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High Holy Days Social Justice

Hearing the Shofar As a Wake-Up Call is a Sign of Our Privilege

This Elul, a group of Maine rabbis have been posting videos of shofar soundings from across the state. Many of us are talking about the shofar as a wake-up call. An alarm bell. A reminder that the holidays are coming.

The implication, of course, to waking up at the sound of the shofar is that we need a reminder. A reminder of what is broken in our world. A reminder of how we ourselves have fallen short. A reminder that we had better get to work, because Rosh HaShanah is coming. The need for a reminder implies that we live through the rest of the year with the privilege to forget the pain and suffering that exists in the world. The ways that we as a people, as a society, have gone astray. The need to hear the shofar means that we have been able to close our eyes.

The killing of George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, are a shofar sound calling us to attention. But, the shofar has been wailing continuously for years, for decades, for centuries, we just have not heard it. As Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman said, “So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando, Mike Brown, Sandra.”

As the powerful lynching memorial in Montgomery, with its hanging steel rectangles reminiscent of coffins reminds us, we don’t know the names of all those who were murdered. The slaves who were bought and sold and beaten to death were known by name to their families and friends, but their names are unknown to us today. We have the luxury of needing the shofar to wake us up.

When the murder of George Floyd ripped through our national consciousness like the blast of a shofar, I, like so many concerned white people, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. I wore my social justice tallit, the one made by members of my congregation with colorful quotes about equality and justice. My family and I listened to speakers and marched and held up our signs. And then, like so many others across the country, we lay on the ground in silence for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time it took George Floyd to suffocate to death. As I lay there on the pavement, next to my seven-year-old son, I was powerfully reminded of the Grand Aleinu on Yom Kippur. During that holy time of the year I bow on the ground, face down, before the Holy One blessed be God, who spread out the heavens and established the Earth. It is a voluntary act of humility. A reminder that there is something bigger than myself in this world. I need that reminder, because my heart doesn’t catch in my throat every time I see a police officer, because I don’t worry about my safety when I walk through the trails in my neighborhood, because I don’t have to remind my children of how to act respectfully before they leave the house each day.  Choosing to be reminded, choosing to lie face down, comes from privilege and is born out of the willful ignorance of the day to day lives of others.

Shofarot: A Prayer for Righteous Anger, from Mishkan HaNefesh

Misery for breakfast;
morning coffee with the news of distant deaths –
because someone’s always suffering,
and there’s bound to be a crisis raging somewhere,
or a quieter catastrophe
barely at the threshold of our notice.
We’re accustomed to the feeling
of something going wrong.
Like static in the background,
tuned out so we can get on with our day.
And it’s just the same as yesterday
and nothing can be done;
so there’s not much point
in getting too upset.

But if something were to shock us
like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night,
like a punch in the stomach
or a puncture in the eardrum,
like a savage call to conscience
or a frantic cry for help –
would we scream like a shofar
and get mad enough to act?
“When a ram’s horn is sounded in a city do the people not take alarm?”

So let us get mad.
Let us scream.
Let us be punched in the stomach.
Let us end, for once, without a nechemta.



After ordination, Rabbi Asch worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. She currently serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine and Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. Rabbi Asch serves as Vice President for Leadership on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

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Ethics Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

High Holy Day Inspiration from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis

As we enter the month of Elul, we are aware that Tishrei is almost upon us. Sitting in front of our computers, we might think to ourselves “Stop mulling and just write the sermon!” But writing High Holiday sermons really does require that we ponder what to preach. Every year, we ask ourselves the same questions: what message will resonate with our congregants, what are we passionate about saying, and what wisdom do our texts and tradition have to offer us.

This year, there is a new question to add to the list. In the past, I did not think much about what my colleagues were saying in their sermons. I might check in with a few friends, or bounce ideas off some people, but I was never speaking as part of the North American Reform Movement. This year, it will be different.

In 5774, like many colleagues, I will be speaking about the topic of immigration reform. This issue calls to us as Jews. We are immigrants. We fled slavery in Egypt to journey into freedom. More recently my great-grandparents fled the pogroms and mandatory military service in Russia to find a better life here in the United States. We know what it is to wander and to be treated as outsiders.

We also have a chance to make a real difference. The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The House will be debating moving a bill to the floor in September, perfect timing for us to have an impact. Imagine what hundreds of rabbis can do together as we preach or teach about immigration reform this High Holidays.   

I’m going to be honest and say that while immigration reform is not my issue, justice is. Acting together powerfully is vital to who I am as a rabbi and who we are as Reform Jews.  At the CCAR Convention in Long Beach, we asked the question: Do we want to act together as a Reform Movement? The answer was a resounding yes, as hundreds of colleagues across the country joined the efforts of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.  Since then, we have worked on passing legislation through the Senate. Teams of colleagues in seven states met with key swing senators and their staffs. Many of us gathered in Washington DC for a lobby day, or participated in a national call-in day. Nearly 400 of us are staying connected through the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Facebook group. We have worked together to amplify the rabbinic voice for justice, but there is more work to do.

Now we have another chance to act together to make a real difference in the debate in the House. In the weeks to come, we’ll share more with you about which legislators are crucial to the passage of compassionate, common sense immigration reform. But in the short term, there is something that only we as rabbis can do: speak from the heart to our congregants about this defining issue of our times.

So, will you join our effort and make preaching and teaching about immigration reform part of your High Holidays this year? To make it as easy as possible we have compiled text resources and sample sermons. If you willing to join the effort please share your thoughts and plans on the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Facebook group so we can log your participation. And, it never hurts to reach out to another colleague or two to ask them to join us as well.

As we move into Tishrei we have the opportunity to begin our year by speaking out for justice. Join us in showing our legislators, our congregants and ourselves what it means to be part of a national movement and to put justice at the center of the Reform rabbinate.