Monday, October 2, 2017

To be a Jew in the Twenty-First Century

In 1944, Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote the following poem,
“To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century”
                    
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

Bottom of Form
Daring to live for the impossible. That was an existential concern for Jews in 1944. To dare to remain a Jew. In the past century, what did our parents and grandparents choose? What was Muriel Rukeyser’s choice?

If you don’t know about the poet Muriel Rukeyser, you should. Rukeyser was an American journalist and activist all her life. She was arrested while covering the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and witnessed the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. She spoke out as a feminist and partnered with a woman long before it was safe. She traveled to Hanoi with poet Denise Levertov on an unofficial peace mission and was arrested in Washington D.C. while protesting the Vietnam War. She wrote this poem as a Jewish response to fascism under Franco and under Hitler.

But Rukeyser, like most of us, was more complicated than that. Like many activist Jews of her era, Rukeyser grew up without Jewish observance, as she put it “no stories, no songs, no special food.” Yet her mother passed on a story to her as a child, a story that gave her a deep connection to her heritage. Her mother claimed that she was a direct descendant of one the greatest rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba. Her mother described the famous rabbi as a martyr who resisted the Romans in the 1st century by teaching Torah publicly, knowing the penalty was death. She described to her daughter how Akiba was tortured and how he died saying ‘I know that I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love God with all my life.’ This story shaped Rukeyser’s own connections to Judaism for the rest of her life.

So here we are, all of us descendants or disciples of Rabbi Akiba, and we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century? Does the experience of being a Jew look different from being a Jew in the 20st century?

Until a year or so ago, I would have enthusiastically answered, yes, it does look different. We no longer need to choose to be invisible. We can walk proudly as Jews in almost every corner of American life. Yiddish words like schlemiel have entered the American vocabulary. Bagels are no longer ethnic food. Jerry Seinfeld became a household representative of the Jewish people: insightful, funny, a bit neurotic, and successful. Moreover, while some of us have known anti-semitism personally, most of us in this room have never felt persecuted as a Jew, never been victims of anti-semitic taunts, of vandalism, of threats to our life and well-being.

But like so many other places where Jews have risen to prominence: Spain, England, France, Germany, our position is always tentative. Like so many before us, the Jews of America have safely accepted the illusion that we can integrate ourselves seamlessly into American culture.

That is, until the dramatic rise in anti-semitic acts immediately following the election. Until the vandalism in Jewish cemeteries following the inauguration. Until the shattering of the Boston Holocaust Memorial this summer. Until Charlottesville.

What changed at Charlottesville was that the anti-semitism of the tiki-torch-bearers, the assault-rifle-toters, and the marchers in riot-gear chanting hate slogans—the hatred—came out in the open. Not only that, the police stood by and allowed it to happen. With the president’s unrepentant acceptance of support from the Nazis and the KKK and other white-nationalist groups, their actions appear to be state supported, if not explicitly state-sponsored. The president’s own rhetoric has given permission for others to do and say what until now, our government has not dared to do or say. This is what the ADL refers to as “an unprecedented mainstreaming of hate and discrimination in our communities.”

After Charlottesville, we have no choice but to discuss anti-semitism. And to stand up to it wherever we find it.

It’s easy to decry the KKK and the Nazis. But what happens when the hatred comes from someplace closer to home, from people we consider allies?

Many of us were heartbroken to hear earlier this summer about the Chicago Dyke March, an annual Gay Pride event, where three Jewish women were asked to leave the March because they were carrying rainbow flags with Stars of David. According to one of the women, they were shouted over, cursed at, interrogated, and ultimately forced out by organizers.  Later, March leaders issued a statement asserting that the Chicago Dyke March was explicitly “anti-Zionist” and stated “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology.”

Banning people for carrying a Star of David flag is not anti-Zionist. It is anti-semitic. These women were not there as spokespeople for Israel. They were Jewish lesbians who had attended the march for years, who were told that by expressing their identity as Jews, they were promoting a white-supremacist ideology.

No matter what our views on Israel and Palestine, we need to pay attention to this painful story. When we hear familiar anti-Semitic tropes, such as the claim that Jews are in control, we need to be prepared to decry those attacks as vigorously as we decry the alt-right. It is one thing to criticize a country, even Israel, if you believe it is failing to live up to its human rights obligations. But as Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Voice for Human Rights, argues, “if you think Israel is the cause of all of the world's problems, that Zionists are pulling strings everywhere, you're in anti-Semitism territory.”

With anti-semitic rhetoric coming from the people we thought were our allies as well as people we despise, we might indeed refuse the gift, wishing to be invisible.

I want to share a story that illustrates this lose-lose situation. It took place in a different time, in a small Tennessee town. I’ll tell the story as recounted by the author years later, in 1968.

“As a result of state legislation, the local buses had just been integrated. A city statute, however, sought to defy the state and force Negroes to sit only in the rear of the buses. Testing segregation, a few Negroes sat in the front of the bus and they were arrested. Someone put up the required bail money and they were released.

“In the lobby of the whites-only hotel in that town, this is what you could hear from more than one patron: ‘Don’t go to Cohen’s Department Store. Cohen is the one who bailed them out.’ (Alas, Cohen was in the Bahamas at the time and was not involved in any way.)

That same day, however, you could walk across the street to Cohen’s Department Store and this is what you would have seen: Negro pickets parading in front of the store with signs reading: ‘Don’t patronize Cohen’s Department Store! Cohen’s has a segregated lunch counter.’”

This story came from activist Rabbi Robert Marx. Founder of Chicago’s progressive Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and a founding board member of Interfaith Worker Justice, Rabbi Marx is still considered one of the most important leaders in strengthening relations between the Jews and Blacks of Chicago for fifty years.

Obviously, we would claim that the picketers in front of Cohen’s store had adequate cause to protest, while the patrons in the hotel had none. As Marx described it, the two perspectives on Cohen's Department Store provide an example of how Jews can be depicted as the enemy of both parties to a social conflict. In telling the story Rabbi Marx wanted to point to the subtle ways in which the Jewish community plays both sides in a conflict.

The story comes from his 1968 essay, “The People in-between,” where Rabbi Marx offered a compelling analysis of the Jewish condition. Just as the story demonstrates, Jews have been the target of attacks from all sides throughout history, all of whom see Jews as Other.

He explains, “The Jewish community was truly interstitial, truly located between the parts of the social structure of western societies. Neither a part of the masses nor of the power structure, Jews were uniquely positioned so that they fulfilled certain vital yet dispensable functions. They discovered that they were totally dispensable in the society in which they lived…. Interstitiality… may open a path to the gas chamber or it may lead to prophetic heights that enable the Jewish people to rise above parochialism or nationalism.”

This vulnerable position of being somewhere in-between the powerful and the powerless started with Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s viceroy in Egypt, and continues even today. To join with the powerful can offer a promise of protection, as Joseph was able to save his family from famine. But when the powerful change, or simply change their minds, we are left more vulnerable than before, subject to a king “who did not know Joseph.” That story ended in the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants, only to be liberated by another outsider, Moses, who was raised in the palace despite being a Hebrew. On the other hand, to join with the powerless may appear to weaken us, but in the end, such alliances strengthen all who are oppressed.

Just as the poet invites us to accept or refuse the gift, in every age our ancestors have been forced to decide: Do we ally ourselves with the powerful to gain protection for our people? Or do we ally ourselves with the powerless so that together we become powerful?

Even though not all Jews are white, we have benefited from white privilege in America, being lifted up the economic ladder while people of color were kept down. Yet you and I know that we are not as powerful as those who hate us believe. One of the characteristics of anti-semitism is the belief that Jews have outsized power. As researcher and organizer Eric Ward has said, “In oppression, identity is forced on you.” In his recent essay, “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” Ward describes how White nationalists see Jews today. Having studied White nationalism for almost three decades, Ward tells us, “White nationalists argue that Whites are a biologically defined people and that, once the White revolutionary spirit awakens, they will take down the federal government, remove people of color, and build a state … of their own.” He asserts that “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” Surprisingly, Eric Ward claims, to White nationalists Jews are not white.

Ward tells us, “Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for anti-semites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils.” These evils, he explains, include civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights. In the eyes of White nationalists, Jews are at the heart of a vast international conspiracy, controlling “television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C.” Furthermore, according to Ward, they believe that Jews have brainwashed white people into giving up their own race consciousness by supporting non-whites and other marginalized groups.

What has changed after Charlottesville is that white Jews can no longer depend on our white privilege to protect us. While American Jews have benefited from oppression of people of color, we are also the targets of oppression.  Understanding our place as the in-between people, our fate depends on forming alliances with all targets of oppression. Our oppression is linked inextricably to the oppression of people of color in this country. And the marchers in Charlottesville made that link explicit, along with the oppression of women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.

If we choose to deny that link, if we abandon our common struggle for justice, then we are complicit in handing victory to those who can only gain by dividing those they oppress.

Terrifying as the story of the Dyke March is, the threat of anti-semitism from individuals on the left cannot be compared to the dangers of institutional anti-semitism. As Robert Marx says, “anti-semitism on the part of a minority group is not nearly as dangerous as when a majority group seizes upon it as a way of maintaining power.

To be a Jew in the 21st century, we must speak out against anti-semitism in all its forms, whether from friend or foe. When we makes claims on our allies, we help them recognize what we have come to understand: that we all bound together in the struggle for justice.

To be a Jew in the 21st century is to be given a gift. The gift, however, neither allows us to be invisible, nor does it require that we close ranks, us against the world. The gift is to make a choice that brings honor to the Jews and justice to the world.

We live in a world of complexity, where diversity does not only exist on the outside, it lives within each of us. Our community is comprised of Jews as well as their Christian and Muslim and Hindu and UU family members. We are white and brown and black. We are individuals who hold many identities inside one body. We are each a combination of privileges and oppressions, victims and oppressors. Just as the Torah insisted that we advocate and care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor among us, today we must continue to open our doors to those on the margins. Our response to oppression as a Jewish community must likewise be complex and nuanced.

And we need to remember that as frightening as it is, anti-semitism in America does not have the force of racism, which is baked into American history, pervading every aspect of society from education to housing to criminal justice to jobs. Anti-semitism is not systemic in America. The threats to Jews and Jewish institutions are the result of American terrorists, not government policy. When we stand with our allies against oppression, against intolerance, against hatred, it is not out of a shared sense of fear, but a shared sense of justice.

This summer’s events could mark a turning point in uniting those who stand against hate in all its forms. You may be aware that tomorrow, September 30th, the March for Racial Justice will take place in Washington DC. When Jews first learned that the planned march coincided with Yom Kippur, accusations of anti-semitism inundated social media. Fortunately, thoughtful Jewish leaders including Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah decided to take a different route. They reached out to the organizers to ask questions and to share the concerns of the Jewish community, many of whom did not want to make a choice between Yom Kippur and standing for Racial Justice. 

The March organizers explained that this date was chosen for its symbolic meaning to the African-American community. It recalled the Elaine Massacre on September 30, 1919, one of the deadliest racial attacks our country has known. White mobs in rural Arkansas attacked and slaughtered over 200 black men and women, many of whom had recently returned from military service in World War I. The date harkens back to events that eerily resemble today’s racial animus.

After hearing from Jewish leaders directly, the March organizers spent some time considering how to respond.

Three days after the Charlottesville clashes, on August 15, the organizers of the March for Racial Justice issued a lengthy public apology. I’d like to share some key sections from that apology, because they demonstrate the power of dialogue, of relationships, and of seeking to work together rather than standing apart.

The statement reads: “The March for Racial Justice is committed to standing for racial justice with allies from across all races, ethnicities, and communities. We believe that none of us are free until all of us are free.

“The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur when we were factoring … other considerations and applying for permits.

“Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.

“…We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result….

“We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism.”

The organizers taught us an important lesson about teshuva, worth sharing on this holy day, and worth responding to with compassion.
They also taught us another lesson many of us had forgotten:
“Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance.”

Which brings us back to Rabbi Akiba. Just as Rabbi Akiba continued to teach and practice Judaism publicly knowing it meant a death sentence, we can proudly hold fast to Jewish tradition as an act of resistance.

Praying together is an act of resistance.
Taking time for Shabbat is an act of resistance.
Becoming knowledgeable Jews is an act of resistance.
Teaching our children is an act of resistance.
Being authentic and true to our heritage is an act of resistance.

The main difference I see between Jews of the 20th century and Jews of the 21st, is that today we know that we cannot build our identity on fear of persecution. In a pluralistic society, we cannot build our Jewish lives in isolation. And we also know that we cannot be invisible allies. It is not enough to show up; how we show up matters. Proudly as Jews, as a Jewish community, we hold fast to our values, to our teachings, and to our practices. We do not trade away what is precious and timeless for what is fleeting. When we form alliances, we bring our full selves, as people of Torah and mitzvot, without shame or fear. And when we need to, we speak our truth.

To be a Jew in the twenty-first century is a gift.
May we all find the courage, the dedication, and the wisdom to accept that gift, even with the torment that comes along with it.  
As the poet wrote,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.                                          Ken yehi ratzon.


Friday, April 7, 2017

The Fierce Urgency of Now: MLK and Passover

“… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Martin Luther King spoke these words 50 years ago, on April 4, 1967 and they sound as if he were commenting on America today.

One year from now, April 4, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death. Thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center, faith communities across the country will be marking the coming year as an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.

In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King gave voice to a feeling we know today:
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Driven by that sense of urgency, I spoke this past Shabbat about Dr. King’s prophetic call 50 years ago, and how we must answer it today. You can read my message below. Excerpts from Dr. King’s speech can be found here.

Wishing you and yours Chag same’ach
A joyous holiday that brings us renewed courage and strength,
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
* * * * * * * *

This next year is critical for the survival of democracy, for the survival of our world. We have already seen the dramatic destructive tendencies of this administration and Congress. Executive orders. Congressional repeal of basic protections of women, of immigrants, of our environment. We are in for far worse. When that happens, we will be there for each other, a beloved community, a kehilla kedosha, to provide comfort, courage, and confidence in our cause. And together, we will continue to resist. Because we believe in moral bottom lines over corporate bottom lines. Because we believe in lives over profits. Because our Jewish tradition began with the Exodus, a moral revolution of values, a slave revolt against a self-aggrandizing tyrant. And because our Jewish tradition reminds us at this time of year, and year-round, of that moral revolution.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, and in the spirit of Pesach,

I offer three simple ways to bring that moral revolution into our present and shape a future that we can all share in equally.

 

Speak up. Show up. Vote.

Speak up.

            You don’t need to be MLK to speak up. The first to speak up in the Exodus story was not Moses. No one whose name we know. Not any one person. It was the cry of the Israelites. The liberation did not begin with Moses, but with the cry of the Hebrews themselves: “They were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God took notice of them.”

The Jewish tradition understands these verses to mean that until the people actually cry out, until they speak about their suffering, until they come together to say “we won’t take it anymore,” nothing changes. The midwives were ready to be leaders, Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam were ready, Pharaoh’s daughter was ready, and Moses himself was ready. But no one could take the Israelites out of Egypt until the people were ready. Each of us has a role to play in the task of liberation; when we lift our voices together, we can crash through all obstacles to justice.

How do you speak up? Write letters. Call elected representatives. Urge family & friends in other states to write and call. Use your own words, don’t just repeat catch-phrases. Look people in the eye. Listen attentively and with curiosity. Connect.

Show up.
Jewish tradition may involve talking, discussing, asking questions. But in the end, it is through mitzvot, fulfilling our obligations, doing, that we live our Judaism.

"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action."  (Talmud)

The Rabbis all agreed that Jews are called to action.

How do we begin every seder?

“This is the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Now we are here — next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”


There are plenty of ways to show up, and they don’t always demand major sacrifices. Yes to rallies and protests. Yes to town meetings and organizing. And yes to taking care of others’ children so the adults can go to actions. Yes to feeding people who are hungry and inviting people to your seder. No to sitting in front of the tv or the computer all day by yourself! Do one act of resistance every day, no matter how small.

 

Vote.
We proclaim the central message of Passover in the Haggadah: “In every generation, each individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.”

Every individual. Not men only. Not adults only. Everyone. It’s about participation in the story. Not just telling it, but being part of it.

If you believe in democracy, you need to participate. Voting is a combination of speaking up and showing up. Register voters. Help with Get Out The Vote. Insist that your kids, your friends, your colleagues votes. Not just every four years. Not just for president. Democracy is built on down-ballot offices.

Democracy can be dismantled when voters don’t pay attention to those elections.
According to The Hill, in the past eight years, Republicans have gained 1000 seats in state legislatures, leading to a growth from “just under 44 percent in 2009 to 56 percent” after the 2016 election. State legislatures have used that power to gerrymander congressional districts, entrenching incumbent House members with unbeatable majorities. If we care about divided politics, the place to start is making House districts less one-sided, and ensuring that members of Congress hear multiple opinions.

