Wednesday, January 4, 2023

 Finding the Light of Hope on our Israel Journey

“Our goal is to create a crack in the wall of hatred and cruelty, to let the light come in.”

Bassan and Rami, a Palestinian from the West Bank and an Israeli Jew from Jerusalem, representatives of the Parents’ Circle, were unlikely emissaries of hope during our recent trip to Israel and Palestine. Rami and Bassan belong to a group that no one wants to join—a large community of Jewish and Palestinian parents who have all lost children to terror and conflict in Israel and Palestine and are tired of the endless cycle of loss of life. Their remarkable relationship across borders and bereavement inspired us to see their path to peace as a beacon in the darkness.

At the end of December five HBT families traveled up and down Israel and into the West Bank for ten days, accompanied by a Jewish Israeli guide who lives with her young family on Kibbutz and a Palestinian guide who lives with his young family in East Jerusalem. From age 15 to 80, we were an eclectic group. Most were in Israel for the first time; others were returning to relive our past and see the present with new eyes.

It was an intense trip, with every day filled non-stop from breakfast until dinner, meeting people, hiking, eating fabulous meals, visiting holy and historic sites, celebrating Hanukkah and Shabbat along with Israeli Jews, and taking in difficult realities..

In the background of our stay in Israel was the swearing in of the new government (without, I might add, the chaos of trying to elect a new speaker). This government, by all accounts, is the most right-wing of any in Israel’s history. Already, outspoken extremist members of the Knesset who represent slim minorities of the Israeli populace, have proposed radical changes to Israel’s culture, values, and democratic foundations.

One might come away from Israel today thinking “enough!” This is not MY Jewish state. These extremists represent the opposite of my Jewish values. Yet, as we learned in our travels, there is so much more to Israel than its government. We met Jews who taught us to be joyous and Palestinians who demonstrated resilience and many who shared a desire to live together in this land of surprisingly diverse languages, cultures, and traditions.

For those who want to raise voices in protest against the extremist policies of this ultra-right government—as Jews throughout the world must-- we have been urged by the equally powerful masses of Israeli citizens to join their struggle. My email is filled with messages from activists on the ground in Israel, among them Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together), a grassroots community of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis who will hold a massive March for Hope this Saturday night in Tel Aviv. (see graphic below).

A basic tenet of Judaism is kol Yisrael arevim ze laze—all Jews are responsible for one another. The people who live in Israel, Jews and all others, are bound to us, and we to them, in building a home for all to share. They need us and we need them.  On our trip we witnessed many cracks that let the light in, reminding us that none of us has the luxury to give up hope.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sustaining Ourselves and Being Renewed through Life’s Changes (Kol Nidre 5780)

Who remembers this old song?
Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you're two,
Turn around and you're four,
Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.
Turn around, turn around,
Turn around and you're a young girl going out of my door.
 This song, written by the great Harry Belafonte and Malvina Reynolds, speaks to us of turning, which is also how we think of teshuva, repentance. But more to the point, during this season, when some families gather around sumptuous tables, and when other individuals are far from their families, when we sit in pews surrounded by the loving presence of absent parents and grandparents, or when we find ourselves in a new place with strange melodies and unfamiliar neighbors, when we open prayerbooks and hear the whispers of our loved ones—praying, questioning, kibitzing, or lamenting—during this season it is nearly impossible not to spend time reflecting on how our lives have turned, and how we have changed. We have grown up or we hope to grow up soon. We watch our children growing by leaps and bounds and our parents growing old. At this time of the turning of the seasons, we can’t help but wonder, what changes are yet to come?
 Several years ago, I gave a sermon about the lessons I learned about change when we had to replace the carpet in our house. From a mundane task, I mused about the ways we can experience change. But that was a well-planned change, something our family chose to do, and which we prepared for with eager anticipation and which was a source of pleasure.
 This year, I want to reflect on the changes we do not choose, that are not planned, and that are often a source of fear and worry.
I have in my phone a photo that epitomizes for me the drama of life’s changes:  my mother-in-law, unable to walk, sitting in her hospital bed this summer. In her arms, she holds my grandson, her great-grandson, both of them lovingly gazing into each other’s’ eyes.
 No great-grandparent ever held my own children. I myself had little to no contact with my grandparents. Two of them died before I was born, and the others lived far away, our conversations curtailed by the high cost of long-distance calls. My second grandfather died in New York City while I was in grade school far away in Kansas. I only have memories, from when I was seven, of a brief visit with him in a nursing home. The one grandparent I knew, my father’s mother, traveled from Florida to come to my bat mitzvah, and my last visit to her was during my college years. So the image of four generations together in one room struck me with profound joy and sadness all at once.
 What a marvel to watch my mother-in-law hold her five month old great-grandson: a miraculous bond between two souls, one opening to the world at an astronomical rate, the other desperately trying to avoid being shut off from the world. And I noted that in both instances, neither knows what changes lie ahead, or how straight or crooked the road will be to get there.
Many of us are in the mysterious and anxious stage of watching parents age, doing our best to make their lives comfortable and meaningful, some of us at a distance and others around the corner. Our parents are in hospice care. Our parents have suffered serious illness from which they have miraculously recovered or are deteriorating slowly. Some parents are active and independent while others are confined. Some of us see this from the other side. We are the oldest generation and we are part of that dance with those who care for us, perhaps our children, perhaps other relatives, or other caregivers. What we all have in common is that we do not know what will come next, but we fear that is more likely to be a crisis than a slow, peaceful end. We worry about the health and safety of our elders.
At the other end of the spectrum, many here are in the equally mysterious yet joyful stage of watching children of every age as they explore and discover the world and become the unique human beings that we can only hope will be loved and treated with respect. And we also worry about their health and their safety.
 A friend recently described the journey of raising children as like getting on a plane without knowing where you’re going to land. We don’t always end up at the destination we had hoped for.
 Truthfully, we are all constantly going through changes, living in the shadow of the unpredictable. And that is the heart of what I have been thinking about this past year. Change is inevitable. We try to plan for it. We seek to control it. Sometimes we are even fooled into believing that we have delayed it indefinitely. But whether we are caring for aging parents or for our children, or whether we ourselves are noticing the aging process in our own bodies and minds, the change is coming. In the words of the Israeli poet, Dalia Ravikovitch (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld) in her poem, Pride:
 Even rocks crack, I tell you.
and not on account of age.
For years they lie on their backs in
  the cold and the heat,
so many years,
it almost creates the impression of calm.
They don’t move, so the cracks can hide.
A kind of pride.
Years pass over them as they wait.
Whoever is going to shatter them
hasn’t come yet.
And so the moss flourishes, the seaweed is cast about,
the sea bursts out and slides back,
and it seems the rocks are perfectly still.
Till a little seal comes to rub against them,
comes and goes.
And suddenly the stone has an open wound.
I told you, when rocks crack, it happens by surprise.
Not to mention people.
 Unlike home improvement, most of the time changes take us by surprise. But the gift of being human is that we can prepare for how to respond to them.
 And isn’t that what these Ten Cays of Repentance are about? This time of turning, of trying to change ourselves can also be a time to consider how to respond to change, whether we seek it out or are surprised by it. As we retrace our steps, longing to discover where we went wrong, what we might have done differently, and how we might repent and repair, it’s also important to acknowledge that many changes arrive in a shroud of mystery. The answers, even in hindsight, are not always clear. How can we get past chasing our own tails, coming back to the beginning without reaching a conclusion?
 While health and safety are often paramount in our concerns, there are other important aspects of our changing lives, like developing resilience, creating and maintaining our unique identity, and sustaining our spiritual health that form the foundation for growing up and aging well. The Hasidic masters taught a spiritual response to change in three simple steps: Hachna’ah, yielding; Havdalah, discernment, and hamtakah, sweetening. Acceptance, exploration, and transformation.
 John Lennon famously taught us, “life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.” He probably didn’t know the Yiddish expression, Mann trachut, un Gott lacht, man plans and God laughs. Acknowledging the inevitability that everything changes helps lower our resistance when it comes. Hachna’ah, yielding or accepting change, can help sustain us, whether we have lost our mobility, or are caring for a parent who is developing dementia, or embracing a child who has taken a different path than we had hoped.
 I like to call this step of acceptance “softening to reality.” Psychologist Marsha Linehan describes this form of acceptance as "the ability to perceive one's environment without putting demands on it to be different; to experience one's current emotional state without attempting to change it; and to observe one's own thoughts and action patterns without attempting to stop or control them." To soften to reality does not mean we give up, or that we stop feeling, or we pretend everything is ok. Rather, it means paying attention to those feelings as a way to understand ourselves. Knowing how we feel, we can begin to have compassion for ourselves, for our losses, and for our frailty. And I would add, all the more so when we are accepting someone else’s situation; we dare not try to change them or change their minds.
 In softening to a new reality, we can still ask questions. In fact, acceptance may even raise more questions than answers. What will I do now? Who will be there for me? What other changes may come from this? But there is one question that is not helpful in this situation, “why?” We can get stuck in the endless circle of why. Why me? Why now? “Why” can lead us deeper into our own dark place, a place of fear, anger, and isolation, while “what can I do now?” brings us back into the light. By softening to reality, we may find that instead of facing a dead end, we have been pointed in a new direction. The gift of hachna’ah, yielding, is that it allows us to continue to grow.
 When we begin to ask questions of the new reality, we can experience Havdalah, discernment or curiosity. Exploration and inquiry, whether into the situation or into our own thoughts and reactions, opens us up to see a bigger picture.  With discernment, we can replace fear with awe. We can channel our resistance into renewal.
 Years ago, my sister’s son, Chayim Zevi, was involved in a terrible accident. When he was eight years old, he was hit by a car and went flying into the air. He was rushed to the hospital with a cracked skull, a broken leg, broken nose, and broken jaw. It was terrifying. The doctors performed surgery to repair his broken leg and broken jaw. They also did a CAT scan, where they were grateful to learn that he had not had a concussion. But they did discover an undiagnosed brain tumor. After successful brain surgery, Chayim Zevi recovered fully from his injuries. Aside from needing regular MRIs, and an ugly scar on the back of his head, my nephew is now a healthy young man who celebrated his wedding three weeks ago. He is a remarkably joyful person, who lives life with gusto and a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude.
 As Rabbi Heschel has taught, “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” (God in Search of Man) Exploration helps us cultivate awe and wonder, opening us further to new possibilities.
 Then we come to the third step, which can only come after softening to reality and discernment. That step is hamtakah, literally, sweetening. Like putting sugar in your tea, sweetening what is bitter holds the possibility of transformation.
 Sweetening can begin by telling ourselves a new story, opening a new chapter that changes direction from what came before. A child we hoped would go to college and get a degree has given us new eyes to see that her path is right for her. She has taught the value of patience. The experience of illness has allowed us to accept help from others who we did not realize were so kind, devoted, and capable. It has taught gratitude. Losing a high-paying job has opened our eyes to how miserable we have been, and given us the prospect of more meaningful work, despite the financial impact. It has taught abundance.
 When faced with the helplessness and despair of an unexpected change, we have the uniquely human capacity to awaken new ways of thinking. As we age and lose some capacities, we can ask ourselves: What can I still do? What do I enjoy? What do I have to look forward to? What wisdom can I share, what stories do I have to tell?  Our lives can become sweeter with the gifts of gratitude, of creating and nurturing our relationships, and finding pleasure in the here and now.
Throughout Yom Kippur, listen for the prayers for “chayim tovim.” Not just life, chayim, but chayim tovim, a good life.  It’s not enough to be written in the Book of Life to survive. Commentators often suggest that the image of God writing our fate in that Book is a metaphor which we can understand in a different way. As Maimonides teaches, people can be considered as dead even in their lifetimes because they do not understand what it means to be truly alive. When we read “Choose life!” in tomorrow’s Torah portion, it is a reminder that we have a choice about how to live. We may not have a say in why things turn out as they do, but we can choose to see a different path, to learn a different way of being, to tell a different story.
 Here’s another secret to responding to changes:  the more we cultivate these practices throughout our lives, the better off we will be when the rocks crack open. In explaining the biblical verse to follow the Torah and mitzvot in order to live, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “Do not wait to become pious when you are old.” Like learning to read and write, practices that lead to openness and resilience are tools that needs to be developed over time, beginning with early childhood and continuing as a life-long practice. Those who come to understand that we are not in control more easily navigate life’s changes.
 As Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal describe in their book, Wise Aging, “[people who have aged well] have learned to be patient and trusting, though not passive—allowing events to unfold more slowly, accepting other people’s foibles and not rushing to judge or blame them. They are joyful, though not necessarily ebullient, so they find more to celebrate in the day.” (p.172)
 I have known many people with those qualities, and many of you are sitting here in this room tonight. You may be struggling with all kinds of worries, limitations, or challenges. You may live with a chronic illness, have suffered a terrible loss, or find a new challenge every day. Yet you find a way to see the world with eyes full of wonder and gratitude. You may observe Shabbat and pray regularly, or perhaps you don’t consider yourself religious. You might be the kind of person who when asked, “how are you,” responds “never better.” You have a gift. You are a joy to be with and an inspiration.
 And I know others who feel hopeless. You have suffered unbearable trauma. You may be laboring with unspeakable challenges. We dare not blame or judge you. Instead, on this Yom Kippur, praying together for chayim tovim, our words include all of us, and truly all of humanity, in that prayer, the prayer for a good life, that we might find a path to make the most of each day.
 As my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Richard Hirsh has written:
“Life is broken into discrete pieces, often experienced as a series of moments whose only connection is that they follow one upon the other. … We go through good years as well as difficult ones; we have some moments when we soar and others when we crash. We age, and as our experiences accumulate and the decades pass, we increasingly sense an urgency to tie it all together, to see the patterns emerge, to connect the dots. We seek meaning, both the meaning we create and the meaning we can discover.”
 Sometimes, when answers evade us, we are blessed to find meaning: the meaning we discover as well as the meaning we create. Through all of life’s changes, unpredictable as they can be, may our lives be sustained each day, with a sense of purpose, possibility, and meaning.         Ken yehi ratzon.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


I learned about moral courage in a faraway land in Central America, in the midst of volcanoes and coffee plantations. On a trip to Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service, I learned about moral courage from the lawyers of el Bufete Jurídico de Derechos Humanos who defend the human rights of indigenous people and who successfully prosecuted corrupt generals and presidents, despite threats from those very powerful men. I learned about moral courage from citizen journalists La Prensa Comunitaria who were threatened and even arrested for their online reporting of mass displacement of entire villages by corporate interests who rob indigenous people of their land, with the support of the government, for mining or drilling that deprives people of their livelihood and poisons the land. I learned moral courage from Anna Elizabeth and three other women who traveled 27 hours by bus to tell us how she stood up to her own father to be able to go to school, and how their organization, Nuevo Horizonte, taught them the skills to stand up to the male-dominated leaders of their town, to run for a seat on the city council, and fight to give women a voice and a budget for economic opportunity, for access to food and health care for women and children, and for an end to violence against women. I learned about moral courage from people who may never become famous or powerful, but who risk their lives every day to defend human rights in their homeland.

Each day when I wake up, I fortify myself with the stories of everyday people who choose to take a moral stand. Despite the risks to themselves and their families, despite the setbacks that lead to despair, despite the power of the government itself to shut them down, these people do not give in and they do not give up. In fact, when we asked them why they did it, many of them told us that for them, there is no other choice. Anna Elizabeth told me that they are planting seeds together and though she doesn’t know when they will bear fruit, she will die trying.

But we need not look to Guatemala for models of moral courage. Here in the United States, I recently learned of a journalist and two doctors who took risks to uphold the moral principles that were fundamental to their jobs.

Susannah Sirkin shared the story from Physicians for Human Rights, of two doctors who defied their superiors to tell the truth about medical conditions for immigrant children in detention. A year ago, Dr. Pamela McPherson and Dr. Scott Allen, who serve as subject matter experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties blew the whistle on their own department in a letter to the Senate’s Whistleblowing Caucus. The doctors described cases in which children experienced severe weight loss, accidental vaccinations with adult doses, and dangerously slow medical attention.

Judith Levine shared another story of the son of a dear friend who gave up his job as a journalist a few weeks ago over journalistic integrity. Jeffrey Dale, the copy editor of The Patriot Ledger and Brockton Enterprise, was reading over a story set to appear on the front page, titled ‘Braintree man accused of brandishing gun, yelling racial slur.’ Deep into the story, the editors had decided to publish a quote that spelled out the N-word fully in print. To give some context to this story, Dale said, “I have worked for six papers directly and hundreds of papers indirectly in my short 10-year career in the newspaper industry and I’ve NEVER EVER seen that word published in full.”

Seeking to change the published version, Dale tried to find out who made the decision and why, but all of the senior editors had left for the evening. It was at that point that he packed up his desk and quit on the spot.

As it turned out, within twenty-four hours the paper reversed itself and changed the online version. But at that point, this man with deep moral courage, decided that the decision reflected a serious problem at the paper, and as long as those decision-makers remained, he could not.

These brave individuals remind me every day how privileged I am. And they remind all of us that, despite the American insistence on profit and self-sufficiency, there is a moral bottom line. And that is the Jewish teaching that I believe is at the heart of what we are here for today.

To celebrate community in response to rugged individualism.
To care about people as well as profits.
To cultivate hope in place of helplessness.
To press for change in a time of challenges.
To take action in the face of adversity.

In these perilous times, when our rights are being violated, democracy is being hacked away, and leaders blatantly disseminate lies to win votes, when the American ideals of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” have been eradicated by leaders who keep children in filthy cages, without medical care to keep them alive and without their parents to give them comfort, and when our very earth is being stripped, poisoned, baked, and brutalized, we are called to uphold the ideals of respecting the dignity of human beings that is embedded in our Jewish souls. On this holy day, we must pray that we can face each day with the courage of our convictions, wherever we are called to make a difference.

Courage is a rare and hard-won commodity these days for most of us. This past year the Jewish community has collectively experienced a level of fear unheard of in my own lifetime. The deadly shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, the arsons attempts at the homes of local Chabad rabbis, and threats from White Supremacist groups across the country reminded us that, yes, it can happen here.

We have been targeted because we are Jews. We have been targeted for our love of Israel (whether that love is expressed through critique or through wholehearted support). We have also been targeted for standing with immigrants. For standing side by side with Muslims. For daring to suggest that a growing unrepentant racism and xenophobia are reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Our own president called us “disloyal.”

The times could lead us to retreat from our principles, to hide in our homes, to lock our doors in fear. Fear is a natural response to threats. But fear can also prevent us from taking any action, or it can lead us to act without judgement. Instead, I urge us all to carry with us the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He did not say lo lefached klal, “do not have any fear at all.” Instead he proclaimed: V’ha’ikar lo lehitpached klal. What is essential is not to be overcome by fear.

Two years ago, I spoke of the importance of proudly resisting white supremacy and anti-semitism by courageously expressing our Judaism. That takes a certain amount of courage in itself.

Today, I urge each one of us to cultivate moral courage.

What is moral courage? In 1897, at the first Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha’am prophetically warned the gathering delegates that “the secret of our people’s persistence is that… at a very early period the Prophets taught it to respect only spiritual power, not material power.” 

The Jewish tradition offers a different lens on the world and our own place in it. We are reminded by the teachings of the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, that there is more to living our lives than amassing property, profits, and power. There is a different kind of power that has sustained our people through oppression, through poverty, and through exile. We have survived through spiritual power. And spiritual power comes from moral courage. Moral courage is the Jewish heritage and the Jewish legacy.

In the last century, at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had come to the US in the 1930s from Germany, who was a longtime defender of civil rights and an organizer of the march, was invited to speak. You may not remember him or his words. He came to the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial immediately following Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over,” and just before Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream speech."

Rabbi Prinz declared:

I speak to you as an American Jew.

“As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity….
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned, in my life and under those tragic circumstances, is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent…”

Every time I read these words, a chill of recognition runs through my veins. These words touch every fiber of my being. They call me to make my voice heard. Rabbi Prinz has described the difference between courage and moral courage.

One need not be a famous rabbi preaching on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to have moral courage. Any one of us can face a moment when we feel called to speak out, called to act. In the story of the Exodus, our tradition tells a story of an average man, Nachshon, who demonstrated moral courage. As you may recall, the Israelites stood in a quandary at the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his army and his chariots approaching from behind, and the uncrossable sea blocking their way forward.

According to the midrash, Nachshon came to a decision. The decision would not guarantee their survival. Both ways, going back or going forward, threatened certain death. While others argued, while Moses prayed, Nachshon made a choice. He stepped into the water. Then he walked into the water. He kept walking until the water reached his nostrils, but he did not back down. He did not give up. And at that perilous point, the sea parted and the entire Israelite nation moved forward.

Where did Nachshon think he was going? He used his moral compass. He refused to go back to Egypt, refused to submit to Pharaoh, refused to surrender his dream. He moved forward. He set his sights in front of him, not into the sea, not across to the other side. Nachshon’s compass pointed him to the only destination that the people had ever set: toward the Promised Land. It was that principle that led him to make that fateful choice, to overcome his fears, to recognize that fear was not going away, but this opportunity might. In doing so, Nachshon chose survival of the spirit. And the sea parted because of him.

Some might say that Nachshon had faith, emunah. I would argue that it was not faith that drove him, it was faithfulness, amana. There was no guarantee that he would succeed. After all, even the Talmud says, don’t trust in a miracle.

Rather, Nachshon acted out of faithfulness to his principles. Everything that Moses had taught them hung in the balance. Would the people return to servitude? Or would they move forward to the Promised Land? In that decisive moment, Nachshon trusted in his moral and spiritual grounding, which gave him the courage to take the first step.

As a Jewish community we know our destination. We have a vision of where we want to get to, grounded in Torah and proclaimed by prophetic voices from Isaiah to Heschel: to a world of mutual and collective responsibility, a world of justice tempered by compassion. A world where everyone has access to health care and education, and where every child is treated as the most holy of all beings, deserving of every benefit to help them grow and thrive. A world where we cherish and guard and protect the earth. A world where we value teshuva—the capacity to change and grow, where we welcome the stranger, and where we pursue peace.

Nachshon knew, like Rabbi Prinz, that his action was not solely for his own benefit. If he was heroic, it was in order to lift up all the others surrounding him who needed a beacon of hope, so that they too would have the moral courage to step forward toward the Promised Land.

While the women of Nuevo Horizonte inspired me, they looked to our group of fifteen rabbis for inspiration as well. Watching our collection of women and men as we worked together as partners, they saw in us their own Promised Land. That memory, along with the stories of moral courage they told, obligates me to continue to lift them up, to magnify their voices, and to take risks myself. Though my words feel paltry compared to the life-threatening risks they take, I don’t hold back, because words do carry significance.

As we think about Anna Elizabeth and the human rights defenders in Guatemala, about Dr. Pamela McPherson and Dr. Scott Allen, the whistleblowers in the Department of Homeland Security, and about Jeffrey Dale, the journalist who would not put up with the implicit bias in his newsroom; as we hear the call of Rabbi Prinz and retell the story of Nachshon, my question for you today is this: What can you do to be courageous in the New Year? What is the Promised Land for you? What are the principles that you will think twice about before turning back?
If you need encouragement to take that first step, take to heart this poem by Rabbis Janet and Sheldon Marder. I will close with their charge for every one of us as we enter this New Year 5780.

Do not wait for a miracle
Or the sudden transformation of the world.
Bring the day closer, step by step,
with every act of courage, of kindness,
of healing and repair.
Do not be discouraged by the darkness.
Lift up every spark you can
and watch the horizon
for the coming of dawn.
Look closely!
It has already begun. 

Shanah tovah—may this be the year that our moral courage brings our world a few minutes closer to the coming of the dawn.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah
Rosh Hashanah 5780

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Testimony on the Fair Share Amendment at the Massachusetts State House, April 11, 2019

My name is Rabbi Barbara Penzner, rabbi at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, home to Jews from across Greater Boston. I am also the co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee and I am here today to testify in support of the Fair Share Amendment.

The people of Massachusetts are hard-working people. From the janitors who clean our offices to the CEOs of the biotech firms who create medical devices, we are proud to contribute to the economy of Massachusetts. Every worker does their part to create a society that works for everyone.

For those who have the blessing of wealth, which comes from hard work as well as inheritance, investments, and access to the best of our education, housing, health care, and transportation, keeping those foundations of society strong and sustainable for everyone is in their best interest. Employers need workers who are educated. Employers need workers who can travel to their jobs and get there on time. Everyone benefits when our infrastructure works.

Let’s look at a basic moral principle. Namely, human society thrives when we share our blessings. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read:
“There shall be no needy among you, since you will be blessed, but if a needy person comes to you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand; give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for you will be blessed in all your efforts.”  (Deut. 15:4, 7,10)
When we share what we have our blessings multiply.

A second moral principle is that no individual is required to carry the burden of the whole; this is the responsibility of the community. As we read in the book of Leviticus (19:9-11):
“When you reap your harvest, you shall not take everything on the land; you must leave the corners of your fields for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. In addition, whatever gleanings fall from your hand, you leave them for the poor and the stranger. When you pick the fruit of your vineyard, do not leave the vines bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard, you shall leave them for the poor.”

You can be sure that those with bigger fields left bigger corners.
The extra dollars that we leave on the table can save lives, while we hardly notice.

A rabbinic tale describes how we are all in the same boat. A group of travelers are sitting in a boat when one takes a drill and starts drilling a hole under his own seat. As the water begins to pour into the hull, all the other passengers protest. The one with the drill responds, what business is it of yours? I’m only drilling under my seat.

Prosperity comes to those who share their wealth. We are not asking the wealthy to give away their hard-earned earnings. We are asking them to contribute a small fraction, the corners of their fields, to build up the roads and bridges, to improve the trains and buses and subways, and to create a shining educational system that raises up all people.  We are in the same boat, and together, we can keep the hull strong enough to carry us all.

Thank you.

To learn more about the Fair Share Amendment and Raise up Massachusetts, go here.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Meet our new grandson, Isaiah Levin

Isaiah Levin

To our friends, family, but most importantly Isaiah,

We want to tell you a little bit about your name. We chose both names impulsively (one of them may or may not have been drunkenly selected in a hot tub), but the more we’ve reflected, the more we’ve realized they reflect our deepest hopes for what kind of person you will be.

Let us you tell a little bit about the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC during the Assyrian destruction of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian captivity which followed.. The book of Isaiah is filled with much of the best poetry in the Bible, such a beating swords into plowshares, the radical statement of monotheism “I am the first and I am the last” and the voice in the wilderness. But our favorite verses, which were always your mother’s favorite part of Yom Kippur and your father  discovered in a book by Will Durant is Isaiah 58:5-7:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
In the first line, Isaiah rejects empty ritual and self-centered acts of pseudo-asceticism as guides towards living an authentic, ethically meaningful life. Holiness will not come by sticking rigidly to the dictates of tradition. Isaiah does not grope towards an imaginary past.

But Isaiah does not reject the idea of a fast.  Rather than focusing on the damn Babylonians, he focuses his critique on what his people can control - their own complicity in the highly marketized, deeply stratified Eastern Mediterranean economy. Like any good prophet, Isaiah is furious at the hypocrisy and injustice of the world around him, and demands something better. Isaiah turns the power of God into something beyond idolatry and dreams of national vengeance, into an instrument for criticizing the social order. He’s angry about inequality, poverty, debt-peonage, and slavery. I hope that when you see these things in the word around you, your heart burns with anger, and the that your lip curls with disgust. To quote our late, beloved Professor Silberman (zichrono livracha) I hope you’re always ready to fight the bastards.

But Isaiah also articulates a vision of holiness grounded in community and our ethical obligations to one another. When he says “hide not thyself from thine own flesh” he’s describing a radical act of empathy in which my fate is bound up in yours and acts of justice involve physical connections between people. Bring poor people into your home. Cover the naked. Feed the hungry. It’s easy to believe in the principles of a just world. But what’s more difficult is actually living the way Isaiah describes. Getting your hands dirty, and not being afraid to touch your brothers and sisters. “Thine own flesh” is an expansive definition of family. He could of said kin, but he instead he encompasses all humanity (and maybe not just humanity) in shared  physical connection that demands empathy.

I know that’s a lot for a little baby. Or 8 year old watching this video waiting for the good part, of moody adolescent trying to engage in some futile voyage of self-discovery. Living this life of radical empathy, really seeing and not being afraid to touch the people around you. It’s something that’s hard for all of us, every day, and that’s why it’s our hope for you.

Now, Isaiah’s a prophet. He like, lives in a cave and yells at people all day. What would it look like to actually live by his principles? For that, we wanted to name you after a weirdo who could have been one of your college uncles, Konstantin Levin.

Your mother finished Anna Karenina in a feverish daze over a week in DC the summer after our first year of college. She stayed up all night reading while we schemed bus trips to come visit each other. Most people think of Anna Karenina as the story of a tragic love affair, which is crazy, because that’s only half the book, and it’s missing the best part! Levin, who forms the other half of the book’s narrative, is a young country aristocrat struggling to be a good person in a rapidly modernizing late 19th century Russian society that he knows is unjust.

Levin’s far from perfect. He’s awkward, temperamental, argumentative, and impulsive. But he’s also thoughtful and sincere. He spends the book arguing, studying, passionately engaging in agricultural modernization projects - . It’s a great book. Seriously, we’re not selling it well. There’s an awesome part where Levin cuts wheat with some peasants then drinks some vodka, and it made us both cry.

But the book ends with Levin’s epiphany, which both acknowledges its difficulty and echoes Isaiah’s embodied vision of love.  He says:

I shall continue to be vexed with Ivan the coachman, and get into useless discussions and express my thoughts blunderingly. I shall always be blaming my wife for what annoys me, and repenting at once. I shall always feel a certain barrier between the holy of holies, of my inmost soul and the souls of others.”


“I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now—peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned, who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing—we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good.”

While acknowledging that authentic connection with others is difficult and temporary, he realizes that these brief, shining moments are what gives life its meaning. Levin accepts that there is a barrier between him and his fellow man, but sees his duty in life as poking through that barrier whenever he can. The world is broken and unjust; we’re not perfect, and neither are our brothers and sisters. But that shouldn’t stop us from loving each other.

Isaiah Levin, in Jewish tradition the Bris is meant to be a covenant between God and the people of Israel. But today you’re entering into a covenant with all people, surrounded by wisdom that echoes across centuries and millennia, and so many people who love you. Feed your brothers and sisters, cloth them, see them, love them.

We love you so much already, and we can’t wait to see the person you become.

Ima and Dad (Aviva and Colin)

Isaiah was born March 27, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois

Thursday, April 19, 2018


Is today a day of joy or a day of sorrow?

Today Israelis and Jews across the world celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. It’s a very special anniversary: 70 years since Israel was welcomed into the family of nations as an independent Jewish and democratic state.

Looking back to 1948, we have much to celebrate. The ingathering of Jews from displaced persons camps in Europe, from anti-semitism in the lands of North Africa and the Middle East, from starvation in Ethiopia and from oppression in the former Soviet Union, are a modern miracle for the Jewish people.

Israel catalyzed the revival of the Hebrew language, the foundation of contemporary literature, music, and art that draw on the two-thousand-year-old heritage of Jewish text and thought expressed in our ancient tongue.

Israel is the only place on earth where Jews welcome Shabbat and holidays in the spirit of a myriad of Jewish ethnicities that characterize our people’s global sojourns and refracted through multiple lenses of Jewish religious observance.

I’ve traveled to Israel over 20 times, including 2 extended stays: one with my husband, and one with our children (our son Yonah was born in Jerusalem). For me, Israel is home and family, a source of joy and pride. I am fully an American Jew, but for me, there’s just something different about being in the land of our ancestors and in a society where Jewish creativity is part of the landscape.

We also have reason for sorrow. Our gratitude for a homeland stands in sharp contrast to the displacement of people who call our shared land by a different name, Palestine, and who have been denied full rights, whether as citizens of Israel or as an occupied people. To the Palestinian people, today commemorates the Nakba, the catastrophe, which followed when the British ended their mandate and Israel arose as an independent state.

And yet….

And yet, this year I have found reason to hope.
Returning from our visit to Israel in February, I felt hopeful because of the unsung remarkable, passionate, and effective Palestinian and Jewish leaders who are working together on the ground to create a better homeland for all.

Returning from the JStreet 10th Anniversary Conference this week, I feel hopeful because of the open-hearted dialogue between Israeli Jews, American Jews, and Palestinians who spoke. I feel hopeful because of the 1200 JStreet U college students at the conference who are vigorously protesting the demolitions of Palestinian homes in the South Hebron Hills. I feel hopeful because of our meetings with Congressional representatives and Senators who hear and respect the voices of thousands of JStreet supporters who seek to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, committed to a two-state solution that brings peace and security to the region.

In this world of pain and possibility, it is our obligation to hold on to both realities, the celebration and the sorrow. It is up to us to remain engaged with our Jewish homeland, to continue to support those in Israel and Palestine who are working for human rights, economic sustainability, and peace and security, and to stand against those who continue to deny the rights of Palestinians, who reject moderate Palestinian leaders, and who attack the forces for civil society and equality.

On this 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth as a modern nation, I recommit myself to do all that I can to work for the kind of Jewish and democratic state envisioned by its founders.

I turn to Psalm 30 to remind me of the long view:
Redeemer, you have raised my spirit from the land of no return,
You revived me from among those fallen in a pit;
For God is angry for a moment, but shows favor for a lifetime,
Though one goes to bed in weeping, one awakes in song;
You changed my mourning to an ecstatic dance
You loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with joy.

May the next 70 years bring more song than weeping, more joy than mourning, for our people and for those with whom we share our sacred land.

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.