I Want us to Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

“I want us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

April Baskin’s hope for our movement (expressed near the end of Wednesday’s breakout workshop on Racial Justice) is a personal goal as well, and this year’s convention has afforded me ample opportunity to have my comfort challenged in all the right ways. In the short span of a few hours on the conference’s final day, I was pushed with respect to Israel/Palestine, Race, and Gender and Sexuality, and I am grateful for each uncomfortable moment.

The first push came during our Israel-focused morning. Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad shared their truths with us, letting their stories and their friendship testify to the power of growth that comes from discomfort. In their words, and in the program that followed, I more clearly saw my own truths for what they are: partial, the “amot shevurot” of which David Stern spoke on Monday. I found myself wondering whether his important reminder that “a uni-vocal Zionism is a failed Zionism” might be extended even further. How am I, a Progressive Zionist, called to be in relationship not only with fellow Zionists of all stripes, but also with those people (of all faiths) who do not embrace Zionism for any of a number of reasons?

My afternoon was spent thinking about Racial Justice with April Baskin and Rachel Laser, and about LGBT Justice with Rebecca Stapel-Wax of SOJOURN. In each session, practical advice was joined with exercises that forced me to confront my own biases and privilege. What do I like about being white? What are my earliest memories about the notion of “gay?” What feelings do I associate with my first remembered experience of encountering a transgender person? These aren’t easy questions to ponder, and they are even harder to reflect upon aloud. Kudos to April, Rachel, and Rebecca for creating the spaces in which this important work could happen. Their work will help us to become more sensitive, inclusive, and just rabbis.

From my seat by the gate as I wait to fly home on Thursday (a different, and most unwelcome, sort of discomfort!), I feel tremendous gratitude to everyone whose hard work and dedication made #ccar17 so rewarding…and so uncomfortable, in all the right ways.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.


LGBT Pride Month: Hungry for Justice

It was quite a scene on the fourth day of Pesach in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbis from around the state (including several CCAR colleagues) had gathered in the State Legislative Building for a press conference denouncing H.B. 2 and calling upon the Legislature to repeal it. Following the press conference, we reassembled in the chapel for what we all assume was the first kriat hallel to be proclaimed in that space. Six rabbis each introduced a psalm with a reflection and then led an overflowing chapel in song and prayer.

I had the privilege of framing the service, and shared these words:

One of the things that makes the recitation of the Hallel come alive for me is the frequent and easy alternating between person. Like the psalms as a whole, there’s no pinning Hallel down as about either the individual or the collective. One moment we’re singing out as Israel, or even more expansively as “all who revere the Eternal One;” the next, we’re lamenting on our own, bringing forth our private pain. Psalm by psalm, and even verse by verse, the shift occurs.

What I learn from that shift is this: it’s for each of us to locate our own story within the larger story of a People, and all people. Standing on the Bicentennial Mall yesterday afternoon in that fusion coalition of black, brown and white, straight and queer, diverse in gender identity and expression, in means, in political views, I felt keenly who I was (a privileged, white, cisgender male, a Jew, a rabbi) and also with whom I stood. Standing here now, I feel my place no less keenly. Praying the Hallel today I am a small but not insignificant part of my people, of God’s people gone forth from Egypt, crossing the Jordan, marching to the Promised Land.

But I am also present with my own personal story of liberation. And my story is bound up with my son’s story. H.B. 2 seeks to use him as a wedge in a cynical political ploy for votes and power. In doing so, it makes him, and all transgender people in North Carolina, less safe. And while I’d be here with my colleagues today standing against H.B. 2 were I still the father of three daughters, as I pray this Hallel I will give thanks for the personal redemption that’s come to my family since my son learned more fully who he is, and began teaching the rest of us.

Pride Month is about celebrating newly-won rights and standing up where those rights are under attack. As a Reform Rabbi in North Carolina, and the father of a transgender son, I enter this month determined, and hungry for justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

Social Justice Torah

A Full Canteen and a Red Brick Wall

This weekend I will do what so many of us in the rabbinate will do: celebrate and remember the life and work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  For me, MLK weekend (celebrated by Reform Jews as “Shabbat Tzedek”) is a chance to link Dr. King’s message to that of Parashat Bo. Over the course of the weekend I will: be a part of a Religious School Mitzvah Day; pray and work with our community-wide teen program’s day of service, together with teens of all faiths; take part in ribbon cuttings and prayers on Monday at a new homeless shelter and an interfaith Habitat for Humanity start; and call my members of Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. I am looking forward to it all.