Vote in every election you can. Democracy depends on you.

Speak up. Show up. And vote.

Martin Luther King prophetically calls to us from 50 years ago:
“We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.


“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Standing up to Anti-Semitism/Standing up to Hate

I can’t recall ever being afraid because I’m a Jew. Until last year, Haman was a fictional anti-Semite. This year, he represents all those filled with vicious and unprovoked hatred.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked domestic hate groups for decades, noted a dramatic increase in all hate crimes immediately following the November elections. In the first month, they verified over 1000 incidents of bias-related attacks. In just the first five days after the election, they documented over 400 attacks. Those attacks abated, but the threats have not disappeared.

Since Inauguration Day, over 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools have received phoned-in bomb threats. Three Jewish cemeteries, in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY, have been the targets of massive vandalism and grave desecrations.  

Locally, the Newton JCC has been threatened more than once. The Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton and the local ADL office received bomb threats this week. Across the country, young children from day care centers and schools have been evacuated swiftly in a manner that undoubtedly causes them mental distress.

Last Friday, a 31-year-old man was arrested in connection with threats made to 10 Jewish and one Muslim institution. That only provides a measure of relief, given the larger continuing threat.

We remain grateful that these cowardly acts have not resulted in the killing or harming of living Jews. We know that hatred in this country has led to severe attacks on immigrants, Muslims, blacks, and the LGBT community, including violence against individuals and the burning of mosques and black churches. Nevertheless, all acts of vandalism are intended to inspire fear.

Anyone who has seen a swastika spray-painted on a home or Jewish building, stepped into a Jewish cemetery where loved one’s stones have been toppled and desecrated, or seen bullet holes in a Jewish school, like the synagogue building in Evansville, Indiana last week, can’t help but feel threatened.

We know that, as Rabbi Mark Sokoll of the Newton JCC has written, “Hate against any one group is hate against all.” When we stand up as Jews against anti-semitism, we demonstrate our pride and conviction to those who wish to frighten us. We must also testify to all victims of hate that these acts will not divide us.

It is up to us to be vigilant in our own Jewish community.
It is up to us to bravely come together as never before.

Here in our temple, our leadership is taking steps to increase our attention to security. We want to make everyone feel safe without creating an atmosphere of dread.

This week of Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim when we recall both historic and mythical enemies of the Jewish people, let us contemplate how we can stand up to hatred for all people, and take pride in our community’s perpetual stamina, faith, and courage in response.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rabbi Mark Sokoll offers these ways to show your support, and make your voice heard. Though he emphasizes the threats against JCCs, we can apply any and all of these to other Jewish institutions as well.
1)      SOCIAL MEDIA

Support the JCC on social media by using the #IStandWithTheJCC hashtag with supportive posts across your channels.


Sample posts:
·         Threats against JCCs are threats against the entire community. #IStandWithTheJCC
·         We stand beside JCC Greater Boston. Antisemitism and hate have no place in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC
·         There is no room for hate in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC

2)      CALL YOUR LOCAL REPRESENTATIVE

Calling members of Congress is the most effective way to have your voice heard. Calls are tallied by staffers and the count is given to your representatives, informing them how strongly their constituents feel about a current issue. The sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that your voice will influence their position.

To find the phone number of your local congressman/congresswoman, please click here

Sample script for the call to your U.S. Representative.

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a constituent from [CITY or TOWN in Massachusetts].

I’m calling to urge the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General, and the Director of the FBI to take swift action to address the bomb threats that have been telephoned in to Jewish Community Centers and schools across the nation, and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the last two months. We remind you that participants from all different backgrounds come to JCCs and synagogues and other Jewish institutions for activities, Jewish cultural and religious programming, and opportunities to come together as a community.

We stand together against anti-Semitism and against all hate crimes. Thank you for your hard work.
[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied]

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Wisdom. Power. Wealth. Honor: A Primer for our Elected Officials


When the Massachusetts General Court (House) opened its 190th biennial session on Beacon Hill on January 4 and the members of the House were sworn in, I had the privilege to give a blessing to the chamber.

As the session came to a close I shared a teaching from Pirke Avot, a 2000-year old Jewish text on ethical living. The passage that I chose is a classic Jewish upending of our usual assumptions, and speaks to the noble responsibility of those who hold elected office. Here is the teaching, and my blessing.


The ancient Rabbis ask four questions:
Who is wise? Who is powerful? Who is rich? Who is honored?
And they answer the questions in surprising ways.

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful? One who shows restraint over one’s impulses.

Who is rich? One who is content with one’s portion.

Who is honored? One who honors others.

We call on the Holy One, the Source of All, to bless these officers of the Commonwealth, their families, the staff, and all those who work in this building. Bless them all with your gifts of wisdom, power, wealth, and honor.

May these public servants gain wisdom by listening to others, to the thoughtful voices of experts and to the quiet voices of the poor and the needy, to advocates and plain citizens alike. May they gain wisdom from those with whom they disagree as well as those who share their views.

May these public servants use their power, first and foremost, to control their own worst impulses. May they be mindful to restrain the impulse to use power coercively and corruptly, and always to give their very best to the people of Massachusetts.

May these public servants enjoy the wealth that comes from knowing how blessed they are to serve. May they be satisfied with what they have and dissatisfied with what the people lack.

May these public servants be honored for their integrity, compassion, and commitment to justice and bring honor to their office, to this House, and to our Commonwealth.

Amen.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The UN Insecurity Council

The upshot of last week’s UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements has caused a great deal of insecurity in the American Jewish community. Too often, hurried statements from Jewish organizations (fueled by the Israeli government) increase the heat when what we need is light.

FB posts and tweets in response to events seem reckless, especially in comparison to the hour-long oration by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday.

Listening to the entire speech on Wednesday, I found Kerry’s rebuttal to the claims made by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his followers in the US comprehensive and thoughtful. Giving the background to the vote, as well as an historical perspective on the all the previous Security Council resolutions and the US continued condemnation of settlements, Kerry’s words were balanced, honest, and based in both Israeli and American values. One headline in Haaretz today even called his remarks “superbly Zionist.”

It’s time for the leadership of the American Jewish community to pay attention to the power imbalance, the economic disparities, and the inequitable systems of justice applied to Palestinians on the West Bank. It’s time for American Jews to meet Palestinians, to visit their villages, and to see, in contrast, how well-developed bedroom communities for Israeli settlers are choking off Palestinian life and establishing what currently looks like a one-state solution.

This assessment does not ignore the challenges from the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority is considered corrupt by the average Palestinian. The PA has not succeeded in stemming terror attacks on settlers. The peace process has stalled for lack of leadership—on both sides.

Yet, short of signing a peace accord, the government of Israel could relieve much suffering. Instead, they have stifled the Palestinian economy, limiting Palestinian control over their own land, their own towns, and their own destinies. While Israelis build on land that they do not legally own, and are protected by the Israeli army, Palestinians are refused permits to build and their homes are demolished on a regular basis. Israeli powers prevent Palestinian entrepreneurs from establishing businesses that will create jobs. Roads that connect Israel and the West Bank, extending well into Palestinian-controlled areas, ease travel in and out for Israelis while Palestinians are stymied from traveling daily from home to work or school (often in their own neighborhoods) by closures and checkpoints.

While respecting the concerns of Israeli citizens and settlers for their safety, I find the current blind responses extreme and short-sighted. Thankfully, groups that support the voices of opposition within Israel, including Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and JStreet have given American Jews a different way of looking at the situation, a middle way that supports the long-standing commitment to a 2-state solution while decrying tactics like boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

My personal position is most aligned with T’ruah, whose statement reflected what Kerry subsequently stated. The full text is also included below.

I offer a few other links to thoughtful posts to help us all move past the rhetoric and come to a deeper understanding of the Obama Administration’s decision to allow the Security Council resolution to pass 14-0. These posts probe both sides of the argument and raise interesting questions for us all to consider.


