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.