ‘This community should relocate,’” says Dr. Pottie-Sherman, who co-edited a collection of essays titled “Resettlement: Uprooting and Rebuilding Communities in Newfoundland and Labrador and Beyond.” “If you slowly remove services, you undermine people’s mobility, justice, rights, their access to be able to get around and get places. They’re not formally resettlement policies, but it’s all connected.”
The enduring resettlement talk is the inevitable outcome of demographic change. Consider, for instance, the view from Jim Larkin’s house in a town called Cook’s Harbour at the tip of the GNP. The former fisherman turns in a circle pointing out all the empty dwellings around him.
“Nobody live in that one. Nobody live in that one. Nobody live in that one,” he says. “This used to be a real busy town. After the moratorium, everything went downhill. Now she’s gone to the bottom.”
Mr. Larkin’s daughter moved away two years ago to St. Anthony because her son was the only teenager in the town, and she wanted him to be around friends. If relocation came up for a vote, Mr. Larkin says, he wouldn’t hesitate to move. “This community is pretty well finished.”
Carolyn Lavers in Port au Choix understands that sentiment – her son has left for a job as an electrician in Alberta – but she refuses to accept that leaving is the answer. In the 1980s, she was working as a hairdresser in Toronto when she decided to set up a bakery as a side business to help her mother in Port au Choix. Within a few years they were baking bread for all the fishing fleets in town, so she moved home to expand the business. Then the moratorium hit three years later. “Oh, Lord, have mercy. It’s like Pluto and Earth,” says Ms. Lavers of the town before and after the suspension.
She still runs the bakery, but it is now open only one day a week. Out of that slowdown, though, has come another epiphany. A friend of Ms. Lavers’, Ms. Cranston, the rural resilience leader, asked if she could use the washing machine at Ms. Lavers’ house, where the bakery is located, on a day when the business was closed. Ms. Cranston, a physiotherapist, regularly travels to see patients and wanted to use it to launder sheets. This led to another idea: Why not open a place where all kinds of social services could be provided under one roof?
Ms. Cranston had already started a similar center in Norris Point. Called the Old Cottage Hospital, it houses wellness services, performance art space, a public library, community radio station, a greenhouse, and a hostel in a former rural hospital.
It is now part of the Great Northern Peninsula Research Collective, an academic-community partnership designed to foster development across the region. The collective is trying to create community hubs in heritage spaces – places that are historic anchors in towns, says Ms. Cranston.
In Port au Choix, the group recently purchased an empty building facing the town’s harbor that was once a teen hangout called “the parlor.” They plan to turn it into the GNP Community Place, which will offer massage, physiotherapy, and space for a community kitchen and events. The center will be linked to one under development in St. Anthony, which Mr. Larkin and his neighbors in Cook’s Harbour can access.
Kelly Vodden, who supports projects in rural resilience at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus, says that fishing, mostly shrimp and crab, remains integral to the area but only employs a fraction of the people it once did. (Unemployment in Port au Choix and the surrounding area stands at 38%.) Many efforts are underway to boost long-term sustainability, such as fish cooperatives and community gardens. Fishing families have also pivoted to other jobs, such as giving tours of Viking settlements and icebergs and running whale-watching trips.
Adaptability has been key to the region’s resilience. The owners of the Dark Tickle Co., at the northern tip of the peninsula, used to run a fishing supply shop. After the moratorium, and struggling to survive, they noticed that tourists heading to the nearby Viking settlement L’Anse aux Meadows began asking about local wild berries, such as partridge and bakeapple. Today the company sells wild-berry teas, vinegars, and jams across the province. “I went from working on a fish wharf to working in a jam kitchen,” says Kier Knudsen, who spent summers working at his grandfather’s original store.
He was drawn back to Newfoundland from a job in aerospace engineering in Oregon because he missed the “way of life.” Ms. Atkins moved back home from a job in corporate strategy in Toronto amid the pandemic. Many see new opportunities in this region, as people get more comfortable living in isolated places and commuting to work by computer. But before any towns can move forward, they will first have to revive a spirit of community, says Renee Pilgrim, who moved back to the St. Anthony area from Toronto last year, too. The founder of GNP Health & Wellness, she aims to connect it to the wellness network and offer acupuncture, yoga, and a meeting place for teens and elders across the region.
“The demographic problems are not going to be solved by having space for yoga,” she says. “But for those who need emotional and community support, having the space helps people feel less isolated, less alone.” When she was growing up, residents gathered regularly at the local hall or in fish storage sheds on the community wharf. But over time, technology and a hollowing out of public spaces have eroded a sense of fraternity. “These little communities and the lifestyle here is dying out,” says Ms. Pilgrim. “The relationship with the land, the sense of community and working together, people are becoming more independent and less community-focused.”
Jeff Webb, a cultural historian at Memorial University, says there is a lot of nostalgia for rural Newfoundland and its self-reliant way of life. But change is inevitable. “It’s going to transform into something else. That’s not something I regret; that is something that happens,” he says. “[These towns] could become retirement communities. Some might ... rely heavily on tourism. Some might evolve into something else, but it’s going to change. It’s natural and inevitable.”
Ms. Lavers, the bakery owner, thinks the change must, above all, come from within. Her town isn’t going to return to boom times, but she believes rural Newfoundland has a chance to grow if mindsets shift and small efforts like the GNP Community Place move forward. Already more locals have been congregating in her bakery after Ms. Atkins, her goddaughter, began a pop-up cafe once a week that offers espresso-based drinks and chia pudding.
“To survive in a rural region, you really must have a community helping one another and volunteering,” she says. “And I think it will happen, because at the end of the day, as much as a lot of our people go away, we never stay away with a good heart. The plan is always to go back home.”
China’s long-term leadership play, our columnist observes, is that Asia-Pacific nations would rather follow an autocracy with dependable economic growth than a divided U.S. democracy with uncertain trade commitments.
When China applied the other day to join a regional free trade pact that Washington had championed, Beijing knew it would not be allowed in anytime soon; the requirements for membership are too tough.
But the application was more a piece of performance art than a diplomatic move. It was designed to draw attention to the fact that Washington is no longer part of the pact it had promoted because Donald Trump pulled America out of the deal.
The underlying message from China to democracies in its neighborhood? You are betting on the wrong horse. We are your main trading partner, and though America looks as if it has your back, can you really rely on its staying power?
Things are not going so well in the short term for Beijing, which has been acting rough on the world stage. But in the long run, China has good grounds for its self-confidence. What it will come down to, though, in the years ahead is whose worldview, Beijing’s or Washington’s, will strike home with America’s Pacific allies. To prevail in that contest, the U.S. will have to show staying power on the security front, and at the trade table.
It was less a case of traditional diplomacy than a piece of performance art. The aim was not to secure any immediate effect, but to send a message with far longer-term impact.
But it was China’s most significant retort to Washington’s moves last week to beef up its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region – themselves an answer to Beijing’s growing ambitions there. And as a signpost for how this tug of war is likely to play out, it was a good deal more instructive than Chinese officials’ public denunciation of the American initiative.
China’s move also highlighted the dramatically different timelines on which Washington and Beijing are calculating their increasingly tense and complex relationship. And it played to an audience both superpowers are keen to sway: America’s traditional democratic allies.
What did Beijing do? It applied to join the free trade pact among market economies bordering the Pacific known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – an agreement that Washington championed during President Barack Obama’s administration as a counterweight to Chinese economic influence.
The point wasn’t actually to join. China knows it stands no chance of being accepted anytime soon, if only because of the pact’s economic, social, and political benchmarks. They range from curbs on intellectual property theft, protectionism, and slave labor to the right to independent trade unions.
Yet the Chinese overture was meant to highlight another salient fact about the bloc: that this largely American creation was now without America, because President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. just days after taking office in January 2017.
China’s intended message to its Asian neighbors: You’re betting on the wrong horse. We are the region’s dominant economy and your main trade partner. America may look as if it has your back. But can you really rely on its staying power? Indeed, given the division and gridlock besetting U.S. politics, can you even rely on the staying power of American democracy?
For President Joe Biden, delivering a yes to both those questions has been a priority from day one, and the challenge has grown increasingly urgent in recent weeks. At home, he has framed his drive to get his major spending bills through Congress not just as an election promise, but as a demonstration that “democracy works.”
Internationally, the contest he’s emphasized between “democracy” and “autocracy” will play out most sharply between China and its Pacific neighbors. They are the focus of this month’s landmark deal to sell U.S. nuclear submarines to Australia; last week’s decision to strengthen Washington’s so-called Quad alliance with Australia, Japan, and India; as well as the creation of a new task force for China and the Indo-Pacific at the Defense Department.
Yet if Washington’s approach might be called laser-focused, China is strategizing through binoculars.
Yes, the close-up view isn’t great: Things don’t seem to be going Beijing’s way. Its approach to the world has shifted from self-confidence to outright truculence – with the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, the crackdown in Hong Kong, military overflights around Taiwan, and the “wolf warrior” aggressiveness of its overseas diplomats. That has strengthened Mr. Biden’s hand in his bid to convince fellow democracies and free-market economies to make common cause to constrain Chinese influence.
Yet through their binoculars, China’s leaders see reason for optimism.
Their view is that China is the world’s rising 21st -century power, while the U.S. and other Western democracies are in inexorable decline.
That’s partly rhetoric. But China’s rapid economic expansion and its accelerated investment in artificial intelligence and other innovations are real. So, too, is its confidence about the shifting balance of power, one reason it felt it could shrug off international fallout over Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
Still, what will matter most in the years ahead, both Washington and Beijing know, is whose worldview strikes home with America’s allies in the Pacific.
For President Biden, there’s good news and bad as he ratchets up U.S. commitments to allies around China.
The good news is that, despite the partisan battles increasingly dominating American politics, both major parties agree on a more assertive line toward Beijing.
But there are also limits to that consensus, which China has deliberately highlighted with its sudden show of interest in the TPP.
Early in his administration, Mr. Obama told Australia’s parliament that the U.S. saw itself as a Pacific power and was “here to stay.” But he was talking about security commitments.
When it came to trade, both Republicans and anti-free-trade Democrats made the TPP a hard sell in Washington. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the projected pact became especially contentious, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also began backing away from it.
Interestingly, Mr. Biden has yet to talk of rejoining the bloc, though it’s still very much alive as the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
He appears to see the pact as part of a separate domestic political battle over trade, rather than as another mechanism binding America more tightly into the Asia-Pacific region.
In China’s eyes, however, and, it hopes, in those of America’s allies too, that reluctance raises a wider, long-term doubt: whether the Americans are indeed “here to stay.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are a growing segment of Israeli society living apart and in poverty. Our reporter examines a new network of schools, for Haredi boys, designed to address this problem.
Most Israeli Haredim, Hebrew for ultra-Orthodox, live a world apart by design. They do not watch TV, are largely cut off from the internet, and are separated by neighborhoods, dress, schooling, and conservative beliefs in ways that have long put them in conflict with mainstream Israel.
While most of the country functions in the modern world, resentment grows that many Haredi men spend their lives studying with the help of government subsidies instead of holding jobs, and are largely exempted from military service that is compulsory for most. With 43% of the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population living in poverty, the status quo is seen as unsustainable.
But a growing number of so-called yeshiva high schools is responding to an increased demand for change. Over the past seven years, Rabbi Menachem Bombach has created a network of religious schools that seek to bridge divides, offering lessons in English, artificial intelligence, coding, physics, and “life skills.”
All of his students, he says smiling in the main study hall of his flagship school, take Israel’s high school matriculation exams, a prerequisite for higher education.
“I want students to be God-fearing and Torah-loving, but also to be integrated into Israeli society,” he says.
Although he grew up in modern Israel, Menachem Bombach says he hardly spoke a word of Hebrew, the national language, until the age of 20.
In his cloistered ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, the spoken language was Yiddish, the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews since the Middle Ages.
Hebrew was reserved for prayer and the morning-to-night study of Jewish religious texts in the halls of his yeshiva seminary where he, like other ultra-Orthodox boys, was taught only enough math to count change at the store, and learned no English, science, or any other so-called secular subjects.
Twenty years later, Rabbi Bombach is leading a tour around a four-story limestone-clad building, home to what’s known as a “yeshiva high school.”
The simply named Hassidic Seminary is the flagship of the Netzach network of schools he has created over the past seven years. Serving 1,400 students, the schools seek to bridge some of the divides between Israeli society at large and an impoverished yet fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population.
Most Haredim, Hebrew for the ultra-Orthodox who make up 12% of the population, live a world apart by design; they do not watch TV, are largely cut off from the internet, and are separated by neighborhoods, dress, schooling, and conservative beliefs in ways that have long put them in conflict with mainstream Israel.
While most of the country functions in the modern world – its economic growth fueled by high-tech – resentment grows that many Haredi men spend their lives studying with the help of government subsidies instead of holding jobs, and are largely exempted from military service that is compulsory for most. With 43% of the Haredi sector living in poverty, and their large and underemployed families fueling the community’s exponential growth – the status quo is seen as unsustainable.
Moshe Tur-Paz, a lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, is blunt about the stakes for Israel if the Haredim don’t join the workforce: mass emigration as the country sinks to the economic level of a developing nation. This is why, he says, there’s “a national effort to change course.”
At his school in Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in the Judean Hills six miles south of Jerusalem, Rabbi Bombach stops into the beit midrash, the main study hall. Every day the hall is filled with pairs of students sitting side by side at wooden desks and poring over pages of the Talmud, which contains complex rabbinical discussions on Jewish law, ethics, and customs.
Upstairs he points out the classrooms where computer science and math are taught. In them lessons on artificial intelligence, coding, and differential equations are offered, alongside classes including English, physics, and “life skills” in which subjects including group dynamics and empathy are explored.
All of the students, he says smiling broadly, take Israel’s high school matriculation exams, a prerequisite for higher education.
“I want students to be God-fearing and Torah-loving, but also to be integrated into Israeli society,” he says.
And demand is growing for such an education, he says, citing long waiting lists. Another 7,000 study part time virtually. His schools are among 60 now in Israel that combine religious and secular studies for boys. (Because women are expected to work and support their husbands and children, girls are taught non-religious subjects in their schools.)
Among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, these schools reflect a glimmer of change in a community notably impervious to it.
It’s part a confluence of developments, including national policies markedly intensified under the new government to economically integrate the ultra-Orthodox. And that intersects with a trend among some 20% of the Haredim themselves to seek a more open, economically integrated way of life in which the men work while retaining the family’s strict adherence to Jewish law.
“This education will help me find work one day so I can make a good living,” says Tsvi Kahana, a 16-year-old student at Rabbi Bombach’s school, sidelocks dangling against his cheeks. “It also helps my religious and spiritual life.”
“Before we opened, people said it wouldn’t work. They called it nonsense,” says Rabbi Bombach, recalling his dismay, after months of preparation, that only five people showed for his inaugural presentation for parents eight years ago.
A wave of condemnation followed in pashkevilim – posters plastered on walls in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that declare what is and what isn’t considered acceptable behavior in the community – as well as protests. He was pelted with eggs; tar was poured once into the lock of his front door.
He persevered, propelled, he says, by the shock he felt as a young man when he realized he had no skill sets for modern life.
If Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is the country’s fastest growing sector, it’s also among its poorest and youngest. Over half are children under 16.
“As a society we can’t survive that,” says Michael Nachtiler, Rabbi Bombach’s deputy. “We need schools like this to build an infrastructure for their future.”
The current practice in which most ultra-Orthodox boys go to yeshiva and then, once they marry, continue to study full time is an outlier in Jewish history, where full-time study was accorded to only a tiny elite of Talmud scholars.
But among Israel’s Haredim it became the norm after a deal was struck in 1953 exempting the then-small number of yeshiva students from mandatory military service. Allowing them a life of study was a bid to rehabilitate the yeshiva world destroyed during the Holocaust.
“But now we are two and three generations later,” and the number studying full time is “far beyond what was ever imagined,” says Mr. Nachtiler, citing the 150,000 ultra-Orthodox boys and men in the religious seminary system. (In contrast, the estimated number of full-time scholars studying in prewar Europe was 5,000 – the enrollment in one of Jerusalem’s main yeshivas today.)
The goal, says Mr. Tur-Paz, the lawmaker, is that after seven years 30% of Haredi boys will study both religious and secular studies – up from the current 3%. He hopes that will lead to a tipping point in Haredi culture toward embracing this hybrid model.
Gilad Malach, an expert on Haredim at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says it is imperative the government invests generously in these schools as part of its policy of carrots and sticks to get more Haredim working.
In the internal Haredi divide between those who are for and against isolation, Shmuel Kaminski and his wife, Esty, fall on the side of integration. They send two of their sons to the yeshiva high school in Beitar Illit, despite pushback from relatives and the social stigma that came with the decision.
“It’s important first of all to safeguard the Haredi tradition, but being able to study towards going to college opens the doors to the world,” says Mr. Kaminski.
“Growing up I never dreamed something like this could exist,” he says. He excelled in the yeshiva world, even qualifying to litigate in religious courts. But he was hungry for more general knowledge and felt stung by a life of poverty. Ten years ago, the father of six took a government-sponsored technology course for Haredi men.
He was among the few to complete it. Years in the study house debating religious texts and commentaries did not equip him or the others with what they needed to learn computer coding.
Mr. Kaminski found work as a programmer, but he recounts a frustrating journey.
“And I still don’t have a university degree,” he says. “Why should my sons tread this same difficult path?”
He would welcome his sons becoming religious scholars. But echoing what other Haredi parents like him say, he wants them to be educated to have options and then decide.
“It’s a long process,” he says of convincing more Haredim to accept such schools. “But I feel like we are seeing a wave, a wave that is slowly growing.”
For a century, the vast forests of the American South were treated mostly as economic assets to be harvested. Our reporter looks at a quest to save a forest of longleaf pines, which suggests an emerging shift toward stewardship and valuing biodiversity.
Before Europeans arrived in North America, the longleaf pine once spanned more than 90 million acres of forest between modern-day southern Virginia and the eastern portion of Texas. Today, only about 3% of the former longleaf pine population remains.
Rosie Tran fondly remembers the comfort she felt when she spent time in the longleaf pine forest at Camp Whispering Pines as a child. Now, she and dozens of others are in the middle of a conservation effort to prevent further development and deforestation.
The attempt to save Camp Whispering Pines is part of a larger mosaic of efforts across the South to preserve trees known for their resilience against wind, fire, and drought. The pines also provide habitat for at-risk species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake, and gopher tortoise. The value of such habitat was underscored today, as the U.S. government declared 23 species including the South’s ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.
Recovery of the forests can coincide with sustainable harvesting of trees, says Dale Brockway, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s really about having a dynamic system that is completely functional.”
Rosie Tran fondly remembers the comfort she felt when she spent time in the forest at Camp Whispering Pines as a child. She recalls the sharp sweetness of its piney smell, and how the forest carried her imagination to a place that felt far away from her native south Louisiana.
“It feels more isolated, secluded – more natural,” Ms. Tran says. “In Louisiana, the cypress tree is associated with nature. ... When you’re in the longleaf pine forest, it doesn’t feel like southern Louisiana at all.”
Today, Ms. Tran, who spent many summers at Whispering Pines as a camper and then a counselor, seeks to preserve this now-threatened forest and the trees that are very much at home in this landscape.
Before Europeans arrived in North America, longleaf pine forest blanketed some 141,000 square miles of land from modern-day southern Virginia to East Texas. That’s an area about nine-tenths the size of California. But by the 1980s, just 3% of it remained – including the enclave at Whispering Pines.
Now that too is at risk. In June, citing budgetary concerns, the Girl Scouts Louisiana East announced its intention to sell the 600-acre camp property, opening its scarce old-growth forest to possible development. In response, Ms. Tran and others in a recently formed group, Friends of the Longleaf Pines, are raising funds to either buy the land or have it designated as a conservation area.
This puts them on the front lines of a wider movement to preserve and expand longleaf pine forests, significant for both their biodiversity and their resilience to climate change. Slowly, the efforts are making progress.
“The southern United States is what we call the wood basket for the United States and beyond,” says Kevin Potter, a landscape ecologist at North Carolina State University. Now, after periods of overharvesting, he says, “there’s an effort going into maintaining and restoring these stands.”
Even amid rising concern for the environment, development-oriented attitudes run deep in the region. Tangipahoa Parish, near the forefoot of Louisiana’s boot, is a zoning-free municipality, so development projects get underway with few obstacles. It’s also the prospective location for solar-power farms, which would require cutting significant portions of the longleaf pine forest. Over the summer, Ms. Tran’s group raised just over $5,000 – quite a distance from its $950,000 goal.
The efforts here are part of a broader global shift, as humankind adapts for an uncertain climate future. China, for example, has a 40-year, billion-tree planting project underway. India has vowed to replant a third of its total land by 2030. Ethiopia plans to plant 20 billion tree seedlings by 2024.
Longleaf pines grow tall and strong, seemingly reaching for the clouds as their needles and cones blanket the forest floor. When undisturbed, they can live up to 300 years, with trunks 100 feet tall and 3 feet wide, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
An assortment of creatures use the longleaf pines to build their homes, and depend on the tree’s natural resistance to drought, wind, disease, and fire. Species that have been federally designated as endangered, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake, and gopher tortoise, once thrived in the ecosystems that longleaf pines sustained – as did other native species like wild turkey and bobwhite quail.
The importance of habitat preservation was highlighted Wednesday, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared 23 species of birds, fish, and other wildlife extinct – including the ivory-billed woodpecker, which lived in Southeastern swamps including in Louisiana.
In the case of the longleaf pine, its decline relates to the very qualities of natural resilience that long sustained it.
After the Civil War, the timber industry boomed, allowing for the development of both towns and local economies in rural areas across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and beyond.
“The South is the source of most of the pulp that we use for our paper and, to some degree, the wood that we use to build our houses,” says Dr. Potter, a biodiversity expert who researches the longleaf pine.
Beginning in the 1930s, with funding from the New Deal, reforestation efforts built national and state parks and replanted thousands of acres of forests in the southeast U.S., but they did not restore the longleaf pine. At the time, foresters set out to find a tree that was adaptive to a variety of soil conditions, and, to reinvigorate the timber industry, they also sought a species that grows fast. The resulting planting projects focused largely on the loblolly pine. These factors developed into a sort of myopia when it comes to reforesting efforts. Modern foresters still focus much of their research, training, and cultivation on the loblolly, effectively boxing out the slower-growing longleaf pine.
“The system’s just kind of built around” the loblolly, says Chris Erwin, a native Alabaman and the director of Southern forest conservation at the American Forest Foundation. “It’s not anything malicious.” With a wink, he adds that it’s a matter of “not seeing the forest for the trees.”
In fact, the longleaf pine isn’t exactly slow-growing. In the early years of a longleaf sapling’s life, most of its growth occurs underground; the trees develop their deep taproots first, which give them the resilience against wind, fire, and drought that may prove vital amid the climate crisis. And because the longleaf pine is native to the region, it provides better-suited habitat for native creatures, compared with the loblolly.
“Fundamentally, longleaf pine is not about restoring it, locking it up in a museum, and setting it aside so nobody touches it and only photographs it,” says Dale Brockway, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who studies forest ecosystem ecology and restoration. “It’s really about having a dynamic system that is completely functional, supports a wide variety of species with rich diversity, and provides opportunities for humans to interact with the system in a way where they can periodically extract sustainable levels.”
In 1995, environmental advocates say, the first hint at momentum in restoring the longleaf pine’s population began to take root with the establishment of the Longleaf Alliance, an organization dedicated to creating partnerships between private landowners and those interested in restoring the longleaf pines.
Today, there are roughly 4.7 million acres of longleaf pine across the Southern landscape, up from a historic low of just more than 3 million in the early 1990s, according to America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative’s 2020 accomplishment report. In fact, about a quarter of today’s longleaf population has been planted since 2010.
John McGuire, who directs Tall Timber, a land-management advocacy group, attributes part of the nascent recovery to economics. Federal and state cost-share programs, for example, assist private landowners in restoring longleaf pines. But it was also a sense of nostalgia – of reciprocity with nature and care for trees rich with regional symbolism.
“It’s finally reached a critical mass,” Mr. McGuire says, “where folks recognize that this was a significant forest type in the Southeast, and it has largely declined.”
Black girls and women today often face discrimination based on their natural hairstyles. This new book challenges European concepts of beauty and boldly redefines it.
Filmmaker and activist St. Clair Detrick-Jules is known for her award-winning 2017 documentary “DACAmented,” featuring young recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sharing their stories. But her latest creation uplifts a marginalized group in a different way.
In the book “My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories From the Sisterhood,” she explores through photos and interviews the idea that Black women’s hair is inherently political – and multifaceted.
The project started as a way to help her younger sister, she says in an interview. “The fact that at just 4 years old she wanted to isolate herself and not return to school because of her hair was really heartbreaking.”
Ms. Detrick-Jules came to accept her own hair more fully through completing the project, and suggests that women continue to stand up for their right to wear their hair naturally, even in the face of discrimination at school and in the workplace.
“There is a lot to lose when we choose ourselves and our hair knowing that there could be backlash from all facets of society,” she says. “While we may lose some social acceptance or financial stability, the trade-off is liberation – so I think it’s worth it.”
“My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories From the Sisterhood” is the debut book from filmmaker and activist St. Clair Detrick-Jules. The native of Washington, D.C., courageously explores, through interviews she conducted and photos she took, the idea that Black women’s hair is inherently political – and multifaceted. Though Ms. Detrick-Jules is known for her award-winning 2017 documentary “DACAmented” – which features young recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sharing their stories of navigating life during the Trump administration – her latest creation uplifts a marginalized group in a different way. “My Beautiful Black Hair” is a testament to the resilience of Black women. Ms. Detrick-Jules spoke with the Monitor about her inspiration for the book, published this week, and why embracing natural hair is a form of liberation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you know your first photo book would center around the diversity and richness of Black women’s hair?
