Thursday, December 10, 2015

It is up to us

“Today I am a Muslim. This country sent away my people, the Jews, and they were slaughtered in concentration camps. Stop the hate! Remember the SS St. Louis.
Unite children of Abraham!”

My brother posted this cry on his FB page early Tuesday morning. When my own clock radio roused me with the news of Donald Trump’s so-called proposal to ban all Muslims, I felt a similar outrage.

As I listened all day to denunciations of the candidate, analysis of the impact on the presidential campaign, and Gov. Baker’s characterization of the proposal “ridiculous,” I appreciated the swift condemnations. But my brother’s post brought home a reality that goes beyond any one candidate, beyond decrying hatred and beyond flimsy dismissals.

Trump is no longer a joke. He is not ridiculous. He inflames the basest tendencies of humanity: anger and hatred. His unreflective, unrepentant rhetoric validates evil. His words encourage white supremacy, extremism and violence.

Even if he is defeated in the polls, Trump has given voice to a dangerous element in American society. With his words, he has unleashed a destructive force that even he cannot stop.  Even if he never explicitly encourages violence, his words condone it. Innocent Muslims and immigrants have already been attacked. Who will be next?

More disturbing is that we cannot pin responsibility on one candidate alone. Trump’s ideas would have no impact without the fertile ground of divisiveness cultivated by others. Irresponsible pundits and candidates have polluted political discourse with toxic statements of their own. While they attempt to distance themselves from his inflammatory speech, their own docile espousal of similar sentiments have made Trump’s words acceptable.

Tonight is the fifth night of Hanukkah, and today is also International Human Rights Day. Today is the day for us to remember the best of what is means to be human and to work to overcome the worst evil in the human heart.

It is up to us to work to implement the ideals espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When we light our candles, we must dedicate ourselves to bring more light into a world that seems darker every day. It is up to us—Aleinu—to stand up, to speak out, and to act with love in order to overcome the power of evil.

Today I am a Muslim. Today I am an immigrant. Today I am a refugee. 
Today I am also an advocate for truth, compassion, repentance, equity, and justice. 
I can’t do this alone. Join me. It is up to us.

I was proud of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC) to issue this statement condemning incendiary language against Muslims. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015


(Intended for all of us as we watch and worry and wish there was something we could do to end the violence in Israel and Palestine.)

I recently heard an NPR host quote a friend who told him, “Israel is a country, not a conflict.” How often we forget!

Whether we are talking about Israeli victims of knife attacks or we are talking about Israeli government policy toward Palestinians, we often limit our understanding and confine our conversation to the conflict. As a synagogue, part of our mission is to educate about all of Israel (and Palestine too). I don’t want to whitewash the disturbing truths and I don’t think we ought to avoid controversy.

The material below is a haphazard listing of some of what I’ve been reading this week. Some of it is hopeful, some of it provocative. 

Did you hear about the owner of the hummus cafĂ© giving discounts to Jews and Arabs who eat together? Here’s an account from Al Jazeera America:

This Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg has me thinking about the many roots of the current violence in Israel. I believe that most Palestinians want to live in peace and support Israelis living in peace. I believe that most Israelis do as well. This article does not engage in blame, but thoughtful analysis. Some violence arises from incitement, lies and ignorance. Note the quote from Shlomo Avineri that highlights the many contributing factors to the current situation. It’s about settlements, weak leaders, mutual distrust—and so much more.

MORE PROVOCATION (and a condemnation)
And in the same vein, I feel obligated to condemn the recent anti-semitic attempt by UNESCO to deny the Jewish cultural/religious/historical heritage at holy sites (starting with the Western Wall and Temple Mount). I rarely jump to accusations of anti-semitism, particularly regarding Israel. In this case, it seems apt. This resolution seeks to identify these places as sacred Muslim sites, without any recognition of the sites’ sacredness in Jewish tradition as well. Furthermore, these claims are based on repeated false assertions of Israeli aggression in the Muslim holy sites.

You may remember when the Chaverim School featured the “Hand in Hand” (Yad b’Yad) schools for our group tsedakah (giving) recipient. Hasan, the school principal, argues that life in the Arab-Jewish bilingual school is not a “bubble.” Rather, the Jews “outside” live in their bubble, while the Arabs live in another bubble. He asks, who is really in a bubble, us or them?
Watch the video of a report on Israeli television (with English subtitles for the Hebrew and Arabic).

When we feel hopeless, renew our faith. I end with a prayer by Rabbi Noa Kushner

For Zion in the wake of the recent violence

Adonai sfatai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha / Open my lips and my mouth will declare your glory / Ps. 51:17

Please God:

Help our prayers leave their convenient parking spaces where they idle in our hearts. Release them from where they are stuck in our throats.

Help us to pray a real prayer. The unfinished kind. The kind that probably doesn’t rhyme. The kind that we worry someone will hear. The kind that does not construct a good argument or a reasonable plan for the future, but knows what it wants, that kind.

Remind us that prayer can begin in the beit knesset (synagogue) but is prohibited from staying locked up inside it. (Because prayer that is not allowed out is like a prayer that stays in bed. It lies prettily on its side, as if posing for a picture, but does not get up to help.)

Remind us that our prayers, as unfinished as they are, must be released into the winding streets of right here, right now where they are needed
Like fire trucks rushing to the scene of a fire.

And remind us that where our prayers go, we must follow.

So please: Adonai sfatai tiftach / God, open our mouths and open our doors.
Let us go toward the future with our wanting and your glory. Let our prayers find the prayers of others – others’ faiths, others’ furies, others’ fears – and let the prayers flow, like water flows to the lowest place, gathering

Making rivers where there has been nothing, no life, not a single drop, no hope, not a single fish, for so long. Making a rushing stream.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Peace and Justice in a Violent World

This week, we witnessed two remarkable, passionate, and contradictory responses to acts of horrific violence.

Our country was awestruck to hear the families of the nine murder victims in Charleston face the unrepentant murderer saying, “You have taken something precious from me. And I forgive you.”

A few days later, many victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their families spoke with derision at the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Still feeling the pain of their loss, many refused to accept his words of apology. Several reiterated their support for the death sentence.

How can some people be so forgiving while others are not? 
Is it possible to seek peace and justice at the same time? Can we love those who hate?

Rev. Norvel Goff gave a resounding answer to that question last Sunday at Emanuel AME Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last Sunday, saying, "In order for us to begin the healing process, we must forgive as we have been forgiven. That does not mean that the process of justice does not continue."

What I heard in his moving embrace of these seemingly contradictory values was the foundation of building meaningful relationships, even with those who hate us. When we stop to open our hearts to forgiveness, we do not release the criminal from his own responsibility. But we do everything in our power to prevent hatred and violence from entering our own hearts. We do everything in our power to stop hatred and violence from spreading.

Last week, Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger spoke to a crowd at Temple Israel about the Roots project, working to bring together Palestinians and Israeli settlers and building trust between Israelis and Palestinians in a process Awwad calls “Painful Hope.” The former Palestinian prisoner and the settler rabbi each spoke authentically and openly about their backgrounds, their beliefs, and their prior attitudes about the people who had been their enemy. We were moved by their ability to speak their truth and at the same time to hear the other’s truth. We were inspired by the growing respect and love that resulted from their painful work together, despite their prior hatreds and fears.

In all of these examples, justice and love are bound together to seek peace.

Justice is a foundational concept in Judaism. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut.16:20) demands that we be vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Judaism is a religion of laws, built on a vast system of rules and an emphasis on scrupulous judicial fairness, compounded by centuries of interpretation and practice. I firmly believe in justice.
Interestingly, the word tzedek is not commonly found in the words that Jews repeat regularly in our liturgy. If the words of prayer are intended to penetrate our consciousness and frame our thoughts and behavior in the world, then we should note which words do repeat: ahava  (love) and shalom (peace). Whenever we end the main prayer of every service, the Amidah, we pray for peace.

In addition to the verse cited above, demanding that we pursue justice, the Rabbis urged us to pursue peace, as the Psalms say “bakesh shalom v’rodfehu, seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15). The Rabbis who established our liturgy believed in the power of love and compassion, and understood that love and mercy are often at odds with justice. They taught that rachamim, compassion, trumps din, judgment.

Pursuing justice is essential, but it is not the ultimate goal. Forgiveness is also essential, but is not the ultimate goal. Both are tools that temper one another in order to bring peace. Our goal is to create a different kind of society where, on the one hand, we honor the dignity of the individual and, on the other, offense leads to a just pursuit of justice. Our ultimate goal is, as Micah teaches, for all of us to live peacefully and authentically beneath our vines and fig trees (Micah 4:4).

As we contemplate our congregation’s response to the Charleston massacre and to the racism that pervades our society, as well as the other conflicts we witness in our world, it is essential that we consider these values, despite the tension between them. On one side: love, compassion, forgiveness. On the other, justice, action, integrity.  Together, we hope and pray, they move us closer to a non-violent, peaceful society. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

PEDRO--An Unorthodox Review

I have a confession to make. I’m a bit of a latecomer when it comes to being a Red Sox fan. It took more than a decade after we moved to Boston before I finally went to see a game at Fenway Park. At my first game I recall walking up the ramp behind home plate and being amazed as the lush green diamond, the Green Monster (before their were Monster seats), the Coke Bottles and the Big Screen all rose before my eyes. At that first game, I thrilled to see Albert Belle hit a grand slam—even if it was for the Orioles. Ever the lover of the game, I became a member of Red Sox Nation.

By the time our whole family stayed up and burst into tears watching the tragic loss in the ALCS in 2003, I was a true Boston believer. And in 2004, when we finally reversed the curse, I actually sent a message to the mayor, asking him to delay the “Rolling Rally” until Saturday afternoon, so that the kids going to b’nai mitzvah around town (and rabbis who happened to be on duty at those b’nai mitzvah ceremonies) could take part. (The Mayor did not respond.)

Some players transcend team rivalries. That’s why Pedro Martinez was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year on the first try, receiving an overwhelming 91.1 percent of the 549 votes cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

You don’t have to be a Red Sox fan to admire Pedro.

I’m not a baseball writer, so I won’t go on about Pedro’s stats or athletic feats. I leave that to longtime HBT member, Michael Silverman. A sportswriter for the Boston Herald and friend of Martinez, he co-wrote Pedro, the pitcher’s autobiography, which came out on May 5.

Michael graciously donated a couple of autographed copies to the temple for our annual Spring Fling auction. I cherish my personal copy, and thoroughly enjoyed every page. Michael captured Pedro’s complex personality, his wacky humor, his fierce pride, and Pedro’s deep desire to tell the story his way.

Here’s what I think Pedro has to say, not about baseball, but about living a life of meaning. If he were Jewish, we might say:

Pedro believes in kibud av va’em (honoring parents) and lifnei seivah takum  (respecting elders). In other words, Pedro holds his family close. He even stopped playing tend to his dying father.

Pedro is a model of yosher (integrity). Much of what he reveals in this book are opinions that he discreetly kept to himself until after he retired. Of course, Pedro wasn’t always quiet and deferential. But he respected certain principles and refused to make excuses for his own failures.

Pedro is an exemplar of ometz lev (courage). Literally, it means strength of heart. Throughout the book, we hear that Pedro had “the heart of a lion”, which of course is a very Jewish symbol.

Pedro is a tsedakah hero. Not only does he help others financially, but he believes in what Maimonides called the highest form of tsedakah: helping people become self-sufficient so they are not dependent on tsedakah. Talk to our custodian, Socrates “Moreno” Guzman about what Pedro has done for the people of the Dominican Republic, and why he is so widely respected there. Moreover, Pedro gives so quietly, he hardly mentions his own generosity in the book.

Believe it or not, Pedro is a man of anavah (humility). In the Jewish Mussar tradition, humility does not mean modesty. Humility means knowing your place and acting appropriately to the situation. Pedro’s roots in poverty in the Dominican Republic continues to play a central role in his life. Like many of our Jewish ancestors, Pedro faced discrimination, rejection, and the indignities of learning a new language and culture when he came to the US. He had to prove himself time and again to get the respect he deserved. The pride and the arrogance we remember arose from Pedro’s desire to be respected for his skills, talent and effort in the game. Pedro has never forgotten where he came from or the people who helped him become one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

Thank you Pedro—and thank you to Michael Silverman for bringing his story to us!

(Red Sox highlights begin at 2:45)

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Ice Cream Didn't Melt, but My Heart Did

One of my family’s favorite stops during a summer vacation to Canada was the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour in Waterbury, Vermont. As everyone in Massachusetts knows, ice cream is great any time of year. But getting tastes of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on the tour, followed by a full-size cone, is a very special summer treat. Somehow, I always finish it before it has time to melt!

Ben & Jerry’s has also set the standard for business practices that protect workers. Their mission reads:

“Ben & Jerry’s operates on a three-part mission that aims to create linked prosperity for everyone that’s connected to our business: suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers, and neighbors alike.”

While they purchase fair trade coffee, vanilla, sugar and bananas from around the world, it appears that they could improve conditions for workers in their own home state of Vermont.

This week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—who have successfully eradicated slavery in the tomato fields of Florida and brought better working conditions to the migrant workers there—released a short video in support of the dairy workers of Vermont. Migrant Justice, a farmworkers organization, has launched the “Milk with Dignity” campaign to persuade Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to do the same for their suppliers. My heart melted when I watched it.

The “Milk with Dignity” campaign is modeled on the Fair Food Program in Florida. Many of you participated in persuading Trader Joe’s to sign on three years ago. Now, we can make a difference for the migrant workers in the Vermont Dairy industry.

Yes, I was surprised to learn about migrant workers milking cows in Vermont! They don’t appear in the Ben & Jerry’s website, much less on any of its products or advertising. In the video we hear from several immigrants who describe exploitation in the dairy industry in Vermont. If Ben & Jerry’s were to sign an agreement to buy milk products from farms that promise to abide by fair working conditions, dairy workers would have more oversight to ensure fair treatment.

So far, the Social Mission division of Ben & Jerry’s has not agreed, trying to handle these problems in a voluntary way, without making demands on its supply chain. We know from experience in Florida that this is not an effective method to make change.

Watch the short documentary and then put June 20 on your calendar for a day of action, when you can bring a letter to your nearby Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop (Newbury Street, in the Prudential Center and in Cambridge) and urge them to sign on. 

Remind them that they state on their website:

“We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.”

True respect for the human beings at the bottom of the supply chain requires giving them a voice. We look forward to the day that Ben & Jerry’s is a full supporter of Milk with Dignity. You can help bring that day soon!

Monday, May 18, 2015

My Ancestors were at Sinai, and All I Got Was this Parchment?

For the past six weeks, I’ve been counting the days. Today is the 45th day in the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks that connect Pesach to Shavuot.

(original image from

Some people I know spend their entire day with numbers. Financial advisers, data analysts, math teachers and students find meaning in numbers. Since I’m none of these, I often wonder what is the meaning that can be found in counting 49 days?

At this point in the count, I’m keenly aware of the goal, the 50th day, Shavuot. On this day we reenact, even in our imagination, the moment at Sinai when Torah was/is perpetually revealed.

Reenacting the Exodus is very familiar to us. Our elaborate Seder ritual is intended to help us imagine/remember/believe that we were all freed from Egypt. Our seders (Heb. sedarim) impel us to recommit ourselves to ending the oppression of all peoples.

Reenacting the Sinai experience takes an extra dose of imagination. We have no rituals and no concrete symbols on our tables to remind us of the experience of Sinai. Add to that the distance many of us feel from Torah, from God, and from revelation. They are abstract concepts. They are archaic.

My experience of Torah is much more expansive than our usual definition of Torah as the scroll in the ark, or even Torah as the Five Books of Moses. If we limited ourselves to the literal words of Torah, Jews would be hobbled in our observance, theology, and identity.

The Torah scroll recalls the experience of the ancient Israelites, our ancestors. They were not yet Jews. Their rituals included animal sacrifice and offerings of flour, oil and wine. They had no synagogues, no prayer books, not even a Torah scroll!

The story of our ancestors, as told in the Torah, ends before they enter the Land of Israel. Our history begins where Torah ends, with settlement, sovereignty, exile, destruction, return, and ultimately, dispersion across the globe.

Judaism, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it, is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. The vast majority of what we know as “Jewish” is absent in the Torah itself.

So why celebrate receiving Torah at Sinai? What makes this event relevant to our lives?

Torah, the book, is the seed from which all of Judaism has flowered. As such, “receiving Torah” means receiving the rich 3000-year heritage, the libraries full of texts, the commentary, literature, ethics, philosophy, and history that derive from and elaborate on Torah. Torah also means the lived experience of the evolving Jewish civilization: music and arts, flavors and cuisine, costumes and customs of our people.

On Shavuot, we reenact the revelation by reading the words of Torah that our ancestors used to describe an indescribably experience. While we will read “The Ten Words” (or 10 commandments), the focus is not on the content but the earth-shaking transformative experience that turned an enslaved people into a self-governing people, that changed their literal, concrete polytheistic world-view into an abstract understanding of the oneness of Being.

The Sages teach that written Torah (the words on the scroll) were transmitted along with Oral Torah (Jewish interpretive texts). From the Sages’ point of view, at the moment at Sinai, human beings received the expanded insight that led to generations of deliberation on the meaning of Torah and how it is to be lived in our everyday lives.

Torah in this expanded sense is a gift that we open up and receive in new ways continually. We hope to experience that mind-blowing, heart-opening moment ourselves.

One custom for Shavuot, developed by the Kabbalists of Tsfat in the 16th century, is to stay up all night studying, to reenact the preparations our ancestors made to hear that revelation. This has become a beloved custom, which we can engage in with the greater Boston community on Saturday night, May 23, in Brookline. For as many hours as you can muster, you may choose from workshops and study sessions from the rich Jewish civilization into the wee hours, even until dawn if you choose. And as we often say, all of us actually stood at Sinai, we will share this learning experience with Jews of many different backgrounds, of all ages and stages. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing Sinai.

My hope is that, like the Passover seder, the experience of Sinai on Shavuot impels us to action. By reminding us of all that our ancestors wrote, thought, described, and shared, and encouraging us to add our own ideas and experiences to that tradition, we recommit ourselves to Torah. I hope that we will be inspired to continue delving into our evolving religious civilization, to learn and to grow as our Israelite ancestors did, from our enslavement to attitudes and habits and toward expanded awareness.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Does Boston Strong Mean Today?

There are two types of strength. There is the strength of the wind that sways the mighty oak, and there is the strength of the oak that withstands the power of the wind. There is the strength of the locomotive that pulls the heavy train across the bridge, and there is the strength of the bridge that holds up the weight of the train. One is the power to keep going, the other is the power to keep still. One is the strength by which we overcome, the other is the strength by which we endure.           Harold Phillips

Copley Square was aglow with freshly planted yellow and purple pansies. Workers and police and visitors bustled around Boylston Street, building a covered pavilion in front of the Boston Public Library and putting finishing touches on the finish line.

Just before 2 p.m. at Old South Church on April 15, survivors gathered quietly for an interfaith Service of Resiliency. Firefighters, medical personnel, family and caregivers had come to pray, to be in community, to shed tears, and to renew their hope. Even former Governor Patrick sat in the pew.

A dozen clergy processed in caftans and cassocks, robes and suits, turbans and tallitot. Rev. Laura Everett remitted us that today, Boston Strong is also Boston Tender. Musicians played “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I carried a large glass bowl up the aisle for survivors to deposit notes, unburdening themselves of their losses, fears, anger, and sorrow.
The clergy collected the notes, blessed them and offered them back to others in pews. Collectively we carried each other's burdens.

Afterward I stopped on Boylston Street to take in the day. I joined those taking photos of the makeshift memorials. I heard stories from 2013—how people became injured, and how the churches of Boylston St. (all in the “crime scene zone”) came together that week. I learned that the Greek Orthodox Church in Watertown had to cancel a funeral during the lockdown, and that Trinity Church worshipped in Temple Israel's sanctuary that Sunday.

Boston Strong means being united, not in a superficial way, but in a caring embrace that strengthens us all, holding us in a loving dance, as Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor described. The dance may change, the tempo may slow, the dancers may be in the center or in a corner. But in that moment of silence at 2:49 p.m., with people standing and people sitting, together we held each other up.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Invocation at the Gala for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate

It is a great honor to be with you today, not only because of presence of so many who are dedicated to serving our country, but the legacy of Senator Kennedy is so vast, including his life of service, his life as a father and as a mentor to many and  because his legacy encompasses the major legislation that has bettered the lives of all Americans over the past fifty years. Long after we are gone, this building will remain as a lasting tribute to his great vision, a vision of a world redeemed through the grandest ideals of democracy and the personal relationships that undergird a healthy democracy.

How significant it is to be dedicating this institute at time in religious calendar of Jewish and Christian faiths, a holy time of renewal and rebirth as we anticipate the holidays of Easter and Passover.

As Jews prepare for the Passover holiday, we recall Moses, the Leader who redeemed our people from slavery. That story begins with a vision, when God called to Moses and instructed him to speak to Pharaoh, saying “Let My People Go.”

Moses was not only concerned with freedom from physical oppression. His vision demanded that the Children of Israel learn that freedom thrives in a structure of laws, laws that protect us and support us in becoming a community of our best selves. So Moses was also the Law-giver, who received the divine words on two tablets, written by the finger of God.

But laws cannot be etched in stone forever. Laws must live and breathe in the lives of every person and in every generation. Hundreds of years after Moses’ time, the Rabbis of the Talmudic age understood this. While the words Moses received contained the spirit of holiness, so did the process of questioning and argument that led to understanding and clarity.

Among the Rabbis who lived 2000 years ago, the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on nearly every important point of law, having two diametrically opposed approaches. On one occasion, the two groups argued over a single ruling for three years, until finally the Holy One intervened and said that “both are the words of the living God,” but it’s time to make a decision. And yet, the Talmud explains that during those three years of debate, the two groups married between themselves, they shared meals together and generally behaved as one people. Though they disagreed on the law, they respected that each side of the argument was built on the spirit of holiness.

Senator Kennedy embodied this vision. He recognized that truth that can be found, not only in the holy words of the Constitution but even more so in conversation, even between adversaries. This is the aspiration of this Institute, to inculcate that vision of civil conversation and working together for the common good.

And we still have so far to go. When Moses took the people out of Egypt, they were bound, not only by physical bondage, but by humanity’s worst enemies: cynicism, ego, isolation, and fear.

How do we address these enemies of the human spirit? By building relationships. At the Passover seder, we open our homes to family, friends, and even strangers. We share food and stories and recommit ourselves to the values of freedom, justice, compassion, and faith.

That is the purpose for this gathering tonight—to share food and stories and to recommit ourselves, as a group of friends, colleagues and strangers who, like Senator Kennedy, believe in the ideals of American democracy. With this meal, we dedicate ourselves to the holiness that dwells in law and to the holiness of the conversation and debate that strengthens the law.

And so we pray:
May the Holy One bless this gathering, bringing us together to break bread and to share our stories.

May this gathering bring blessing to this institute, bringing Americans together to practice civility.

May this Institute bring blessing to this nation and strengthen its democracy.
And through these divine blessings may this nation bring blessing to the world,

We thank you God, Source of all that lives and breathes, source of wisdom and compassion, for this food, for these people, for this gathering.

with Senator Elizabeth Warren

March 29, 2015

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Spring Brings

How can you tell that spring is on its way? There's less snow than before
Though there is still plenty of snow on the ground, and perhaps a few more inches to come, we have survived the brunt of a brutal winter. For many, this was the most disheartening winter on record. While we might revel in breaking our own snow record, the breakdowns of transportation, loss of income to individuals and businesses and the multiple snow days still to be made up have been demoralizing. With crews working to repair roads and tracks, and freezing temps keeping snow piles in view, we will be recovering from this winter for some time to come.

With the first day of spring upon us, this is a good time to take stock. Milestones like the spring equinox do not necessarily promise a clear ending or beginning. A thirteen year-old does not suddenly acquire maturity at bar/bat mitzvah. The relationship of a newlywed couple does not automatically grow more loving or committed on the wedding day. Much like any simcha (celebration) or ritual moment, we can use this date to see where we’ve been and look forward to where we are going.

The winter storms provided multiple opportunities for measuring our resilience and our compassion. Did we manage to overcome resignation and bitterness? Did we shovel snow for our neighbors or give an extra tip to the newspaper delivery service, dog-walkers or cleaners who came to our house or office? Did we find ways to entertain our children, spend time with partners and spouses, or even share our photos and stories with good humor?  And did we recognize how blessed and fortunate we truly are to have heat and electricity, solid homes and sufficient food? As one friend put it, “I’m grateful I don’t live in the Ukraine or Syria.”

Israeli Elections on St. Patrick’s Day
No, I can’t find any meaning in that confluence of events, except that it might succeed in bringing a smile to your face. By now, you have probably read plenty of reports and analysis about the election results. And if you haven’t, I want to point you to a couple of items.

In January, we hosted a talk entitled “Israel’s Critical Election Dilemma: Change or Status Quo” with Israeli journalist Eetta Prince-Gibson. Now we know the answer: more of the same. That’s part of what Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) had to say the next morning in I appreciate Jeremy’s ability to distill truths in a way that everyone can agree on, no matter what your personal political leanings. He is a true role model for maintaining balance while respecting the wide range of views in the Jewish community.

And if you’re looking for something more pessimistic, I recommend JJ Goldberg in the Forward, “Trouble Ahead for Bibi. Plus: Why Herzog Lost.” Not that I’m a fan of pessimism (I’m not!), but he lays out some of the challenges for Israeli society resulting from the recent election campaign.

There are many more ways to discuss the election. I’ll end by saying that, like the spring equinox, an election is a moment to take stock. I pray that, like the promise of spring, the outcome of this election will bring opportunities for renewal.

My Home is Someone's Workplace

I am looking forward to hosting seder once again. Family and friends will gather around our family table, extended beyond the dining room to accommodate the crowd, and the table will be filled with two seder plates, several types of charoset, extra matza, flowers, and of course, my mother’s fine china. My daughter and her husband will travel from Chicago, my son will come in from Philadelphia, and all of us will spend many joyful and frantic hours cooking and preparing. All this, on top of the pre-Pesach spring cleaning!

When I was growing up, my mother prepared the meal and my father led the seder. Both of them enjoyed their roles, taking pleasure in engaging our many guests in questions, conversation and multiple courses of good food. In our house today, the family shares in preparing the meal, while I lead the seder.

I discovered that one cannot lead the seder and serve the meal as well. While my guests are happy to assist, I want them to enjoy the evening at the table. How do families manage these large, festive meals when the roles have become blurred?

I learned that having someone help with the meal and the clean-up takes pressure off of everyone. Plus, our helper, who is not Jewish, usually participates in much of the seder and learns about the Jewish practices. It’s a win-win-win.

Since the kernel of the story of Pesach is about liberation from oppression of all kinds, I am particularly mindful of how we treat our paid seder helpers. Our liberation story provides a foundation for the ethical treatment of all workers. The 2012 national Domestic Workers Alliance determined that there are 2.5 million domestic workers in the US. Most receive no paid sick time and no overtime pay. A quarter of them get no more than five hours of sleep a night. Many suffer threats and verbal abuse. They work long hours with no breaks. In addition, live-in workers live in fear of losing their home when they lose their jobs. Fearful of being jobless and homeless, live-in workers are reluctant to ask for a pay raise or a night off.

This year, we have an extra incentive to remember to treat domestic workers (including nannies, cleaners, and companions who work in the home) with dignity. On April 1, just two days prior to the first seder, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights goes into effect in Massachusetts.

Who is affected by this new law? If you employ a domestic worker who works within your private home, you should become familiar with the new requirements. A “domestic worker” is someone who is not employed by an agency but works directly for the private individual, as a house cleaner or housekeeper, a nanny, caretaker, someone who cooks or does laundry or other household services for your family or guests. Your worker needs be a regular employee, not an occasional babysitter.

This new law will require some adjustment, as any change does. But as we have learned in other industries, treating workers with dignity benefits the employer too. These changes will create a more positive work relationship, which will have an immediate impact on the nanny’s relationship with children or a companion’s relationship with an elder or person who is ill or disabled. It’s a win-win-win for the employer, the worker, and those we love and care about.

published in The Jewish Advocate, March 20, 2015

And please join me at the Labor Seder, hosted by the New England Jewish Labor Committee, Tuesday evening, March 24 in Dorchester, when we will honor Mayor Marty Walsh for his exemplary commitment to the rights of all workers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Season of Snow--a musical tribute

inspired by Twitter #replaceLOVEwithSNOW

and Seasons of Love 

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments, oh dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In snowdrifts, in snow days,
In subways now out of service,
In inches, in piles, in winds like a knife,
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about snow?
How about snow?
Measure in snow.

Season of snow
Season of snow

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand journeys deferred
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a city that’s undeterred?

In back-breaking shov’ling
Or in parking space fights
In roofs that cave in or the world all in white

It's time now, to dig out
Though the storms never end
Let's excavate
Our streets from a year that broke all trends.

Melt all the snow
(Oh, you got to, you got to remove all the snow)
Melt all the snow
(You know that snow is a gift from up above)
Melt all the snow
(Share snow, give snow, spread snow)
Measure in snow
(Measure, measure your life in snow)

Season of snow
Season of snow
(Measure your life, measure your life in snow).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Groundhogs and Almond Trees

What  do they have in common? Both are harbingers of spring!

As I peer out over the mountain of snow in my front yard, I am comforted by the approach of Groundhog Day and Tu B’shvat in the coming week.

Groundhog Day, February 2, promises us that spring is just around the corner, or at least it’s no more than 6 weeks away.

Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shvat, comes on Tuesday-Wednesday, February 3-4, as a reminder that the first signs of spring are appearing in the land of Israel. With the full moon above, the sap is rising in the trees as they drink in the winter rains. The almond trees are the first to open their soft white blossoms.  If it’s not too cold and not too wet, Israeli children go out to plant trees.

We can get through the winter, knowing that soon spring will arrive. March will be here before you know it, and flower bulbs beginning to poke out of the earth.

In the Jewish lunar cycle, the month of Shvat (already nearly half over) will be followed by the month of Adar, the most  joyous month of the year. Planning for Purim festivities are already well underway.

So much to look forward to. And yet, let’s not rush things. Try to be in this moment, cold and snowy, slushy and slippery. Skiing and skating. And, ah yes, the Patriots are in the Superbowl.

I don’t know of many rituals surrounding Groundhog Day (except, perhaps, watching the movie “Groundhog Day” over and over). But there’s plenty of ways to honor and enjoy trees (and their fruits).

Take a hike! Our Chaverim School students will be taking a hike in the Arboretum (weather permitting) on Wednesday the 4th. But you can go anywhere, anytime, and enjoy the trees’ wintry array.

Eat fruit! The Jewish mystics created a special seder ritual for this holiday, involving eating 15 different fruits, symbolic of various experiences of divinity in our world. Can you name 15 fruits you’d like to eat? Even if they are not in season locally, consider dried fruits and nuts (nuts count as fruit in the seder). Hazon provides a haggadah for adults and one for children, so you can hold a Tu B’shvat seder in your home.

Plant a tree! Maybe you can’t actually dig a hole in the ground this week, but thanks to the internet, you can take part in tree planting elsewhere.There’s no denying it: our planet needs trees.

  • Some of you may remember giving to JNF to plant trees in Israel. You can still do that, and get or give a classic Tree Certificate.

 Planting a tree in Israel can also be a gesture of peace and hope.

 Watch Honi make it rain! Well, virtually. A fun video for everyone.

On Tu B’shvat, I will be eating dates, figs, nuts and pomegranates, and contemplating the need for us to take care of our trees and planet, as they sustain us, even through the frozen winter.  And remembering that each day is a choice fruit to enjoy.