Ronnie Floyd Unveils Theme for 2019 National Day of Prayer: ‘Love One Another’

SPRINGDALE, Ark.— Next year’s National Day of Prayer will call Americans to “Love One Another.” The announcement was made by Dr. Ronnie Floyd, president of the task force that mobilizes millions to participate in the observance.

In The National Leadership Summit of The National Day of Prayer, 300 leaders gathered in Northwest Arkansas on Tuesday to advance a strategy of prayer for America. With every state represented, Dr. Floyd unveiled the theme — “Love One Another” — for the 2019 National Day of Prayer to be held Thursday, May 2, 2019.

The theme comes from the words of Jesus in John 13:34, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you.”

“We tend to forget that Jesus didn’t say we would be known by our creeds or by our knowledge or how much we know about the Bible — He said we would be known only by our love,” Dr. Floyd said. “And love has been painfully absent in America in so many ways.”

In his closing remarks, Dr. Floyd said, “From the church house to the state house, and all the way to the White House, we need to love one another!”

In the coming months, Dr. Floyd and the National Day of Prayer Task Force will begin mobilizing congregations across America to adopt this theme and champion it until the next National Day of Prayer, when millions of Americans across all 50 states will join in public prayer for America. On social media, the theme will be advanced with the hashtag #love1another.

Explaining why millions of Americans turn out every year to pray in public gatherings on the National Day of Prayer, Dr. Floyd said, “Most Americans love their country and want to see it become all it has the potential to become.” They understand America is broken, and he went on to say, “even those who may not know a lot about God, understand that if there is a God, He is the only one who can fix America.”

In 2018, an estimated 50,000 gatherings across all 50 states were held on the National Day of Prayer. More than 1 million people from 38 countries have viewed the broadcast of the National Observance, which was held at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. The 2018 theme, “Pray for America — Unity” went viral and trended No. 1 nationwide on Twitter throughout the day.

“There’s no other observance in the American calendar like the National Day of Prayer,” Dr. Floyd said. “On this one day, we have the opportunity to come together as one nation in prayer.”

The National Day of Prayer was created in 1952 by a joint resolution of Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. In 1988, the law was unanimously amended by both the House and the Senate and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on Thursday, May 5, 1988, designating the first Thursday of May as a day of national prayer. Every president since 1952 has signed a National Day of Prayer proclamation.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd is the senior pastor of Cross Church and president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which each year mobilizes millions of Americans to unified public prayer for the United States of America. He’s the author of “Living Fit: Make Your Life Count by Pursuing a Healthy You.”

Germany's political middle falls apart. Will Europe's center hold?

For decades, the overwhelming majority of German voters stuck loyally to the two centrist parties that have dominated political life since World War II. But familiarity has bred contempt.

October regional elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse have shown those voters coming unstuck, fanning out instead to non-traditional parties on both right and left. And the shifting allegiances have thrown German politics into unprecedented doubt – already leading Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce plans to leave Germany’s political stage.

But as a long-time bedrock of European stability, a now politically uncertain Germany will cast a shadow over the rest of the continent as well.

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Voters’ flight from the political middle “is a lasting trend that makes Germany similar to its neighbors in Europe,” says Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at the Free University of Berlin. “It’s a trend to normalization and we have to get used to it.”

‘A COMPLETELY RE-DRAWN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE’

Chancellor Merkel announced Monday she would not stand again for her party’s leadership in a December vote, and that she would retire from politics when her term of office ends in 2021. She had little choice after the ruling Christian Democrats made their worst showing since 1962 in regional elections in Hesse on Sunday.

Merkel’s coalition government partner, the Social Democrats, fared even worse, coming in third, with 10 percent fewer votes than in the last elections. The big winners? The moderately progressive Greens, who took 20 percent of the vote, and the far-right, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which tripled its score to 13 percent.

These results echoed those of earlier regional elections in Bavaria. There, the two leading centrist parties’ vote share slumped by 21 percent, while the AfD and Greens’ combined vote jumped by 19 percent from the last regional elections.

Overall, this reflects not so much a polarization of the electorate as diffusion, says Jan Techau, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “As society has grown more diverse and fragmented, the political party system has emulated this” in a number of European nations, he points out.

“In some countries, we see a completely re-drawn political landscape,” agrees Morgan Guérin, head of the Europe program at the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank. “Where big blocs on the left and right used to dominate … now four or five parties can win around 20 percent.”

The impact on the German political landscape has been profound. Since general elections in September 2017, uncertainty has overshadowed national political life. It took six months to form a governing coalition which has been dangerously fragile ever since its ministers took office.

And a new government may be needed soon. Speculation is rife in Berlin about how long a weakened Ms. Merkel can remain in her job, and the new electoral math will make it as hard to build the next government as it was to create the current one last year.

Chances are that it will take a three-party coalition, says Mr. Techau, with all the instability that implies – and all the effort devoted to keeping the government together instead of governing. “A time of succession and internal turmoil will mean introspection and a lesser role on the international stage,” he says.

LESS TIME FOR EUROPEAN POLICY-MAKING?

And that is not good news for Europe, says Sheri Berman, professor of European politics at Barnard College in New York. “Without Germany as a stable and default leader” in Europe, she says, “there are serious questions about the future.”

That’s because Germany has long been Europe’s dominant power, however reluctant Merkel has been to play that role. Under her leadership Germany was the decisive player in managing the Greek debt crisis; Berlin was at the vanguard of a strong European reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, insisting on tough sanctions; and Merkel led the way in welcoming refugees fleeing to Europe in 2015 and 2016.

As a lame duck chancellor now, Merkel will not be able to take such initiatives, further hobbling European policy-making.

“It is already very difficult to achieve anything among the 27 members [of the EU],” says Mr. Guérin, pointing to persistent disagreements on migration policy as an example. “The No. 1 political power in Europe being in a period of introspection will make European politics even more complicated.”

Nor will it be easy to find a successor to Merkel who will match her political skills. “It will be tricky to find someone with her nerves of steel and her ability to forge a compromise,” says Techau. “People have found her reliable, predictable, and steady.”

The next leader of Merkel’s party, whoever that proves to be, will have to decide on fresh policies, and though they are certain to maintain Germany’s commitment to the European Union, they might well put Germany’s national interests ahead of a readiness to compromise for the common good, says Dr. Neugebauer.

“A majority of Germans think we should take care of ourselves first,” he says.

Whether the next government, whoever leads it, will succeed in winning disaffected voters back from the margins is less clear.

“There is definitely a crisis of confidence in liberal democracy” around the world, says Professor Berman. “Germany is part of a wider trend. But liberal democracy’s health will depend on how parties handle the challenges that voters are concerned with. Can the establishment make its institutions more responsive?”

German voters’ flight from traditional establishment parties “is inextricably tied to what is happening everywhere else in the world,” says Nathalie Tocci, head of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “We are going through this wave at a global level.”

“If it happens in Germany,” long wedded to a stable political center, “then no country is immune,” Dr. Tocci adds. “But that does not mean it’s game over for democracy.”

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Iranian Refugee Raises $1 Million to Give to Victims of Synagogue Attack

An Iranian refugee in the US is about to donate $1 million to the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Shay Khatiri was staying with one of his Jewish friends when he heard the news that a white supremacist shot and killed 11 people during a worship service and also wounded several others. 

“She told me what happened and she was just broken,” the 29-year-old graduate student told CNN. “Seeing how upset she was, I wanted to donate to the congregation.”

The very next day, Khatiri started a GoFundMe campaign and asked people to join him in giving back to the victims of the mass shooting. 

“I thought to myself, I could donate $18 or $36 — something like that. But that wouldn’t make a huge impact,” he said. “If I did something like this, maybe it could go viral and have a huge impact,” he told CNN

Khatiri is making a huge impact. He has raised nearly $1 million in just four days.  More than 16,000 people have contributed to the campaign. 

“This fundraiser is meant to help the congregation with the physical damages to the building, as well as the survivors and the victims’ families. Respond to this hateful act with your act of love today,” he says on the online fundraising campaign’s website. 

The funds are being sent directly to the synagogue and its members. 

“Everyone talks about how divided we are. But in such a tragic moment, Americans are always powerful and indivisible in trauma,” he said.”Every time something happens, I am reminded of how great this country is.”

Serial Killer Ted Bundy Describes the Dangers of Pornography

Beginning in the 1970s, Ted Bundy was one of America’s most brutal serial killers and rapists. He admitted to 30 homicides between 1974 and 1978. The actual count is unknown and may be much higher.

Bundy’s crimes covered seven states. All of his victims were young women. He escaped from jail twice before finally being put to death in a Florida prison electric chair on January 24, 1989. He was 42 years old.

Pornography Was A Factor

The night before his death, Bundy was interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. In one segment, Bundy told Dr. Dobson about the effect his pornography addiction had on his life.

“Like most other kinds of addiction,” he said, “I would keep looking for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder, harder, something which gives you a greater sense of excitement. Until you reach the point that pornography only goes so far…”

Bundy added, “I’ve lived in prison a long time now. I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence just like me. And without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography. Without question, without exception, deeply influenced and consumed by addiction to pornography.”

Bundy was well-known for giving conflicting information and often changed his facts about the same story several times. So it cannot be known for sure to what extent pornography impacted his life. But it certainly impacted other lives – those of his victims and their families.

Today, there is even more evidence of a correlation between pornography and more severe sexual crimes.

Sex Crimes Are Often Based In Porn

Studies support that porn does play a major role in sex crimes.

  • A Michigan State Police report showed that in 41 percent of sexual assault cases, porn was viewed just prior to or during the crime.
  • A University of New Hampshire study showed that the highest rape rates are in states that have high sales of porn magazines.
  • Research found that adult porn was connected with each of 1,400 sexual abuse cases in Lousiville, Kentucky. The majority of them were also connected with child porn.
  • Other studies found that heavy use of the type of porn sold at adult bookstores matched an increased willingness to commit rape or other forced sexual acts.

The FBI said porn is found at 80 percent of the scenes of violent sex crimes, or in the homes of the offender. Police officers say that porn use is one of the most common profile traits of serial murderers and rapists.

“But I’m Not A Serial Killer!”

It is true that not everyone who views pornography will commit such terrible crimes. But that does not mean that your use of porn is harmless.

Frequently those who struggle with pornography describe how they ended up in a situation beyond their control. You may say, “My porn use isn’t hurting anyone. Besides, I only look at ‘soft porn’.” But porn in any form has negative effects on yourself and those around you.

Dr. Tim Jennings is a neuroscientist and author who appears in a cinematic study called the Conquer Series where he describes how porn affects the brain. In the Conquer Series, Jennings explains, “Porn is a problem at any dose, and it doesn’t need to be utilized at any dose. It’s like I wouldn’t tell people: ‘Well, as long as you’re not addicted to cocaine, cocaine is fine.’ No, it’s not!”

Excuses Need To Stop

Perhaps you haven’t taken a hard look at the real evils that exist within pornography. You didn’t realize how it can control you and the damage it can cause.

But no matter how much of a hold porn has on you, that stronghold of Satan can be broken.

God’s grace can free you from your porn addiction. His grace and love can cleanse all the shame and guilt you feel.

Then it’s time to stop using excuses. You may have used some of these common ones:

  • “I’m just bored. I don’t have anything else to do.”
  • “I’ve had a hard day. I deserve some time to make myself feel better.”
  • “It’s just a way for me to escape from my day-to-day life. What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”

There are many more. You’re not fooling yourself. You know the reasons go deeper. But it’s time to stand up and move towards a new porn-free life.

There Is Help For You

You do not have to fight your porn battle alone. In fact, studies show that most likely there are many other men in your church who also struggle.

A powerful resource to help you break free from porn addiction is the two-volume Conquer Series. Over 750,000 men have gone through this 10-week course in more than 70 countries. Thousands of churches are running the series this fall.

Men like Ted Bundy remind us that pornography addiction is not to be taken lightly. But through God’s grace and the teachings of the Conquer Series, you can find freedom.

Find out more about the Conquer Series or join a group at ConquerSeries.com.

For love of strangers: Behind the Jewish legacy of welcoming refugees

When thousands of Afghan immigrants were resettled in California’s Sacramento County over the past decade, volunteers from Congregation B’nai Israel were among those in the county providing aid, helping parents find apartments and jobs, and offering assistance ranging from literacy lessons to backpacks and school supplies. 

“We have Holocaust survivors in our congregation, and so many of us are just a generation or two removed from relatives who went through that experience or were forced to leave their country,” says Maryann Rabovsky, who has served as chairwoman of the synagogue’s immigration and refugee assistance committee since it was formed three years ago. “They came here as refugees, and so we understand how important it is to help others who are having to leave everything they know behind.”

That calling to help the “other” – to welcome strangers, to aid immigrants and refugees – is one with deep roots in Judaism, as well as other faiths, and many Jews say they feel both a deep moral obligation as well an ethical imperative from their own history. 

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And it’s a message that gained new prominence this weekend when the idea of love for strangers and a faith-based imperative to help was thrust into juxtaposition with extreme hate, in the form of the shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, who, in online posts, tried to justify his actions by demonizing Jewish groups helping refugees.

“The radical message of the Bible is that we should let our suffering teach us love,” says Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of Hadar, an egalitarian center for advanced Jewish learning in New York. “Another way of coming at this is that there are three love commandments in the Bible: love of God, love of the neighbor, and love of the stranger – in the modern translation that essentially means immigrant.”

An ancient text cannot be used to settle the details of contemporary policy questions, Rabbi Held adds, “but it can and should help us establish an ethos, and the ethos can and should be one of welcome. The demonization of people seeking refuge is, religiously speaking, an abomination.”  

For some Americans less familiar with refugee issues, Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh may have been the first time they’d heard of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine resettlement agencies that partner with the US government to assist refugees. Founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, HIAS largely aided Jewish refugees fleeing persecution through the 20th century. More recently the group has expanded its work to assist non-Jewish refugees, and to work to help refugees around the world, wherever they are.

When Robert Bowers opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday, killing 11 people and wounding six, he was apparently driven by anti-Semitism, but had also expressed rage online specifically against HIAS, spouting conspiracy theories that the organization “like[d] to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us.”

That rage has been devastating to those doing the work.

“It’s both shocking and confounding, because it’s just such a twisting of the narrative we know to be true, which is that this is our obligation, and really everybody’s obligation,” says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, director of education for community engagement at HIAS. “We’re in a time of incredible polarization in this country, where there has been a real uptick in hate speech, and that hate has been allowed to foment. This is a really tragic result of the moment that we’re in, but it also points to a patent misunderstanding of what our moral and ethical and religious obligations really are.”

Those obligations have deep roots not just in Judaism, but in all three of the Abrahamic traditions, says Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York (and who happens to be, as she notes, a Muslim woman heading a Holocaust center at a Catholic college). 

“For all three traditions, the stranger, the refugee, the wayfarer – they’re part of all the sacred scripture,” says Professor Afridi, citing numerous specific instances in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran where that obligation is spelled out. “We’ve all been strangers in lands, and I think that faith groups have always tried to help immigrants.” There’s a Syrian student on campus, Afridi notes, who has been helped by Muslims, Jews, and Catholics in his journey. 

Of course, not everyone interprets those traditions that way, and all three faiths also have darker, less loving histories among some sects. “All faiths share the following: If you read your tradition in the most narrow way, faith can actually encourage narrow-mindedness and bigotry and exclusionary rhetoric and behavior,” says Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.” It’s a reason, he adds, why “an open heart” is called for in reading and understanding those traditions.

Open hearts were in abundance in the wake of Saturday’s shooting. There was an outpouring of support for the Tree of Life Synagogue from Muslims, Christians, and other faith communities around the country.

‘A MORAL COMMITMENT’

In Jewish teachings, that idea of welcoming the stranger is a core tenet, harkening back to the days when Jews were exiles in Egypt. “You reach out to the other, because you were the other in Egypt. It’s a constant refrain,” says Rabbi Shoshanah Conover at Chicago’s Temple Sholom. The Torah readings last weekend – the day of the Pittsburgh shooting – were about Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers into their tent, who turn out to be messengers from God, notes Rabbi Conover. “That’s where we get this value of welcoming guests,” she says. “Once we get to Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we have the mention of welcoming the stranger, loving the stranger, all of these commandments, 36 times.”  

For many American Jews, they only have to look a generation or two back to find instances when they, or people they know, were fleeing persecution. Held notes that his father was born in Poland and his mother in Lithuania, and that “the world into which they were born was obliterated.” But more recently, other ethnic groups around the world have emerged as the most vulnerable, pushing more Jews to look outside of their community as they seek to help, says Rabbi Schwarz.

“If we take our own experience and have the ethos to care for the stranger stop at the borders of our own community and tribe, then we’ve learned nothing from history,” says Schwarz. HIAS’s work, he says, epitomizes that drive to practice what teachings demand. “HIAS as an organization has pivoted from an organization that primarily was committed to helping Jewish refugees to, today, an organization that helps refugees because we’re Jews.” 

And even while Jewish communities have specific history, both recent and ancient, that gives added resonance, and empathy, to the idea of helping refugees – many Jewish scholars emphasize that the moral imperative would exist regardless. 

“Every year Jews try to internalize the idea that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt and were liberated,… and we’re asked to make the leap to understand how others who were strangers or immigrants might feel,” says Held. “That’s why you have such a fiercely impassioned response from a large swath of the Jewish community” not just to the refugee crisis but to the immigration issues that came to a head this summer. “The historical experience of the Jews amplifies for us what is always in place as a moral commitment.” 

It’s that commitment – and the news about the Syrian refugee crisis – that led Conover, at the Chicago temple, to help spearhead a recent effort to sponsor a refugee family. “It hit that boiling point where it felt like if we don’t do something now, we’re not living up to our ethical Jewish imperative,” she says. 

Her temple and several others in Chicago went through training with HIAS and, in the end, Temple Sholom sponsored a Rohingya family through RefugeeOne, another refugee resettlement agency. The political turmoil around refugees that has arisen during the Trump presidency delayed the temple’s efforts to help, and prompted congregants to shift some of their focus to advocacy, Conover says. And the experience of actually working with a refugee family – which arrived with a 2-year-old son and a teenage daughter, and that has another child who wasn’t able to travel with them – lent a personal immediacy to what can seem an abstract debate.

“Working with them very directly makes it very, very personal when there is dehumanizing rhetoric about who comes to this country,” says Conover. 

‘IF YOU SAVE ONE LIFE, YOU SAVE A WORLD’

In Wellesley, Mass., a leafy suburb 30 minutes west of Boston, Michael Gilman and Debbie Gotbetter get similarly emotional when they talk about the two Syrian families their temple, Beth Elohim, has helped to support, and the six other families in the area they’ve worked with.

They were also moved to help by news of the growing Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, and both serve on the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Team associated with their congregation, which works with HIAS and Jewish Family Services.

“In the Jewish tradition and the Muslim tradition, you know the saying is ‘If you save one life, you save a world,’ ” says Mr. Gilman, speaking in a quiet corner of Beth Elohim as children run about on the floor below. “And you know, from that perspective we’ve saved many worlds.”

Ms. Gotbetter, Gilman, and other volunteers worked to set up apartments for the families ahead of time, stocking them with furniture and familiar foods. And the nervousness they felt before the families’ arrival quickly melted away, they said. Since the families arrived about two years ago the volunteers have shared poignant moments with them, and Gotbetter even served as a doula for a birth.

“I have more photos of them than I do of my own family,” she says.

Gotbetter remembers asking one father what surprised him the most coming here. “And he pointed at me and basically said, ‘You. Your community,’ ” she says. “They were surprised that we were all Jewish and have told their families, and I think they were surprised too, and it’s been really powerful for all of us.”

Schwarz notes that the process of helping a refugee family was also a powerful experience for his congregation in Bethesda, Md. In their case, it was an Afghan family – a husband, wife, and four children – that they helped, and it was in conjunction with a Presbyterian refugee resettlement organization. “Our entire congregation has embraced them,” Schwarz says. “You’ve got a Christian organization helping a Muslim family from Afghanistan, and we’re Jews who are doing it. And all those pieces are interchangeable. You go to another community where HIAS is the agency, and a Christian church is taking on the family that’s coming in from Syria. That’s the epitome of what it means for people of faith to join hands together with people who are suffering and who are the most vulnerable in the world today.” 

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It’s alive! On Halloween, Frankenreads celebrate 200th anniversary of classic

Carolinn Kuebler says she found the perfect way to celebrate one of her favorite holidays.

On Oct. 31, she headed to the haunted halls of … the Library of Congress. There authors, actors, and librarians were lining up – not to trick or treat or wait for the Great Pumpkin – but to bring a 200-year-old book to life.

Wearing a festive sweater with a bright orange pumpkin on it, the Washington architect listens intently to “Frankenstein,” a novel she herself has read several times. She says she’s happy to relive the story of the inventor who thought he could create life, and this time have it read aloud to her.

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“With podcasts and everything, people are really getting into listening to stories again, which I think is really cool,” says Ms. Kuebler.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Frankenstein,” more than 600 Frankenreads have been planned in at least 43 countries – ranging from film screenings, museum exhibits, and marathon reads of the monstrous classic, which has inspired everything from more than 50 movies to breakfast cereal.

“It goes beyond popular culture and into the book itself,” says Marc Ruppel, a senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which partnered with the Keats-Shelley Association of America to create the Frankenreads. “And the fact that it has something to tell us about ourselves, something to tell us about the ways that we engage with technology, engage with humanity, and engage with each other.”

At the Library of Congress’s free event, designated readers, including award-winning author Louis Bayard and Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, stand at two podiums in the center of the room. Each read for ten minutes as a camera switches between the two so that the reading can continue unbroken. The list includes a few pre-recorded appearances from figures like horror-meister R.L. Stein, actor John Cena, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Throughout the reading, tours of the library continue with school groups catching snippets of the novel as they walk by.

From “The Munsters” to “Young Frankenstein” to memes, the horror story a teenage Mary Shelley dreamed up one night to win a contest in which the competition included her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron has resonated in pop culture. In fact, a movie about the contest itself, starring Elle Fanning, was released just last year.

In addition to winning the contest, some literary scholars say Shelley invented what became the science fiction genre.

“It’s a very complicated fable but it’s deeply embedded in all sorts of cultural, professional, scientific, technological anxieties about progress, which comes with promise and doesn’t always think through the perils,” says Dr. Susan Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University who organized a Frankenread on campus.

Reading aloud presents an important alternative to entertainment on screens, says Mr. Ruppel. The marathon read of “Frankenstein,” inspired in part by Bloomsday readings of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, holds significance in a world where technology encourages separate, individuated experiences.

“It matters that we begin to start to share these things again,” says Ruppel, “and that we do it in way I think that allows for some real patience and just deliberateness on our part.”

The book, which is estimated to have sold 80 million to 100 million copies worldwide, has been kept alive in part to its celebration in film, says Neil Fraistat, president of the Keats-Shelley Association of America and organizer of Frankenreads. Since 1910, film renditions have popularized the story all over the world, with actors from Boris Karloff to Peter Boyle to Robert De Niro playing Victor Frankenstein’s misbegotten creation. But the novel’s message – as well as the monster – are why it still resonates.

Throughout the many retellings of the Gothic novel, “Frankenstein” encourages us to think more deeply about humanity, says Mr. Fraistat. And in doing so, “we can learn the importance of empathy, love, [and] ethical responsibility.”

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After canceling ‘Rift 2’ overhaul, Oculus plans a modest update to flagship VR headset

Facebook’s virtual reality arm may soon find itself in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up with hardware competitors.

Last week, TechCrunch reported that Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe had decided to leave Facebook partially due to his “fundamentally different views on the future of Oculus” and decisions surrounding the cancellation of a next-generation “Rift 2” project.

The company’s prototype “Rift 2” device, codenamed Caspar, was a “complete redesign” of the original Rift headset, a source familiar with the matter tells us. Its cancellation signified an interest by Facebook leadership to focus on more accessible improvements to the core Rift experience that wouldn’t require the latest PC hardware to function. Iribe did not agree with the direction, with a source telling us that he was specifically not interested in “offering compromised experiences that provided short-term user growth but sacrificed on comfort and performance.”

Former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe sharing details on the Oculus Rift in 2015

In the wake of the overhaul’s cancellation, the company will be pursuing a more modest product update — possibly called the “Rift S” — to be released as early as next year, which makes minor upgrades to the device’s display resolution while more notably getting rid of the external sensor tracking system, sources tell us. Instead, the headset will utilize the integrated “inside-out” Insight tracking system which is core to Facebook’s recently-announced Oculus Quest standalone headset.

The “Constellation” tracking system on the current-generation Rift offers precise accuracy thanks to the static external sensors that track the headset and Touch controllers. While the Insight system would likely offer users a much more simplified setup process, a clear pain point of the first-generation product, “inside-out” tracking systems have greater limitations when it comes to the lighting conditions they work in and are generally less accurate than systems with external trackers.

While Oculus has long led the way on hardware advances, this release could be seen as the company playing catch-up with competitors like Microsoft, which has partnered with OEMs including Samsung, Lenovo and LG to release headsets on its Windows Mixed Reality platform that also feature inside-out tracking as well as higher resolution displays than the Oculus Rift.

“While we don’t comment on rumors/speculation about our future products, as we shared last week, PC VR remains a part of our strategy and is a category we will continue to invest in. In addition to hardware, we have a robust software roadmap and are funding content well into 2020,” an Oculus spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introducing the $399 Oculus Quest

There are some clear benefits for Oculus pushing iterative hardware in an iPhone-like “S” manner, especially around affordability, as a more drawn out device life cycle gives both Oculus and PC component manufacturers time to reduce VR’s high barrier to entry in terms of cost.

The cancellation of its Caspar “Rift 2” project, does suggest a less aggressive pace of innovation for the company with its flagship premium VR product. The move away from a redesign could alienate early adopters and send them to other platforms. It could also lead Oculus into a situation where new titles that take advantage of the latest systems aren’t compatible with Rift hardware.

At its Oculus Connect developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared that the Oculus Rift, Quest and Go represented “the completion of its first-generation of VR products.” As Zuckerberg continues to double-down on his long-term goal to bring 1 billion users into VR, the need to build the Oculus user base is growing more important but it’s unclear how essential the company believes leading the high-end PC VR market is to defining that early mainstream success.

SpaceX shuffles Starlink leadership, hoping to accelerate launch

SpaceX is changing the lineup at the Seattle-based offices of Starlink, the company’s nascent satellite broadband division. A Reuters report depicts a whirlwind visit by CEO Elon Musk as a middle management bloodbath, but SpaceX says it’s just the usual fast-moving space company stuff.

Starlink plans to put thousands of satellites into space with which to blanket the world in broadband — SpaceX isn’t the only aspirant to this plan, but it is farther along than some. It launched a pair of prototype satellites in February, Tintin A and B, which are reportedly working perfectly well as ongoing test platforms.

Space is no place to rush into, however, but that clashed with aggressive timelines set by Musk years ago and apparently not quite being met. Reuters reported that several leads on the project were pushing for more testing, and Musk visited Seattle to provide a kick in the pants.

Among those reported fired were VP of satellites Rajeev Badyal and designer Mark Krebs, both of whom have overseen the project through and after launch. SpaceX did not directly confirm their departures but confirmed that Starlink had seen significant restructuring.

“We have incorporated lessons learned and re-organized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order,” a SpaceX representative told TechCrunch, saying the move was consistent with the “rapid iteration design and testing” the company is known for.

Will it be enough to put more birds in the air by mid-2019, as Musk hopes? That remains to be seen, but the SpaceX strategy of launching early and often has so far paid off in the long run, so perhaps this maneuver will as well.

Syria crisis: Will donor fatigue push refugees back too soon?

Yusra Ajaj is facing a life or death decision.

A widowed mother of three, Ms. Ajaj is considering leaving Jordan, the country she has called home since war consumed her homeland and killed her husband in 2013.

After nearly five years, her life is once again in upheaval. In April, the United Nations stopped her monthly cash assistance of $210, which she relied upon to pay rent. Then in September, the UN cut her monthly $175 in food vouchers, which she had recently resorted to selling on the black market in order to pay her bills.

Recommended: How Syrian refugees strain – and strengthen – Jordan

Now Ajaj is faced with what she describes as “two worst cases” – poverty and homelessness in Jordan, or return to Syria. Worse still, she says the decision is being made for her.

“I fear that the international community is trying to push us back into Syria,” Ajaj says as she enters the offices of a Jordanian NGO in the northern city of Mafraq to ask for cash assistance.

Across Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian refugees are finding their assistance cut, medical aid suspended, and educational programs axed as international donor fatigue sets in over the Syrian crisis. The UN and its partner agencies across the Middle East are being hit hard.

Yet despite a new push by humanitarian organizations to focus on reconstruction in Syria and encourage refugee returns, UN officials warn that conditions there are not yet stable or conducive for a mass return of the 5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries.

Instead, they warn, the cuts in aid will leave tens of thousands of families deep in poverty in host countries unable to support them.

A SNOWBALL EFFECT

In late September, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), which has taken the lead in providing life-saving and sustaining assistance to 5.6 million Syrian refugees across the Middle East, issued an urgent appeal for $270 million by the end of the month.

If it did not receive these funds, it warned, it would have to suspend services for millions of refugees, including cash assistance to 456,000 vulnerable Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon.

This money is used for rent and food, crucial for the 80 percent of Syrian refugees who live in urban areas and not camps and are under the poverty line.

“If we stop this assistance, then thousands of families cannot pay the rent, and this will create a devastating snowball effect in host communities,” says Stefan Severe, UNHCR’s Jordan representative.

The shortfall is not a blip, but the latest sign of endemic shortages. As of late September, the entire UNHCR budget for the Syrian crisis of $1.97 billion was 35 percent funded for 2018. Other UN agencies and its partners face similar deficits.

Funding for UNICEF Jordan, which supports Jordanian schools and educational programs, is down significantly even as the number of Syrian students is rising.

“If funding continues to reduce at this pace, we will continue to make difficult choices and minimize the impact on the most vulnerable children,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Robert Jenkins. “But we cannot completely protect them.”

KEEPING KIDS IN SCHOOL

One of the first casualties was the hajati program, under which UNICEF provided $28 a month to vulnerable Syrian students to help pay for transportation, uniforms, and even shoes to attend school. The program aims to encourage some of the 90,000 Syrian children estimated to be out of school in Jordan to attend class.

The hajati program helped 50,000 Syrian students last school year; because of cuts, UNICEF reduced the number of beneficiaries to 10,000 for 2018/19, after which it is expected to stop altogether.

Also in the crosshairs is Makani, after-school centers that provide day-long tutoring, life skills, counseling, remedial education, kindergarten, and safe spaces for Syrian and Jordanian children to play and interact. For many, the Makani centers offer their only hope for education.

One such student is Mohammed, 15, who has gone six years without a full semester of school. When he was nine, his primary school was bombed by Syrian war planes. He fled to Jordan with his mother, uncle, and siblings after his father was killed and began four years of bouncing between refugee camps and shared apartments near industrial zones.

Now he cannot enter a Jordanian school, and for good reason: he cannot read or write. 

“I just want to be able to read street signs and store signs and maps,” Mohammed says in between remedial classes at a Makani center. “I want to know where I am going in life, and how to get back home…. If I can read and write, I can go to school. And if I go to school, my future will not be lost.”

Mohammed and hundreds of others like him stand to lose out as UNICEF has cut the number of its Makani centers from 200 across Jordan down to 100 centers this year. The program is in doubt beyond this year.

SYRIA RECONSTRUCTION

The funding for these programs in Jordan has diminished as several humanitarian organizations that have partnered with the UN have begun redirecting their priorities away from refugees and toward the stabilization of Syria.

The flow of donor interest and funds from refugees to reconstruction has led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria and create new positions for foreigners to head up “Syria” operations.

“The new buzzword is reconstruction, and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” an aid worker who was not authorized to speak to the press says on the condition of anonymity. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.”

Yet UN officials warn that talk of refugee returns is very premature.

While Jordan saw 17,000 Syrian refugees return to their homeland in 2017, the rate slowed to 1,770 returns from January 2018 through September and no verified voluntary returns to Syria since June.

Despite a drive by the Lebanese government to encourage and facilitate its 1 million Syrian refugees to return home, both a lack of trust on the part of refugees and restrictions by the Syrian government have limited repatriations to a few thousand.

On the recently reopened Jordanian-Syrian border, meanwhile, a much publicized restoration of trade and passenger traffic has triggered a slow but steady trickle of Syrians travelling back to their homeland. Jordanian authorities reported that 108 refugees traveled back to Syria over the first five days the border was open.

TOO SOON TO RELOCATE

However, most Syrians traveling at the border tell a visiting reporter that they are going for family visits. Relocation, they say, is still not an option.

“We are so happy to have the chance to see family we could cry,” says Abu Ahmed, a Syrian heading to Damascus. “But we remain residents of Jordan and will for the future.”

And the UN insists that the conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government.

“We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready – and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support,” says Mr. Severe of the UNHCR.

Jordanian officials recognize that conditions are not yet right for mass returns; many here fear that the international community will begin to redirect resources away from refugees prematurely, leaving host countries like Jordan and Lebanon to carry a burden that some liken to a social “time-bomb.”

Facing the cuts to assistance programs in the cities, thousands of Syrians are already returning to under-funded refugee camps in Jordan in search of free shelter and medical care.

UN experts warn the cut in aid could result in thousands of children dropping out of school to work and a spike in child marriages, crime, human trafficking, and exploitation.

“I don’t know what to do,”  the widowed Ms. Ajaj says after leaving the Jordanian NGO empty-handed, tears forming in her eyes. Unwilling to go back to Syria, unable to live in Jordan, the only answer, she says, may be putting her children on a migrant boat to Europe.

“We are out of options and out of hope,” she says, wiping her eyes. “What would you do?”

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