Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ki L'Olam Chasdo: the miracle of love endures!

A congregant commented on my Facebook status this week, saying “Never thought of you as a square.” This was a real compliment. He was referring to the red Human Rights Campaign logo that has been appearing on my news feed all week.

This has been a momentous week for gay rights, human rights, and civil rights. Who could have believed that the US Supreme Court might seriously be leaning toward supporting same-sex marriage?
Who could have imagined the remarkable support for ending DOMA, including all three Republican candidates for Senate in Massachusetts?

My first college roommate in the 1970s raised my consciousness when she came out to me, a year later. In my sophomore year, when the Gay-Straight Alliance was first established on campus, I suddenly saw men and women who I knew and admired in a new light. The norms that I had grown up with were upended.  [Back then, we mostly talked about “gays.”]

While in rabbinical school in the 1980s, I added my voice to those who called for accepting and ordaining openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first seminary to take this step, and the Reconstructionist movement followed suit, helping rabbis find jobs in congregations and havurot in the 1990s. [At that point, we were referring to gays and lesbians.]

When Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage, I received calls from many places to inquire about ceremonies. One couple I knew in Washington, D.C. (Mordecai Kaplan’s granddaughter and her partner) had called in hopes of being married in Massachusetts. Eventually they were able to have a legal ceremony in their home town. Other couples came to me to sign marriage licenses, making official the ceremonies I had performed for them years before. [By 2004, we were using the term LGBT.]

That this has all occurred in one lifetime (or, I’d like to say, half a lifetime) is a kind of “Dayenu” moment. But there is more.

At this month’s conference of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in New Orleans, I was proud to be present for the installation of Rabbi Jason Klein of Baltimore as the first openly gay man to become President of any rabbinical association. (My colleague and friend, Toba Spitzer, had been installed as the first openly lesbian president of our association in 2007.)

With his usual graciousness, modesty and willingness to serve as a role model, Rabbi Klein said: “Coming out and growing into my adult Jewish identity would not be the same were it not for affirming teachers, rabbis, and other mentors along the way. Now, I am honored to be able to give back by supporting colleagues who are creating welcoming communities in hundreds of settings across North America and beyond.”

At convention, I attended a workshop entitled “Why (not) a Queer Theology.” I learned from my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, how the growing acronym LGBTQQA…. could actually be understood within the frame of “queer”—meaning people who are open to a variety of gender and sexual identities. I am still contemplating his profound teachings.

At our business meeting, we approved a new document for our rabbis to think about Jewish identity in new ways. It included guidelines for determining the Jewish identity of children of same-sex couples or born using surrogates and other “alternative” means of procreation. Our colleague Rabbi Rachel Weiss inserted language into the guidelines that made clear that we do not privilege births via heterosexual sex over births via other reproductive technologies. As Rachel said, in her community of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, those births are the norm. It was a proud moment when our entire plenum voted to support the changes.

Who knows what the Supreme Court will decide? We will have to be patient until the ruling comes down. But in the meantime, pay attention to the chatter about gay marriage this week. Notice the widespread support for same-sex marriage and the near-universal denunciation of the Defense of Marriage Act. Remember the fierce opposition we faced in Massachusetts in 2004. The opposition has not disappeared—they were certainly in evidence in Washington, D.C. this week. But the momentum has shifted.
Miraculous, no?

As we chant hallel, the ancient psalms of praise, throughout the week of Pesach, let us acknowledge and proclaim these holy  words:
hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, which this week, I translate as:
Give thanks to the Holy One for all the goodness we have received; for love of all kinds is divine and is the most powerful tool we have to recreate our world in God’s image.

With blessings for a loving Pesach holiday!
Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Thursday, March 21, 2013

MY FAVORITE (PASSOVER) THINGS: a very idiosyncratic list of resources for your seder

Many people I have talked to this week are suddenly in the throes of pre-Pesach planning. So this message will be short and to the point.

I am amazed at the resources available to us this year to create a meaningful and memorable seder. Here are a few online resources for every taste.

Are you creating your own haggadah or enhancing the one you always use? Check out a variety of editions, including the traditional text, supplementary readings, songs and even some recipes:

Are you looking to add a contemporary message of social justice to your seder, whether a reading or an action you can take? Here are a couple of my favorites this year:
  • The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism offers several downloadable haggadot on various themes, including LGBTQ outreach, hunger, modern slavery, immigration, a seder for the earth, and a black-Jewish haggadah at:

  • T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America) has a unique Afikoman prize, 10 ways to bring human rights to your seder and adding a tomato to your seder plate:
  • From Moving Traditions, the source of our girls empowerment group, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, here’s a story and questions about brave women, suitable for teens as well. Note: “Paro” is the Hebrew for “Pharaoh.”

  • I love song parodies, in case you haven’t noticed. This year I’ve found several sites with new and clever seder songs (beyond the classic “Said the father to his children….” version of the 4 children, sung to the tune of “Clementine”). Lots of familiar Broadway tunes and Beatles melodies can be found at:

  • For those with a spiritual bent, check out, a project of the Reconstructionist movement, and find songs, meditations, readings and poems:

  • Recipes? Of course! How can we get through a week of no chametz (no bread, pasta, cereal or other dishes made of wheat, rye, oats, barley or spelt) without some new ideas? After you’ve collected the family recipes and searched the cookbooks, check out:

And finally, I would like to encourage you to invite our President to your seder table. He will probably decline, but his words about Passover, about peace, and about the Jewish people will provide food for thought (Pesahdik of course!) and some lively conversation about what it means to be a Jew today, what freedom requires of us, and how our story has a universal message. Read the speech Barack Obama gave in Jerusalem on March 21 (and count how many Hebrew phrases he knows!);

From my family to yours, from my house to your house, from my heart to yours, I wish you a joyous and liberating Pesach holiday!

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Owning the Title “Social Justice Rabbi”

Posted on March 7, 2013 by Rabbi Barbara Penzner, ’87
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
I’ve never been arrested. I stood on my first picket line only three years ago. But ever since I was in high school, social justice has played a significant role in my Jewish life.
Even though I championed Soviet Jewish refuseniks, accompanied abortion-clinic patients, and shepherded a 40-year-old Boston congregation into citywide justice organizing efforts, I still did not see myself as a “social justice rabbi” or “social justice leader.”

That all changed in September 2009. Just before the High Holy Days, Hyatt Corporation made big news when the company fired the entire staff of housekeepers at its three Boston luxury hotels. The circumstances surrounding the dismissal of an entire department comprising nearly 100 workers—without any notice and with even less compassion—were so despicable that the governor called for a boycott.

Launched into leadership
As chair of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, I decided this cause was worthy of my time and energy. From that moment, I was launched into a position of leadership of the Justice at Hyatt campaign. I walked my first picket line, confronted Hyatt corporate leadership at their headquarters in Chicago, and brought bitter herbs to a Hyatt vice president at their first shareholders meeting. This past summer, I was present at the National Press Club in Washington, when the hotel workers announced the global boycott of Hyatt Hotels.

Through the three years of working with UniteHere! (the hotel workers’ union), meeting with hotel housekeepers, speaking at rallies, and encouraging colleagues to sign on to the boycott, I realized just what it means to be a “social justice rabbi.”

First, it requires perseverance. The fight to bring Hyatt management back to the negotiating table and to improve working conditions for the lowest-paid workers is far from over. When I received an award from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America in 2011, my response was: I haven’t finished what I set out to accomplish. I still haven’t.

But I’m constantly renewed by the quote from Rabbi Tarfon that hangs in my home office: “It is not up to us to complete the work; nevertheless we are not permitted to neglect it.”

So what is the work?
As a rabbi, I use my talents as a speaker and teacher to promote a cause, to educate and to raise awareness. I bring my presence as a spiritual leader and pastor to stand with the workers and let them know we care, and to inspire and empower people at rallies. I draw on the network of colleagues and friends from more than 25 years in the rabbinate as a megaphone—raising the volume, spreading the word, increasing the pressure.

What changed that helped me see my place as a leader?
I was blessed to have the time, resources and support of my congregation to take part in several programs for professional development, including RRC’s Tzey U’lemad continuing rabbinical education program; the SELAH social justice leaders training sponsored by Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc); and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. All of these helped me focus on my purpose, expand my awareness, and draw on spiritual resources far and wide.