I knew that I wanted to do something for my little sister Khloe. During my last semester of college, I got a phone call from my dad saying that she was really self-conscious about her Afro. She was only 4 years old at the time. Khloe had been crying about her hair, and she didn’t want to go to school because she was so ashamed of it. She is 18 years younger than me, so I felt very protective of her. And the fact that at just 4 years old she wanted to isolate herself and not return to school because of her hair was really heartbreaking.
And as a big sister, your first instinct is to do something to help her.
All these thoughts went through my mind. I was like I can tell her [her] hair is beautiful. I can just sort of reinforce it. I can remind her of it. But I think that it’s one thing to tell young girls to love themselves. It’s another thing to lead by example and show them something tangible. I eventually came up with the idea of a photo book ... something that she would be able to hold and feel connected to. I wanted her to physically look at each photo and see her reflection. This is what it looks like to love yourself.
What role does the media play when it comes to how Black women feel about their hair?
I think it plays a big role and it starts at a young age. Khloe’s favorite movie is “Frozen.” Obviously “Frozen,” like the vast majority of Disney movies, centralizes white princesses with long straight hair. Even thinking about “The Princess and the Frog,” where you finally have a Black princess, she’s transformed into a frog. And whenever she is a woman in the film, her hair is straightened. We don’t get that visual representation of actual Black hair.
The media upholds Eurocentric beauty standards, so it’s hard to find Black women with natural hair. It’s hard to remember that our beauty is still there within us.
What did you learn from completing “My Beautiful Black Hair”?
One of the women in the book says that love is an active process. That really stuck with me because before the book, I hadn’t come to a place where I totally accepted my natural hair. And now, I like my curls. But it wasn’t until I was actually making the book and talking to all these Black women and intentionally surrounding myself with Black women with natural hair that I really came to love my natural hair in a more meaningful way. I want the book to be remembered as a work of art, created about Black women, that brings us collective joy.
Do you consider Black women loving their hair a radical act in 2021?
It’s definitely a radical act because there’s so much to lose. I mean the CROWN Act hasn’t passed nationwide yet. There’s widespread discrimination against natural Black hair, and it’s legal in most places. It starts at school – and when we grow up, the legalized discrimination [against] natural hair in the workplace is still there. And there’s often judgment about it from the people that are supposed to love us. A few people in my book touch on that too ... how even sometimes their own family members weren’t approving of their natural hair textures.
There is a lot to lose when we choose ourselves and our hair, knowing that there could be backlash from all facets of society. While we may lose some social acceptance or financial stability, the trade-off is liberation – so I think it’s worth it.
One of the world’s most courageous people of 2021 has to be Ethiopia’s departing minister for women. On Monday, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed resigned her post after trying to end the use of rape as a weapon of war in Ethiopia’s 11-month internal conflict. Her own government’s forces, along with rebel fighters in the Tigray region and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, are accused by the United Nations and others of mass sexual violence against innocent civilians.
Last February, she boldly confirmed that rape was “undoubtedly” being committed in Tigray, the first official confirmation of such crimes. She then pressured Ethiopia’s attorney general to deliver justice. By May, the attorney general said three soldiers had been convicted. But not much has been done since.
Ms. Filsan was appointed as minister for women in 2020 because of her campaign for reconciliation among the country’s more than 90 ethnic groups. Now out of office, she may again return to her private work as a “peace engineer.” Her resignation was an act of conscience. It was also an act of courage to rally Ethiopians to join her to work, as she calls it, “together for good.”
One of the world’s most courageous people of 2021 has to be Ethiopia’s departing minister for women. On Monday, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed resigned her post after trying to end the use of rape as a weapon of war in Ethiopia’s 11-month internal conflict. Her own government’s forces, along with rebel fighters in the Tigray region and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, are accused by the United Nations and others of mass sexual violence against innocent civilians.
“Any situation that compromises my ethics is contrary to my convictions and values, and betraying these beliefs is a breach of trust to myself and our citizens,” she said in her resignation notice.
Last February, she boldly confirmed that rape was “undoubtedly” being committed in Tigray, the first official confirmation of such crimes. She then pressured Ethiopia’s attorney general to deliver justice. In April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that sexual assault had been committed in the war. By August, the attorney general said more than 30 soldiers had been convicted and sentenced for rape and another 25 had been charged.
But not much has been done since, perhaps the main reason for her resignation. In addition, the United States has become alarmed at the violence and humanitarian disaster in Ethiopia. On Sept. 18, President Joe Biden ordered sanctions to be imposed on Ethiopian officials if they don’t move to end the war. “I am shocked by reports of massacres, rapes and sexual assaults,” the president said in a statement. On Sept. 24, the U.S. House passed legislation that would force the administration to determine whether Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s actions in the Tigray region constitute genocide.
Ms. Filsan was appointed as minister for women, children, and youth in 2020 because of her campaign for reconciliation among the country’s more than 90 ethnic groups. With a population of roughly 110 million, African’s second most populous country has a long history of civil strife.
She is founder of the Nabad Project (nabad means peace), which uses volunteers – dubbed peace engineers – to bring different ethnic groups together for community-level dialogue to unify Ethiopia, as she said in 2019 to the Addis Standard magazine.
“I started ... the Nabad Project to show Ethiopians that [an ethnic] Somali young female can actually bring the love, harmony, and prosperity among them,” she said.
One of her approaches was to deal with post-violence social trauma, especially for women who had been raped for their ethnicity. “I have reached multiple victims [but] I hate to use the word ‘victim’ itself because it sounds people felt helpless,” she said.
Now out of office, Ms. Filsan may again return to her private work as a “peace engineer,” or what she calls turning differences into opportunities. Her resignation was an act of conscience. It was also an act of courage to rally Ethiopians to join her to work, as she calls it, “together for good.”
Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to show additional convictions of Ethiopian soldiers for rape.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
When things get turbulent or frightening, it can seem hard to find mental calm. But Christ’s timeless promise of peace offers a basis for experiencing healing, harmony, and peace of mind.
When our children were quite little, we decided to take an aerial tramway to the top of a mountain to enjoy the view. It was also ski season and there were crowds of people using the mountain for skiing. Quite unexpectedly, the winds picked up and a storm began brewing. The operators of the tramway shut it down because of the dangerously strong winds.
Everyone was told to leave the mountain, but the only way down was a train that had a limited capacity. It quickly became clear the train couldn’t take everyone at once. People began pushing toward the train, but the crowd was so dense we really couldn’t move. We were being squeezed literally from all sides. The fear and panic setting in were palpable.
In that moment, it might have seemed that calm was out of reach. But the Bible poetically records Christ Jesus as having said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). This is a promise for all time. As we come to understand God as ever present and all-powerful, we too can feel the peace that stills chaos and fear.
“The world’s” way is based on material thinking, or relying on the material picture for our sense of reality. That’s not the source of the peace Jesus was talking about. The way through which Jesus gave this peace was through Christ, God’s timeless message of love and harmony for all. The peace expressed in this divine message is permanent and unchangeable. It can never be changed into turmoil or turbulence because God is and knows only good.
Jesus proved the power of this peace when he and the disciples were in a boat caught at night in a raging storm (see Mark 4:35-39). In answer to the disciples’ fears that the boat would sink, Jesus faced the storm and spoke three words: “Peace, be still.” And the wind immediately gave way to a “great calm.”
Christian Science reveals the spiritual laws that undergirded Jesus’ teachings, laws which are all based on the premise that God, Spirit, is all that really exists; that the divine Mind is the only legitimate Mind, and is all-knowing; that there is no other power, no other presence, absolutely nothing that can resist or argue against God’s infinite goodness; and that each of us is in fact spiritual, the very expression of God, made in the image of divine Love. Today we can take heart in the fact that Jesus’ promise of peace is for everyone.
So right there on the mountain, I reached out to God in prayer. The inspiration that immediately came back was these reassuring words from a favorite hymn whose lyrics are a poem written by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science:
O gentle presence, peace and joy and power;
O Life divine, that owns each waiting hour,
Thou Love that guards the nestling’s faltering flight!
Keep Thou my child on upward wing tonight.
(“Poems,” p. 4)
The effect of those words was to immediately quiet my thought, allowing me to feel the calm assurance that everyone was safe, including our sons. Embracing the spiritual laws of God’s loving care, understanding them in some measure, and putting them into practice does indeed bring the peace Christ Jesus promised us. In this case, the pushing and shoving became less and less, and ultimately everyone got down the mountain safely.
As Mrs. Eddy wrote: “What a glorious inheritance is given to us through the understanding of omnipresent Love! More we cannot ask: more we do not want: more we cannot have. This sweet assurance is the ‘Peace, be still’ to all human fears, to suffering of every sort” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 307).
Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a commentary piece about how to build trust among those with different viewpoints.
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