David Remnick in The New Yorker, "The Obama Administration's Final Warning on the Middle East Peace Process"


T'ruah Statement on UNSC Resolution
תניא, רבי אומר: איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם - יאהב את התוכחות, שכל זמן שתוכחות בעולם - נחת רוח באה לעולם, טובה וברכה באין לעולם,ורעה מסתלקת מן העולם
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said, “What is the correct path that a person should choose? Love tokhecha (rebuke/correction), for as long as there is rebuke in the world, comfort comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil departs from the world.”—Talmud Tamid 28a
Over the past few days, we have heard significant pain and anger from the Jewish community and from the State of Israel regarding the recent UN Security Council Resolution and the decision by the United States to abstain, thus permitting it to move forward. It is true that the UN has a history of paying disproportionate attention to Israel. In the past, T’ruah has spoken up against problematic resolutions, including the UNESCO resolution this fall that ignored the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem and to our holiest sites there.
In this case, however, the tokhecha contained within this resolution simply reflects decades of U.S. and international policy that affirms the goal of “two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv[ing] side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders,” and decries settlements as an obstacle to achieving this vision. We encourage those concerned about this resolution to read it in full before responding.


T’ruah has long advocated for an end to occupation, which violates the human rights of Palestinians while threatening the safety and security of Israelis. The expansion of settlements involves land theft, as well as the blocking of access to land and of freedom of movement for Palestinians. Within Area C of the West Bank, where the settlements sit, Palestinians and Israeli citizens living side-by-side are governed by two different systems of law, in contradiction of international law and of the biblical principle, “You shall have one law for citizens and strangers alike.” (Leviticus 24:22)
The settlements and the entrenched occupation also threaten the well-being of Israelis, including those soldiers who risk their lives to defend an ill-fated policy; the Israelis who see their tax dollars diverted from needed health, education, and welfare programs in order to allocate disproportionate funding to those living in settlements; and Israelis and Jews around the world who face increasing isolation as a result of the policy of occupation. No less a figure than Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the return of territory may be permitted--or even obligatory—for the sake of pikuach nefesh—saving life.
Despite accusations that the resolution is one-sided, we welcome the call to the Palestinian Authority for “confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantling terrorist capabilities, including the confiscation of illegal weapons” and the condemnation of “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement, and destruction.” T’ruah has always condemned terrorism and rejected any claims that political aims justify violence against civilians.


The capture of East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War restored Jewish sovereignty over our holiest sites for the first time in modern history. We pray and work for a two-state solution that will preserve Jewish access to these sacred sites. However, the continued policy of demolition of Palestinian homes;  the lack of permits for Palestinians to build in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods where they live; the expansion of settlements in these neighborhoods, often by shady legal tactics; and the failure to provide basic city services to East Jerusalem Palestinians living on the wrong side of the wall that cuts through the “eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people” simultaneously violate human rights, fly in the face of Jewish law and values, provoke anger among the Palestinian population, and make the goal of peace harder to achieve.
The rhetoric on the part of the Israeli government and some segments of the Jewish community that caricatures the UNSC resolution as an erasure of Jewish history or as a rejection of our connection to Jerusalem only blurs the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, and reinforces the perception that standing up for Israel requires defending occupation. In fact, we should celebrate the resolution’s distinction  between Israel within the Green Line and the occupied territories, and its rejection of the one-state solution increasingly called for by many in the BDS movement. Standing up for the future of Israel and for the safety of Israelis and Jews around the world requires distinguishing between our commitment to Israel and the current policy of occupation, and working toward a two-state solution.
We affirm the call by the UNSC resolution for “all parties to continue, in the interest of the promotion of peace and security, to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations on all final status issues.” The expansion of settlements, including so-called “natural growth” changes the facts on the ground before territory can be negotiated. Even the areas that, according to most maps, will end up in Israel must be negotiated as part of a final status agreement. We also affirm the call to Palestinians to end the terrorism and incitement that frightens Israelis from taking bold steps toward peace, as well as rejecting “Price Tag” attacks and other violence and incitement on the part of Jews.


Much of the Israeli and Jewish communal response to the UNSC resolution, as well as to all tokhecha regarding settlement growth, has emphasized the failure of Palestinians to accept past agreements, or focused on terror as the primary obstacle to peace. While there is certainly reason to find fault with both sides—as the UNSC resolution does—Zionism, ultimately, is about taking our future in our own hands, rather than waiting for someone else to determine our future. This means both accepting responsibility for the misguided and dangerous policy of settlement expansion, and taking it upon ourselves to do what is necessary to bring about peace.
In permitting the hotly contested peace agreement with Egypt, including relinquishing land captured in war, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy wrote:
We have great doubts regarding this peace agreement. That is to say—it’s possible that it will be temporary until the Arab world gathers the strength necessary for another round.
But it’s also necessary to remember that it’s possible that it will continue for a long time. . .Therefore, it is incumbent on us, without considering their ultimate intentions, to cultivate this peace, and to do whatever is in our power that it should develop and set down roots, out of hope and faith that time will heal all wounds, and that a new generation will rise that has not personally suffered the defeat of war and the humiliation that follows. (Aseh L’kha Rav 4:1)

The obligation to pursue peace weighs especially heavily as we approach the momentous fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War. Just as the biblical yovel year—the fiftieth year of the agricultural cycle—brought liberation and a fresh start, we commit to using this moment to move forward toward peace, a two-state solution, an end to occupation, and a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to Increase the Light

Why do Hanukkah and Christmas come on the same day this year?

Hanukkah falls on Kislev 25, just as it does every year.
This year, incidentally, the Hebrew month of Kislev coincides with the month of December.

And that’s how we end up lighting the first candle on Erev Christmas.

I’m thinking about how best to light up Hanukkah in eight different ways.  “We have come to banish the darkness” is a contemporary Israeli Hanukkah song that speaks to the darkness many of us may be feeling (whether due to personal issues or anxiety about our country and the world).

Here are suggestions for bringing more light into the world for every night of Hanukkah. Read them all now so that you’re ready to welcome the lights of Hanukkah next week!

Night 1 (Saturday night, December 24)—lighting up the world for 65 million refugees
When you say the blessings for the first night and say the shehecheyanu to give thanks for being alive to celebrate this holiday, add this prayer from HIAS for the world’s refugees.

Night 2 (Sunday night, December 25)—lighting up our intergenerational community
Second Night Light promises to bring light to HBT members and friends of all ages with fun, joy, family, and friendship. Come spin the dreidl with our youngest members and hear stories of Hanukkahs past. Discover the magic of the HBT community. Bring your own hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) to light up the social hall.

Night 3 (Monday night, December 26)—lighting up with an inspiring book/video
Snuggle up and enjoy Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Did you know that Keats was Jewish? Read the classic book that changed children’s literature in 1962,celebrate the author’s 100th birthday, and watch the streamed animated special with a Hanukkah twist.

Night 4 (Tuesday night, December 27)—lighting up with Guilt-Free Gelt
No, it’s not calorie-free. T’ruah offers fair-trade Hanukkah gelt (in milk and dark chocolate). Read this kavvanah and enjoy your chocolate while lighting up your conscience!

Night 5 (Wednesday night, December 28)—lighting up our own spirits
Maybe you can’t escape those feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss. Maybe candles aren’t enough. RitualWell offers prayers and rituals to find healing in hard times. Have you ever visited a mikveh? If you haven’t watched it, see the Mayyim Hayyim video that features HBT, Rabbi Penzner, and member Forbes Graham. Or watch it again.

Night 6 (Thursday night, December 29)—lighting up the baseball diamond
Spring training is just eight weeks away!
Get a taste of spring by celebrating baseball—Jewish style.
Remember, relive, or become acquainted with Hank Greenberg. Not only was he the first famous Jewish player in the major leagues, but he had a social conscience, too. Watch the film, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (a terrific present for Hanukkah fans and baseball fans alike!)

Night 7 (Shabbat, December 30)—lighting up the spirits of people who are alone
This short essay in Hadassah magazine can inspire you to be with someone who might be alone right now. Invite them for Shabbat and candlelighting, or bring Shabbat and Hanukkah to them. Cherish the moment. (Full disclosure: a FB friend drew my attention to this article because the author quotes me in it. Besides that, it’s a very moving piece.)

Night 8 (Saturday night, December 31)—lighting up the New Year with rededication
That’s what Hanukkah means, after all. How will you pick yourself up after 2016 and bring your light into the world? Start off 2017 with resolve to recommit yourself to live the values you espouse. Will you add an hour or two each week or each month to write letters, volunteer, show up at a rally? Will you add a little more to your donations to the organizations you believe in most? Will you add an act of kindness every day? Will you come to HBT one more time each month to support and sustain our community and nurture your soul? Make a list and put it somewhere where you will see it every day.


Hag urim sameyach! Happy Hanukkah!