Even as I look forward, I am also looking backward to Sunday and Monday, and thinking a great deal about the texts I learned with colleagues in SEACARR at the annual Kallah. It was held in Charleston, South Carolina, with Dr. Mark Washofsky serving as our convention scholar. During nearly five hours of reading and lively conversation, he took us through Judaism’s texts on “Trolleyology.” We considered the infinite value of all life (M. Sandhedrin 4:5), the responsibility to save oneself (BT Baba Metzia 62b), the three mitzvot whose performance demands the ultimate sacrifice (BT Sanhedrin 74a-b), and others.

That these texts were being studied in Charleston led Dr. Washofsky to begin his teaching with a reflection on how we read, and what we read. We were surrounded by “texts” in our historic downtown hotel: a tall statue to John C. Calhoun in Marion Square; Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church around the corner. What we learn from history is in part determined by what we choose to consider a part of our history. Is it better take down the statues, or not? To fly the flag, or not? Which texts are in, and which are out? Which do we honor, and from which do we learn via negativa?

Our Jewish tradition requires the same curation, as Dr. Washofsky reminded us. Is it “whoever saves a life, saves a world?” Or is it “whoever saves a Jewish life?” Honesty about the provenance of those texts is the better course than papering over our textual history.

Here is the text from Baba Metzia:

Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: “Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,” until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “‘Your brother should live with you’ (Lev 25:36) – Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

brickWith that Talmudic thought experiment ringing in my ears, I returned to my hotel room on Sunday evening — a room with an interesting architectural feature. Charleston’s Embassy Suites occupies the 1829 structure which served as The Citadel before the Civil War, and in preparing the building for use as a hotel, exposed brick was left in many rooms (including mine). It became for me yet another “text” in a city so rich with them. My comfortable bed made for a stark and discomfiting contrast to the red bricks laid by slaves, and made for a fitful night’s sleep. Privilege and subjugation in such close quarters. A full canteen, no canteen, and the very same desert to cross.

Ben Petura would have me share the canteen and die alongside my fellow; Akiva would have me drink it all, and live. And while we learned from Dr. Washofsky that we tend not to look to our “Trolleyology Texts” to learn halakhah around social justice issues (we have other texts for those questions, more direct and more persuasive), I can’t help but hear them in a homiletical/aggadic key, in light of the struggle for racial justice in America, and wonder about other options. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement faces push back for asking too much, that Affirmative Action is under attack, that Reparations is not even a part of our national discourse…all of this has me wondering as MLK Weekend approaches: “What am I doing with this canteen, and how can I do my part to slake the thirst of people whose lives matter no less than mine, whose blood is every bit as red?”

My hope is that our Conference and our Movement will continue our renewed engagement with the question of racial justice, this weekend and long beyond. May we never shy away from the hard conversations. And may the texts (both paper-based and brick-and-mortar) of our Jewish and American traditions continue to call us out, and call us to justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

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We All Count: Stacked Against The Underdog

This blog is the first in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

In Philadelphia, the Rev. William Barber and the Hon. Robert Reich, along with so many colleagues, inspired us to think about justice. We were challenged to consider: what roles might we play in breaking down structural inequality? What roles do we play, however unwittingly or unwillingly, in maintaining an increasingly unfair system? In what ways are we responsible for the fact that, in 2015 America, certain lives matter more?

This conversation coincided with the release of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. In his new book, Putnam explores growing inequality in America, considering both its causes and effects. Much was written about the book in the days leading into our convention. I haven’t read it yet, but I find myself agitated by Jill Lepore’s lengthy review essay in the New Yorker, and columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

These lines, from Lepore’s assessment of Our Kids, are at the heart of my discomfort:

“Our Kids”…has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame.

By not taking sides, Putnam leaves room for Brooks and Douthat to assert that the erosion of character and morality are at the heart of America’s growing inequality. Brooks takes the softer tone, writing about “habits and virtues” lost in a rush to relativism, while acknowledging that structural inequality exists as well. Douthat is more unforgiving, offering a weak acknowledgement that economic policies can’t be entirely ignored before launching into yet another all-too-predictable denunciation of the 1960s, Hollywood, and the public schools (complete with helpful links to some of his earlier columns).

It was against the backdrop of that reading that Barber and Reich spoke to me. I heard in their words a compelling rejoinder to Brooks and Douthat, bringing the focus back to where I believe it ought to be: the fight against structural inequality itself (and not only its negative effects).

In Philadelphia, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis took our first steps in a campaign focused on the structural inequalities that lead to injustice. With the commemoration at Selma and last summer’s events in Ferguson still fresh in our minds, we talked about how Reform rabbis can organize for power across lines of race and economic attainment. Sixty-two colleagues attended the session, and committed to spending sefirat ha’omer in conversation with each other, holding one, two, or even three relational meetings with colleagues. Trainings are coming at the Consultation on Conscience and by webinar, and this summer we’ll explore partnerships and coalitions, and (re)build and strengthen relationships in our local communities.

Seven colleagues will advance this conversation throughout the omer. Each week, one of us will share a story of bearing witness to structural inequality and how we feel the call to act.  Our series is guided by the principal that “we all count.”  During the sefirah we recall wandering in the wilderness, and we count these days in order to pay attention to and illuminate what we often ignore. This year, the lives of Black men and boys lost very publicly and painfully rendered a conversation about mass incarceration and racial inequality unignorable. This year, our country has accommodated economic inequality at levels not seen since the Roaring  Twenties. This year, we are especially called to acknowledge that everyone matters, everyone counts. Please read our blog postings on RavBlog and the CCAR and ROR Facebook pages. Add  your voice to the conversation in the comments section, and repost.

What will we learn over through this campaign? Perhaps we’ll learn that there is room to talk about values and culture (Brooks and Douthat aren’t entirely wrong), but that most important work lies elsewhere. Our justice system, our health care system, our voting system and our tax code are all stacked against the underdog. Leading (by and large) privileged lives does not give us license to ignore those facts. On the contrary, our privilege compels us to organize in solidarity with those who are beaten down by these systems. Avadim Hayinu.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis invites all of our CCAR colleagues to be a part of this conversation, through the sefirah and beyond. We all count.


Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso, Texas.

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Azkarot: Introducing a New RavBlog Feature

Lazarus Bach, alav hashalom, was a UAHC Board member for a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s. It was in that capacity, I imagine, that he came into possession of several years’ worth of CCAR Yearbooks. I remember pulling them down from the shelf in my grandparents’ den and flipping through them on Friday nights before Temple, while Grandpa Laz watched the Mets. And so it was that, as a pretty young kid, I first became aware of the workings of our Conference. I didn’t understand much of what I was reading, but I remember feeling like my grandfather was pretty important for being connected to those books. I also remember, very clearly, a sense of wonder at the Memorial Tributes and the “List of Deceased Members.”

All things pass, including grandfathers and CCAR Yearbooks. As the Conference deploys its resources differently in the present day, we no longer receive a bound volume with the proceedings of our convention and other business of the conference. I’m not complaining. I love that we have archived streams of many conference sessions, I frequently access materials on the CCAR  website, I appreciate the way in which Ravblog has become a creative publishing space, and I enjoy the informality and immediacy of our Facebook group.

I do miss those memorial tributes, though. More to the point, I miss the idea of them, the notion that we are a Conference which doesn’t let its members fade from memory. In a conversation with Rabbi Hara Person at the CCAR Press display last week in Chicago, I mentioned that fact. In bringing it up, I momentarily forgot that, in that setting, Hara was the Rabbi and I was the congregant. Hara knows (as we all do) what to say when a congregant has an idea: “Great idea, Larry. How’d you like to take it on?” I decided to say what we all hope to hear when we kick that idea back in our eager congregant’s direction: “Sure, Hara, I’ll do it.”

And so, welcome to a new feature of RavBlog: Azkarot. With the “azkarot” tag, we intend to recreate via Ravblog part of what was lost with the transition away from a physical CCAR Yearbook: a repository of memorial tributes for our colleagues who have died. Our first post, which will go live next week, will be Rabbi Margie Meyer’s tribute to Janice Garfunkel (z”l), offered at last week’s WRN Dinner. Others will follow in due course.

Others will follow in due course, provided we have the material. And so, this is my plea: the azkarah you offered at a regional kallah, the hesped you shared at a beloved colleague’s funeral…please send them along to me. I’ll work with Hara to ready them for publication on Ravblog, and they’ll be posted as a semi-regular feature of the site. We no longer have a physical yearbook in which to publish memorial tributes, but we need not let go of the practice of remembering, as a Conference, when our members die.