Today, spirituality and social justice are two pillars of my life and my rabbinate. I see both as essential and interdependent Jewish paths: Spiritual life leads to a life of justice, and acting in the world can be supported by spiritual practice. In my experience, both are founded on the importance of relationships.

The holy power of relationships
God is present when we look another in the eye and make a heart-to-heart connection, as Martin Buber described, in an “I-Thou” relationship. Connecting with another person across ideological barriers, cultures and life experiences can create profound bonds of unity that give our actions the power to change the world.

The holy power of relationships is brought home by a Hasidic story told by Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. He was watching two Russian peasants drinking together at an Inn. The first asked, "Boris, do you love me?" His friend replied, "Ivan, do I love you? We've worked side by side on our farm for years. Of course I love you!" They returned to their vodka and a minute later, Ivan asked, "Boris, do you know what causes me pain?" Boris thought for a moment and answered, “No.” At that point Ivan roared: "If you don't know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me?”

Afterwards, Rabbi Moshe Leib said to his students: "This is the essence of our connection with one another. We must look deeply enough into one another's souls not only to know what makes us happy, but also to understand what causes us pain."

Let our love move us to action
At this season of intense preparation for the Pesakh seder, it is in our relationships that we find both spiritual sustenance and the call to act in the world. Gazing at those gathered around the seder table and retelling the story of the Exodus, let us understand the pain of those who are still enslaved. Let their stories and our love for them move us to action.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Find resources to learn more about the campaign to support Hyatt workers’ rights here:

Reposted from:

Time to prepare.. and not to panic

My phone tells me that the Eve of Pesach is in 17 days.

I’m trying not to panic.

I did not grow up in a household that changed over for Pesach. In fact, my father insisted on eating his regular cereal for breakfast without any thought, or perhaps in deliberate rebellion, to the strictures of removing hametz from our homes on Pesach. The rest of us ate cream cheese on egg matza.

My mother spent days preparing the seder meal, making dishes that were her family’s standards: cold salted egg soup as a starter, chicken soup with matza balls, brisket and fruit compote for dessert. My father led the seder every year, following the book in Hebrew or English as we chose, reading every section of the haggadah and opening discussions occasionally. For him, the message of freedom was the most powerful aspect of the holiday.

Not surprisingly, each of my siblings has taken our own path to Pesach, as we have to Jewish practice on the whole. It has been years since we sat down together at one seder table. While one sister lavishes attention on the menu, preserving my mother’s traditional foods, another sister spends months cleaning her house of hametz and observing all the laws of Pesach with ardor and even joy. My older brother makes sure to have his three children and their children at his table each year.

Like them, I bring both a love of the seder ritual and a love of the seder meal to our celebration. This requires preparing for the holiday for weeks before. Choosing recipes, shopping and cooking are as important as perusing different haggadot and choosing readings and questions.
Being with family is also central, which is why I’m a bit bereft that, for the first time, neither Aviva nor Yonah have spring break in time to join us at seder.  This year, I’m preparing by finding other ways to enrich my own seder experience so that I don’t dwell on that sense of loss.

And on top of all of this, I am aware of the need to do some soul-work, cleaning out hametz -- the crumbs of bad habits and the stale assumptions – to be ready to welcome the renewal of Pesach and springtime.

At this week’s Shabbat service we will announce the arrival of the new month, the month we call Nisan. In the Torah it is known as Chodesh Ha-Aviv, the Spring Month. A passage in the Book of Exodus which we will read as a supplement to this week’s Torah portion, declares “This month shall be the first month for you.” (Exodus 12:2) Just as we seek renewal in the month of Tishri at Rosh Hashanah, we have an opportunity, six months later, to find renewal again in the month of Nisan at Pesach.

We all have preparing to do. Some of us are more anxious than others. Some of us need to be reminded, especially if you are not making seder yourself.  

So I offer this tidbit of a poem as a prompt for you.
Put it at the top of your “to-do” list.
Post it on your computer or in your kitchen or on your phone.

On the eve of the full moon

we search our houses

by the light of a candle

for the last trace of winter

for the last crumbs grown stale inside us

for the last darkness still in our hearts.

(from “Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan” by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb)

The eve of the full moon of Nisan is in just 17 days. Don’t panic. Prepare — in joy and gratitude – drawing on the old traditions and awakened to the promise of new growth.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner