Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot: Moving Society Forward

One thing is certain. Our Reform congregants understand the concept of tikkun olam. They come to religious school with tzedakah in hand, participate in Mitzvah Day, and many attend local rallies such as the Women’s Marches and our teen-organized March for our Lives.  One thing is less certain. When asked which sacred texts ground their commitment to social justice, many congregants do not have a ready answer.

In his new book Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary from CCAR Press, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz inspires our communities to think more deeply about living ethically as individuals and as a society. While the six chapters of Pirkei Avot are traditionally read on the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot – the richness of Yanklowitz’ commentary will take far longer than six Shabbat afternoons to ingest and savor.  His expansive work offers powerful teachings on the 129 mishnayot that make up Pirkei Avot — the most accessible tractate of our Mishnah. He offers an essay on each teaching, uncovering its timeless wisdom.

Yanklowitz’s book is scholarly and relevant.  He amplifies the single sentences of our ancient sages, weaving them together with wisdom from varied denominations and faiths and speaking to the countless daily opportunities we face for individual and collective ethical decision making. Yanklowitz relies heavily on mystical and philosophical texts, many of which are offered through his own English translation and most of which inspire action. On the notion of healing our world, he writes:

Tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed, whether from our thoughts or from our heart. Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace—while also combatting the pernicious and hidden forms of injustice, below-the-surface oppression, and scarcely seen brokenness that silently affect millions.” (p. 9)

Adding depth to the commentary, Yanklowitz uses the words of a broad range of present-day popular teachers and leaders. From weaving in Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s description of global human rights’ violations against women to his discussion on chilul HaShem, to sharing the teachings of the popular Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön’s insights on compassion, every chapter is replete with contemporary voices that bolster Pirkei Avot’s ancient and ageless instruction.

Yankowitz is an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, activist and powerful writer. His book makes it plainly clear that social justice is not just a liberal or Reform endeavor but a Jewish action and obligation incumbent on Jews across the denominational spectrum. The moral teachings that make up this profoundly important tractate of the Mishnah are meant to become a profoundly important part of our moral fiber.

This book is a valuable resource for any rabbi – from the Hillel rabbi who wants to share a text of Torah at his community meal, to the congregational rabbi who wants to add meaningful teachings to her Board or social justice committee meetings, to the preaching rabbi seeking ancient and modern gems for his sermon, to the contemplative rabbi who wants a new text for chavruta or daily personal reflection. It is the richest resource on Pirkei Avot I have encountered and a great addition to one’s rabbinic library.

Rabbi Yaklowitz sums the obligation of justice best. “We can address the messy outer work of the world only if we address the messy inner work in our lives.” (p. 420) Studying his commentary on Pirkei Avot, valuable mishnah by valuable mishnah, is a great path for us to take to move ourselves and our society forward.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is co-author, with Judy Seldin-Cohen, of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America (CCAR Press, 2018).

Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Please be sure to check back on RavBlog starting this Friday, April 13, 2018.

Social Justice

Religion and Relationships on the Road: A Deep South Pilgrimage

Racial justice is preoccupying many religious leaders.  As in too many other cities across the country, protests erupted in Charlotte last fall following the fatal police shooting of an African-American man.  As clergy we are called to help our congregations who want to deepen their understanding of systemic issues of racism.  Some of this education can occur inside our sanctuaries and social halls, and some requires building relationships across racial and religious differences outside our synagogue walls.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel learned that lesson well. They first met on January 14, 1963 at a Conference on Race and Religion in Chicago where they both were speaking and coincidentally quoted the exact same text from Amos (5:24) calling for “…justice [to] roll down like waters.”  That moment sparked a friendship that would move them to stand together in countless other cities and settings and would inspire generations of advocates for justice to embark on a similar path of civic engagement.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

This model of building relationships across racial and religious differences led me last week to participate in a Deep South pilgrimage with two churches (even though I had just visited Alabama for a Civil Rights trip with a group of women from the Jewish Federation three months before). I traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis with Charlotte’s Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church which is a predominantly African-American church and Myers Park Baptist Church, a liberal largely white church. The clergy who lead both these congregations are my partners in social justice work of our city. When I first spoke of joining them, my colleagues immediately acknowledged the legacy of Rabbi Heschel and the historic place of Jews in the fight.

What was it like to go on a Deep South pilgrimage with a black and a white Church?

It was a journey of connection and building relationships. Each morning on the bus we sang freedom songs and pondered questions with a new person sitting next to us: “When was the first time you learned about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What calls you to be here today: scripture, story or relationship?”

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of understanding another’s memories of pain. As we drove through Lowndes County, Alabama, through which the Selma-to-Montgomery March passed, Dr. Peter Wherry, Pastor of Mayfield, asked us to reflect on the fact that every tree could have been the execution place of an African-American soul, every stream could be where someone fled in fear seeking to clear the scent so that they would not be found by the police and their dogs chasing them, and every field could have been that of a sharecropper or a tenant farmer working for no wages.  When we visited the museum capturing the tent cities where these sharecroppers lived after they had been kicked out of their homes and off their fields for registering to vote, the items on display there were not history but our African-American travel partners’ memories.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of coming to understand each other’s vision for justice. Together as African-Americans and whites we crowded into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage where Coretta Scott King and her husband lived and their first two babies were born.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, the phone calls of hate multiplied– sometimes thirty a day.  We saw the remains of where a bomb hit their porch. We stood in the study attached to King’s master bedroom where he wrote. We crowded into the kitchen where Dr. King had a midnight moment of his fear leaving him knowing that whatever his fate would be, his mission of working for equal rights was his calling.  Standing together, we recognized that the journey to justice was long and hard then and remains so today. It requires faith.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

In some Civil Rights museums, the presence of Jews who partnered in the pursuit of Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was present, and in other museums their images and voices were painfully absent – written out of history. I shared stories of Jewish freedom riders, the role of our Religious Action Center where critical Civil Rights legislation was written, the thousands of Rosenwald schools established by the Jewish philanthropist in partnership with African-American Southern communities, and the work of Jewish refugee professors at historically black colleges, opening the minds of some of the travelers to history they never knew.

