Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Taking Torah on the Road

Do you remember holding a Torah scroll? Its sudden weight in your arms and soul, the joy of connecting through the generations to Sinai in an instant. When was that moment? Was it being called to the Torah for the first time as Bat or Bar Mitzvah, accepting a Shabbat or High Holy Day honor, or passing the scroll to a child or grandchild? In almost all of these memories, likely that the place of that moment is in the sanctuary.

The contrast between holding a Torah in synagogue and holding a Torah anywhere else but a synagogue is what struck me the most when I held the Torah scroll on Friday, August 7. Along with twenty others, I was on Route US-29 walking for nineteen miles with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice from Opelika, Alabama to West Point, Georgia, flanked by six Alabama State Police. The Torah had come down the mountain. I held the Torah tight, embracing its teachings, its symbolic presence, my personal memories of holding Torah when I was ordained a rabbi and when I handed the scroll to my son and then daughter as they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and my vision of the iconic photo in Arlington National Cemetery of the Torah in the arms of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Torah in my arms came from Chicago Sinai Congregation because of the leadership of Rabbi Seth Limmer, who invited his congregation to lend a Torah scroll to make the entire 860 mile journey over forty days from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C. A waterproof backpack with Torah messages written on it and a banner from the Religious Action Center was at the ready if there was any threat of rain. Over 150 rabbis have volunteered escort the scroll, taking daily shifts during the entire journey.

Mirroring the forty days Moses stood on Sinai receiving the message of Torah, we will march about forty days bringing the values, teachings and relevance of Torah to the streets of America. On Friday, August 7, I was joined by Rabbi Peter Stein, from Rochester, NY. Several other fellow marchers enjoyed taking the scroll for a mile or so. Many were not Jewish but felt – as they called it – the inspiration of carrying God’s word.

For those watching us march, on their porches, in stopped cars, once in a while lining the roads, there were only two visible symbols: the American flag and the Torah scroll. That was all: six police cars, about 20 marchers, and two symbols. What could they be thinking? News reports prepared the remote townships about the march. We would sing our songs and shout our chants for justice. Still our march took many by surprise. I am sure that this was the first Torah scroll many had ever seen. I wanted to stop to explain, but we had our marching orders. We did not stop from 8 am to 4 pm that day; the Torah did not rest; our message was on the move. For those who knew even a little, the symbol of the Torah demanded a response: we have Jewish values that are synonymous with Christian values and Muslim values and many other peoples’ values and most importantly with American values: we cannot stand idly by when our neighbors are in need.

W.E.B. Du Bois said, “The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.” Over those many miles, my feet though weary felt lightened by the embrace of Torah. Etz Chayim Hi – The Torah truly is a Tree of Life, and all who hold it tight will find happiness (Prov. 3:18). I will never hold the Torah scroll the same way.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has served Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota for eighteen years.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.


Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mideast Conflict: Experiences and Hopes in Israel

The air raid sirens in Israel are haunting. Normally, they reverberate across the country two times in April every year, once to remember the victims of the Holocaust and then to memorialize those Israelis who died to create and defend a nation state for the Jewish people. Everything stops. Cars pull to the side of the road. People stand at attention for two full minutes until the siren ends. Then life resumes.

Israelis live with an awareness of how our Jewish people have moved from powerlessness to relative power in a short time. The past still affects the present. How could it not? Before the Holocaust, there were 17 million Jews in the world. In 2014, there are still only 13.5 million. Almost half live in Israel, our ancestral home never left by a remnant of Jews in more than 3,000 years, now surrounded by a chaotic Middle East.

I have stood for this siren memorial many times in Israel over the years.

Last week, I heard the siren twice while studying in Jerusalem. My first instinct was to stand. Then slowly, absorbing what was happening, I moved toward shelter. You have seconds before the missiles will come, I had been told. The first time, I was near a bomb shelter. The second time, I was in the Old City in Jerusalem and went under a stone archway with other passersby. Moments later I could see one of the five missiles intercepted by Iron Dome and heard the explosions of the others. Then life resumed.

I am grateful that Israel invested in new technologies to create Iron Dome — generously funded by the United States — to protect its citizens and visitors.

I am grateful but heartbroken over the situation.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel protects its citizens with weapons; Hamas protects its weapons with its citizens. The result has been tragic in Gaza. Children and other civilians have died. I mourn every child, every Palestinian who has been killed.

Israel does everything possible, with remarkable techniques, to minimize civilian deaths, as compared with any other country in history. I have met Israeli soldiers who speak of seeing the image of God in every human being. They are not perfect; they are held accountable in courts of law; none of us has enough information to condone or condemn.

It is so important not to view this complex situation in black-and-white terms. Israel is not fighting Palestinians as a whole, nor, thankfully, are all Palestinians fighting Israel.

Nevertheless, there was a sense of inevitability with this current round of violence. Rockets from Gaza targeting civilians in Israel have never ceased in the past decade. During peace negotiations, more than 100 rockets were launched earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative for two states ended in failure in April without a Plan B. Israeli settlement building — though mostly in areas that Palestinian negotiators agree will be part of Israel in any two-state solution — complicated negotiations.

Then the extremists made it personal. Three Israeli Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered, an act grotesquely cheered by Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, rightly condemned the act. To Israel’s horror, Israeli extremists — in revenge — gruesomely murdered an Israeli Arab teenager. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly condemned the act. The day after her own son’s funeral, Rachel Frankel said: “The shedding of innocent blood [is] in defiance of all morality, of the Torah … of all of us in this country.” Last Tuesday, I joined 350 Israelis to offer condolences to Mohammed Abu Khader’s family at their home in East Jerusalem. Our presence, we hoped, would express a measure of humanity, especially now.

This humanity is needed by all. Last year, Minnesotan Muslims, Christians and Jews hosted a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost loved ones in the conflict. Wajih Tmaiza and Roi Golan, from “The Parents Circle,” told their stories in a forum titled “Reconciliation not Revenge.” Their message: Coexistence is possible. We need to find a way to live, not die together.

“There is no mercy in the Middle East,” noted Israeli journalist Ari Shavit said in March before 600 people at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Israel must be tough to survive. But the source of our strength is belonging to the West, its values and our Jewish values.” May those values bring calm and coexistence soon.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has been rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul since 1997. He returned from Israel last Friday from a congregational trip and personal study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This blog originally appeared last week in the Star Tribune. 

Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We Stand With Ruth as We Get Ready for Shavuot

Tomorrow, on Sinai, we will affirm the purpose of our freedom from Egypt.
Tomorrow we will remember our history and our values, our mitzvot.
Tomorrow we will stand with Ruth.

We invite you to speak – even in the briefest of ways – to the Ruths of today.
We invite you to use whatever part of this liturgy speaks to you and your community.
We invite you to stand with Ruth.

And if you do, please let us know by clicking here

On this Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. We stand with rabbis and their communities across the continent in calling still for comprehensive immigration reform. Why? Congress has debated reform for far too many years while millions of aspiring Americans remain in the shadows, their lack of legal status barring them from good jobs and rendering school scholarships almost unattainable. We will not give up. Over the past seven weeks, we have counted the days from Egypt to Sinai, and we will not stop counting until all the Ruths have been welcomed home.

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?

Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.

We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter.

On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.

We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

* * *

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.

We stand with Boaz who looked into the face of the stranger and accepted responsibility, welcoming Ruth and teaching for the generations the ideal of chesed/loving-kindness, just as his grandfather Nachshon demonstrated action by leading others into the Red Sea.

We stand with Naomi who sought the well-being of others, who defied the example of her husband, Elimelech, a man who fled from his responsibility to others, whose narrow vision, selfishness, and jealousy led to his own demise.

We stand with Ruth who graciously said:

“Your people shall be my people,” who was the immigrant becoming citizen, the outsider becoming insider, whose descendent King David gives us even now a sense of promise.

On this Shavuot, may we be inspired to act with chesed with aspiring Americans, as we stand with Ruth.

Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Mi Sheberach for All Immigrants and the Descendants of Immigrants

The following is a Mi Sheberach for a person who immigrated to the United States, to be used on Rosh HaShanah.  The accompanying introduction could be rewritten not for an individual but for all in the sanctuary: “I want to offer this mi sheberach for all who are in our sanctuary who immigrated to the United States and for all who have a parent who immigrated here, or a grandparent or a great-grandparent, or ancestor.  In essence, this mi sheberach is for all of us.”

Introduction.  For the first aliyah we invite (name) for the honor.  We do so not only for (name), but also to recognize him/her as someone who came to America many years ago to escape the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, in Greece and built his/her life here, facing both challenges and successes.  After his/her aliyah, I will offer a mi sheberach for all who are immigrants and all who are the children of immigrants, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, or descendants, in essence for all of us.

After Aliyah: Mi sheberach avoteinu v’imoteinu….may God who blessed our immigrant ancestors, who left their homes because of the pain that was known and entered new lands with pains that could not be imagined, who left Egypt, who left Spain and Russia, Iraq, Greece, and Germany, bless you (name), who has come for an aliyah with reverence for God, respect for the Torah and this Yom HaDin, day of Rosh Hashanah.

May God bless you and all who came to America and found refuge, and all of us who immigrated or whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or ancestors came to these shores beckoned by promise, liberty, and opportunity.

In this holy place and time we acknowledge the depth of our connection with our people’s story both ancient and modern.  We remember on this Day of Remembrance, Yom haZikaron, what it was like for us or for our ancestors to immigrate to this country and are mindful of Leviticus’ strong command repeated in similar verse 35 times in Torah: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (19:33-34).

We acknowledge on this day that we live in an America where immigration policies are broken.  As we stand today before an open sefer Torah on our holy day—May we remain open to the possibility of comprehensive change in our immigration system.  May we remain open to the suffering of eleven million people who are undocumented, some say illegal, whose lives and whose children’s’ lives are limited every day because of their uncertain status. May we strive to balance our needed protections with their real, daily challenges as we work for clear, empathetic, and realistic policies.

May the Holy One of Blessing inscribe and seal you (name) and all of us into the Book of Good Life, together with all our fellow citizens, all who seek that claim, and all in our communities.  And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker is the rabbi at Mount Zion Temple, in St. Paul, Minn. 

Sign-on in support of comprehensive immigration reform

There are few issues that confront our country today that are more urgent or compelling than the need to fix America’s broken immigration system. This issue holds deep resonance with both the Jewish experience of migration and our tradition’s sacred texts with their repeated command to love the stranger.

We have set an ambitious goal to obtain signatures from as many rabbis and cantors as possible – of all Movements – on this letter to Congress in support of comprehensive immigration reform
. Please join the over 1,200 of your colleagues who have already added their names. You can sign the letter and find more information at