Racial justice is high up on the agenda of many liberal religious denominations in our country.  Yet our vision for equality and equity cannot be actualized in isolation – collaboration is required. Social justice and religion happen on the road — in relationships on the streets, in city halls of the community, even in courtrooms where cases are tried. The ladder of congregational civic engagement is rooted in relationships. The rungs expand to include social action, education, philanthropy, advocacy, organizing and being part of a larger movement. Each rung offers our congregants a Judaism that is expressed not only through uttering prayers in the pews but that is lived in the world.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, and is co-author with Judy Seldin-Cohen of an upcoming book from CCAR Press, Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America.

Social Justice

The Syrian Refugees and Germany: Not Their Story but Our Story

Each of us had different reasons for taking part in the CCAR Mission to Berlin. Among them were:

  • We cared about the refugee crisis and wanted to learn so that we could share the story, engage our congregants and communities with this issue and be part of an effective response.
  • We wanted to see and support a Germany that once cast refugees out and now was welcoming them in.
  • We saw ourselves in the refugee narrative. We have known too many exiles as a people and, in some cases, as part of our personal families.
  • We wanted to learn more about IsraAID and its efforts to bring people together in responding to global crises. Engaging with an Israeli organization that embodies the values of saving lives, humanitarianism, inclusion and building bridges across faiths and peoples was an experience we wanted to have and share.

The architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin created a fitting metaphor for my personal renewed engagement with this country that stole my father’s childhood and a significant portion of my family tree. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, designed the Jewish Museum of Berlin upon three underground axes reflecting the three life paths German Jews may have taken. One path led to a “Holocaust Tower” — an empty concrete silo where the only light and warmth comes from a small slit above. A second path, the Axis of Emigration, led to “the Garden of Exile” which is a disorienting maze of stone pillars on uneven ground in an outside garden. The third and final path, the Axis of Continuity, intersects with the two other paths taking the visitor through exhibits capturing nearly two millennia of German Jewish history. Our coming to Berlin was a collective commitment to be a part of that third axis: the continuity of German Jewish life.IMG_2291

Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the moral choice to open German’s borders to refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. They poured in by the tens of thousands swelling to more than one million. Germany quickly made makeshift shelters. We visited two shelters – one in an old city hall and another in a tobacco factory. Month by month improvements are being made but still the conditions are stark, cold and harsh.  At the Wilmersdorf Shelter, there are 1200 refugees (half of them children) with 60 toilets and 30 showers. Some stay for five days, some for five months, and some have been there since the day it opened on August 14, 2015.

Patrick Kingsley, in The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis writes that “In a way, the refugee crisis is a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s on
e caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than the refugees themselves.” Had all of the countries of the European Union shared the burden, absorbing the stream of migrants would be manageable. Had a system of resettlement been organized, chaos would have been curbed. Millions of refugees would not be stranded, despairing and overwhelming Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Kingsley notes, “Fear of social meltdown was used to create inertia – fear that became its own self-fulfilling prophecy.”

IMG_2299In Berlin, we connected with refugees. We had meetings and meals with a variety of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We heard of their fears of turning in their passports and not knowing if they’d ever hold them again; of their anxiety of waiting for papers that would grant them refugee status or render decisions that could lead to deportation; of pleading before judges; of weeping that reunification with families (and in some cases children) seems unlikely in the near future; and some were questioning, “Is Germany where I should stay?”

The citizens of Germany are caring – one million Germans volunteer with refugees. The citizens of Germany are worrying – about the economy and about security.  On one hand, the refugees are vulnerable as victims of exploitation or violence and, if integration is unsuccessful, they are vulnerable to radicalization. On the other hand, they can enrich German society as the birthrate is low, there is a labor gap and these refugees are highly educated.

IsraAID is strategizing and working hard. Integration of refugees is a critical concern. Programs are being created to maximize integration at community centers outside the shelters. Israeli Jews, Israeli Druze, and Israeli Palestinians are helping side by side. American summer college interns are building bridges of social support. Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin, in reflecting upon the potential of her congregation’s engagement, notes: “Refugees need to reorient themselves. If, in this moment of reorientation, we can help reorient them to the idea of Jews and even perhaps Israel — that can be transformative.”

And we, as North American rabbis, have an important role, as well. We are players in this global narrative of creating sanctuary and safety for the Syrian and other Middle Eastern victims IMG_2311seeking refuge from war, oppression, murder, and in some cases, genocide. With education, with programs, with engagement, with advocacy, with fundraising, and with welcoming refugees into our communities and country, we can make a difference.

The Syrian refugee story continues to be written day by day and we can have a hand in crafting its positive outcome.

Rabbi Judith Schindler is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina.