Social Justice

A Prayer for Shabbat Tzedek and MLK Weekend in the Face of Renewed Hatred

This Sabbath, Jews around the world will complete the reading of the Book of Genesis, hold the Torah high, and pronounce, “Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek, from strength to strength, may we be strengthened.” This custom directs us in ways beyond the symbolic. We do not merely close a book of Torah and move on. We glean Torah’s lessons, we realign our lives to its call, and we use that strength to sanctify our lives and to heal our world.

In dark times throughout Jewish history, Jews have been sorely tempted to close the book and move on. Many have indeed succumbed to that lure, hiding behind their indistinguishable, outward characteristics and melting into the population. In this day and time, until recently, some believed that civilization had risen above the venomous hatred that plagued the Jewish past.

As anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and homophobia reemerge as the pop-culture of the day, we again face that juncture where some will yield to the temptation to fade quietly into the background. Yet, the parents of the hundreds of preschool children evacuated at Jewish Community Centers this week due to bomb threats cannot silently pretend that their children’s pristine world has not been shattered. The Neo-Nazis marching against Jews in Whitefish, Montana on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, will not be silent about their hatred. Toting guns, they will parade through town ready to confront any and all who flinch.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged each of us not to flinch in the face of hatred. He taught us to work unwaveringly for that prophetic vision, teaching:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right?”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Radio Broadcast, KPFA, Santa Rita CA, January 14, 1968.

As we approach this confluence of the challenge “Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazek;” of the commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr; and the rise in arrogant acts of violence and blatant oppression; let us pray with all our hearts:

Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek!
Give us strength, our God, from the wellspring of our heritage.
Let the Torah gird us, bidding us to stand strong in the face of the promulgation of hate.
In Whitefish, Montana, link our prayers with those from all faiths and backgrounds to replace:
Vulgarity with human dignity
The narrow-minded with the open hearted
Vanity with right
The cowardliness of submission with the creative power of courage
The destruction of hate with the healing source of love.
May this be our prayer
May this be our strength
May this be the blueprint for our deeds.


Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner is Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Vice Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, and serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC.  This blog was originally shared by the RAC.

Social Justice

We Stand Here This Day: This is Our Time, This is Our Vote

I am a rabbi, I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a faithful friend, and a human being. These are blessed gifts in my life in relationship to others. Celebrating another New Year in the Hebrew calendar, I am cognizant of our fleeting days, and the gross unfaithfulness and ungracefulness with which human beings squander relationships in this gift of life, and the malice that marks much of human relations.

I am a leader in interfaith relationships in my community, I am a social justice advocate, and I am a member of the NC NAACP, in faithful partnership with my congregation Temple Beth Or, and with Judaism’s Reform Movement: issue by issue, march by march, hand in hand. During the precipice of the New Year, as Jews are turning in introspection, examining our lives, realigning our values with our faith, these Days of Awe call for highly personal reflection of our own lives in relationship with the discord of our times, and specifically with the racial injustice that pervades American culture.

My heart aches at the anguish of police shootings of Black men, from Tulsa to Charlotte, from California, to Baltimore. My heart aches from the abject prejudice that confronts Americans of color and affronts their freedom as citizens of the United States.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I know what it is like to have my synagogue, and even my own life threatened. I have lived through weeks where my children were followed by police at their public schools because of the threats to my family. But in reality, I know nothing of the heartache of people of color. When the threats to my family subsided, in a short time, my children were back to their care free life.  A flash in the pan compared to those who have to worry daily: will one of my own be the next Keith Scott, or Michael Brown?

I ask for forgiveness during this Jewish season of repentance: on my behalf, on behalf of my community, and on behalf of the United States. No matter how many marches we have marched together, Jews and Blacks, together for justice, I have not been there to march the Black children of my community to school each day, where the police arrest as many young Black children, as they guard against harm, like they did my children.

In Jewish tradition, true repentance requires that one asks forgiveness, and then turns to a new path that will not lead one back to those sins of yesterday. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur called Nitzavim incorporates that idea by laying out the new path and committing the entire community to walk toward a better world.

In Deuteronomy the inclusive words speak so poignantly for the Israelites of old and for us today: Atem nitzavim hayom, kol chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You are standing here today, all of you before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Deut 29:9-11)

What do we make of the detail of this Hebrew scripture, notoriously known for being terse? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say: “All of you are standing here before God?” But, the text names everyone from the leaders, to the children, to the stranger, and then specifically the woodchopper and the water drawer. It is an all-inclusive teaching straight from the Bible. If you might think that it is up to the clergy to keep the covenant and do the hard work, you are mistaken. The parallelism in the text starting with the leaders and ending with the woodchopper and water drawer shouts out that there is no division or classism in God’s society. Everyone is responsible. Everyone is accountable.

And lest we think this is an ancient teaching for ancient days listen to what Deuteronomy instructs a couple of verses later: “It is not with you alone who I make this covenant, it is for those standing here this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut 29:14) This idea, the very basis of democratic society for all peoples and all backgrounds, is given for all time. It is not only for those who heard those words that day. It is for every successive generation of humanity. We all stand as equals before God, and we all stand as equals in the covenant to honor God’s world.

The classism, the racism, the ethnocentric partitions, those are the false classifications that oppressive cultures create because they do not understand these words from the scripture. “We are standing here this day:” “This is our time, this is our vote.”  Nitzavim instructs us to claim democracy, equal rights for every citizen, undaunted by the road blocks that others construct along the way.

We know those road blocks all too well. We know them from history, and we know them from the story of the North Carolina legislature and governor who enacted the most comprehensive voter suppression laws in the country just days after the Supreme Court stripped parts of the Voter Rights Act saying that the provisions for preclearance need to be updated by the Federal government. While the Federal government has not taken one step to reauthorize the Voters Rights Act, North Carolina has led the way in eradicating the protections the Voter Rights Act used to provide.

Even so, even with preclearance gone, even without the Voter Rights Act protections, the racist, voter suppression laws of North Carolina, have been struck down again and again in court. Nevertheless, North Carolina’s governor and legislators still don’t understand that democracy means every citizen has the right to unfettered access to the polls. We have fewer and fewer polling places, in every county in North Carolina, because one political party chair instructed the partisan voting commissioners in each county to specifically limit access for African Americans. He says this is not racist policy, it is only because African Americans don’t vote for his party. These words are a contradiction in terms. Someone tweet Webster’s and tell them North Carolina has the ultimate example of the definition of racism to add to their dictionary. Instructions like these go to the heart of voter suppression. They divide citizens out on the basis of oppressive, class-based, society; rather than expansively opening our democracy to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Lest we still not understand the teaching the scripture reiterates: “Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day in not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you say, “Who shall cross the sea and get it for us and impart it to us…. No the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” (Deut 30: 11-13).

Is not that the very principal that undergirds American democracy, that all of us are responsible for the leadership of our country?! Each one of us has a voice and a vote. And each one of us has a responsibility to uphold our democracy. It is not enough to decry the oppression of the other and say I cannot do anything about it, because they have all the control. No citizen should be bullied into believing that voting is beyond their reach.

The politics of fear that pervades our country today cannot define us or sway our standards. Bullying and fear are powerful motivators. In Maslow’s theory of human needs, if one cannot get beyond fears for basic security, there is no hope for relationship and meaning in life. That fear is hijacking the core values of humanity and democracy.

We cannot give in to it. For, there is a force greater than fear. There is a force that fuels relationships rather than foments mistrust. There is a force that unites, even in the face of the weightiest of dangers.

That force is what gets us out of bed each day. It is how we put one foot in front of another, and how we summons the courage to move forward even in the face of grave evil. That force is faith, faith in God, and faith in the image of God planted in every human being.

We can, every one of us, assure voting rights for every American. We can update our own and members of our community’s voter registration to match changes of address, names, or other pertinent information. We can register new voters, who have been discouraged from registering and participating in our democracy. We can help voters get absentee ballots and turn them in. We can assist with transportation to the polls. We can educate the community and teach them that this thing “is not in the heavens or across the sea, it is in their mouth and their heart to observe it.”

We cannot sit by and wait for the courts to throw out more laws while the election is right before us. To do nothing, to remain indifferent is not an option. We have an obligation to act to transform our democracy and define once and for all that voting rights are for everyone: from the leaders, the stock brokers, and the executives; to those breaking their back for an inadequate minimum wage, to the infirmed, to those buried in college debt, the elderly, and the homeless, to people of color, to Muslims, to new citizens and old. Voter rights are for Blacks and Latinos, from young adults to seniors, the disabled, to the multi-millionaire. We cannot and will not accept the classism and racism that divides and oppresses Americans and pits us against one another.

How do we bring about the reforms our government needs to replace racism and classism with a government of the people, by the people and for the people?

Register voters.

How do we enact the laws needed for reform and transparency in police departments across the US?

Register voters.

How do we work for a livable minimum wage in every job?

Register voters.

And, that’s not all. When they are registered, our work will have just begun. Then we have to get them to the polls.

So, how are we going to replace the most racist voter suppression laws in America?

Get them to the polls.

How are we going to eradicate the racism in our judicial system, that incarcerates African Americans at six times the rate of whites.  (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. Retrieved 2014-04-08.)

Get them to the polls.

How do we provide equal educational opportunity for all youth, rich and poor, black, and white?

Get them to the polls.

How do we get the government out of our bathrooms and repeal HB 2, and anti-LGBT laws across the land?

Get them to the polls.

Centuries ago Rav Nachum of Bratzlav taught in a time fraught with its own fear and destruction:  Kol ha olam kulo geshser tzar meod, v’haikar lo l’faked ba.

“The whole world is one narrow bridge, and the key, the important thing is not to be afraid.”

There will always be forces trying to hold down the Black community, or the Jewish community, or the LGBT community, or Muslims, or atheists, and all of the above plus more. The blessing that we have in our communities of faith is that we do not have to face that narrow bridge alone. When we put our hands in the hands of our brothers and sisters, when we lift our voices together, we cross that narrow bridge. We unite to fulfill the covenant of democracy. We stand together the leaders and the water carriers, crossing that narrow bridge. It is not in the heavens or across the sea. The covenant is right here before us in our mouths and in our hearts. We will conquer xenophobia and the fomenting of fear; and replace it with true democracy, where every person has a voice and a vote.

Let us stand here today, every one of us, standing with and for all humanity. This is our time; this is our vote.

Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Gun Control News Social Justice

In Response to the Massacre in Charleston

“God Bless America!” In these times especially we implore: “God Bless America.” How we need your blessings, O God. How we long for your presence, your grace, your forbearance, in the face of the horrific massacre in Charleston.

In Your house O God, in your own house, the Emanuel AME Church, the murder of your faithful, quakes the very pillars on which our nation stands. Nine citizens of the United States of America gathered to exercise their constitutional right to free expression of their religion, executed, not by some young outlier from our culture, but from the learned hatred endemic in American society. We cannot afford to sweep this under the carpet like we have the white gunman in the Colorado movie theatre, or the white gunman who murdered the Sandy Hook school children. We dare not pigeonhole these murders as the random acts of a crazed loner.

The racist ideas that filled Dylann Roof’s head did not come from random thoughts – one is not born a racist. Racism is a bred response. Roof’s actions reflect his environment. They reflect the Confederate battle flag that hangs outside of South Carolina’s Capital. They reflect the actions of the white policeman who gunned down an unarmed black man running away from him in South Carolina, just weeks ago.

That is not to say that Dylann Roof is not accountable for his heinous actions. The courts will undoubtedly rule swiftly on his guilt. Nonetheless, we have an accounting to make as well. Twentieth Century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that: “few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The mass shooting at the historic Emanuel AME  Church, comes after a year of turmoil and protests over race relations, policing, and criminal justice across America. Up until now that unrest has been punctuated by a series of police killings of unarmed black men sparking a renewed vigor in the civil rights movement under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, framed the Charleston violence: “The reality [is] that racism is alive and well and that we have a problem with guns. People will throw up their hands and say ‘how terrible’ … and then will get back to passing more laws that allow people to carry guns.”

Ecclesiastes teaches:  “For everything there is a season…  A time to be born and a time to die… A time to keep silence and a time to speak…”

Nine citizens of the United States of America executed, citizens participating in the constitutionally protected right to freely express their religion, gunned down in the service of God, and before the stunned hearts of America. It was not their season to die. Another United States Citizen, not some foreign terrorist, but a 21 year old, soft spoken, white man, sat in bible study and prayer with them for about an hour before he took out his gun and began shooting, reloading time after time.

Today their relatives in mourning rightfully bemoan: “It was not their time to die, not their time.” God bless America, how we wish we could wash over the pain with bucolic mountainsides and sandy beach shores.  How we wish that post card of America was not marred by the racist actions of Dylann Roof. How we long for an America that elevates God’s blessings over man’s curses.

“There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” Do not heed the voices isolating the perpetrator, making him sound like a freak of nature, rather than a product of American culture. The mayor and governor of South Carolina have been beating that drum this week, while they desperately try to console and heal their City and State.

Charleston’s Mayor Joseph Riley said in an interview with TIME: “Whether he was a terrorist and exactly how you define a terrorist, I don’t know,” he says. “I put him more in the [category] of the shooter of the children in Connecticut, the shooter in the movie theater—they’re deranged people.”

“The takeaway, Riley says, isn’t about racial hatred as much as it is about the easy availability of guns. “This guy that obviously wasn’t 100% emotionally stable could get a gun as easily as he could buy a diet beverage. I think this raises that same alarm bell that our country just hasn’t been able to deal with.” He also pointed out that Roof grew up over 100 miles outside of Charleston, noting that this “wasn’t something that emanated from the civic culture of this city.”

While Riley is right on point about the availability of guns and their link to violence, he misses a real opportunity when he denies the racism endemic to his city, to every American city.

None of us want to believe that the civic culture of our city could produce a Dylann Roof. Even in the town where he grew up they deny that he could have learned racism in their back yard. In Mr. Bunky’s Market across from Roof’s father’s home, Preston Rivers Jr., a 68-year-old bricklayer who is black, said even during segregation black and white children got along.

“They came to our house to eat and we went to their houses to eat,” he said. “We didn’t have a problem. We hunted together, fished, no problems. Manager [of the store] Kim Fleming, who is white, said most of the people near the store are black, and she never felt any racial tension. “His issues were his issues only,” she said of the alleged shooter. “I don’t see [racial tension] in this community.”

No, not in my back yard – no racial tension here. I have lots of black friends. We hosted an African American Church in our Temple for three years. I sit on the Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and am committed with the MLK Committee to spreading King’s message of economic justice and civil rights, not just on the MLK Commemoration holiday, but day in and day out.

And I also have a grandmother who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Confederacy. My grandfather’s family owned farm land in Mississippi before the Civil War. My grandmother has letters written to her grandmother from a Confederate soldier fighting in the war.

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” As much as I work for Civil Rights, as much as my life and my rabbinate have been influenced by outrage at the racist and classist effects of American society, I cannot be silent about my own part in that society. I cannot deny that I have never lived nor worked in a racist free community. And yet, I have never spoken about the racist culture that so surely had to be tied to that plantation my ancestors owned in Mississippi.

If we are to have a true conversation about racism, we cannot be silent about our own country, community or family.  We have to own that we live in a country that has harbored and nurtured racists for all of its existence. We have to admit out loud that we, each one of us, have our own prejudices that plague us.

We must have these conversations both intra and inter communally. We dare not pretend that the racism all around us does not exist, just because the Emanuel Church murderer grew up across the street from a country store that employed blacks and whites.

We have to have these conversations, and we have to act in ways that work to curb the gun violence that pervades America like no other civilized nation. “If guns were outlawed only outlaws would have guns,” they say. And if reasonable restrictions were put on gun ownership, there would still be unreasonable people who found a way to get a gun – but statistics in nations around the world prove there would be a lot less gun violence in America, if we strengthened our laws on who can own guns.

We cannot be silent in the face of repeated fire arm massacres in the United States of America. How many more have to die before their time? How many more will not see the next season, because we did not demand change?

“God bless America, land that I love, stand beside us, and guide us.” If we truly love the America that we ask God to bless, then we must seize this moment to speak up and to speak out. To assure that along with God’s blessing it will be our voices and our actions that transform the racism and violence of our nation.

Rabbi Lucy Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis

We All Count: Counting the Days Until All Lives Matter

This blog is the seventh and final 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. 

Three years ago, when ALEC* rolled out model, corporate-designed, legislation in State Legislatures across the country, they targeted North Carolina as their test State for the most comprehensive of their initiatives. Within a few months the North Carolina legislature stripped State support programs in health care, education, aid to the poor, voter rights and more. Living in North Carolina’s capital I had been called in the past to lobby for one social justice cause or another. Early in 2012, those calls multiplied exponentially. Everyday brought a new crisis: State mental health beds drastically cut; teachers fleeing public schools; 500,000 left off of Medicaid roles… The deleterious legislation pulled at my heart; how could I sit idly by watching my State swallowed in this vortex of callous, corporate-funded, self-righteousness?

In short order, I realized that if I continued to answer the multiple calls for justice I would lose myself. There was no way any one citizen could speak to each of these critical issues. That’s when I heard of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s answer to the assault on North Carolina, as he was gearing up for the first year of Moral Monday Demonstrations. Barber, a minister and the president of the North Carolina NAACP, had been paving the road to advocacy for “the poor, the orphan, and the widow” for years and was primed to move for our State.

Barber fluently communicates with the wisdom and tenacity of the prophets; and he opens the podium, inviting young and old to speak truth to power. Barber’s leadership has garnered tens of thousands from all economic and social backgrounds to protect basic rights of jobs, health, education, and voting.

It quickly became apparent that working with Dr. Barber was the path to maintain my integrity against the assault on my State. I became a regular at Moral Monday meetings, sometimes marching, sometimes speaking, knocking on legislators’ doors and asking for comprehensive response so that the rights of children, the poor, and the sick, would not be sacrificed for the bottom line of the top earners.

Though much of the legislation being enacted disproportionately affects people of color, the NAACP and Reverend Barber made it clear from the start that the Movement is not about one race, party, religion, or gender. Rather, it is about humanity and the precious soul in every living being. Rev. Barber embraces leaders from religious groups ranging from Christian, to Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, and beyond. He invites professors from universities and single mothers who never had the opportunity to finish high school to the dais. All of us teaching from the depth of our personal backgrounds bring the core of our faith, intellect, and experience. This diversity of perspectives comes together to offer one united message: “We all count.”

Over the years of my rabbinate I have become versed in speaking before sanctuaries of worshipers, halls filled with students, convocations of legislators, and meetings with leaders. None of that quite prepared me for the impact of speaking before and with thousands of impassioned demonstrators, flowing to the music and to the cause, rallying for action. There you feel the pulse beating through the chants of the crowd, answering the call as you speak, and committing to bring that shared vision to reality. In the eyes of one, you see reflected the craving of the thousands. In that moment you know that the power of humanity, the glory of humanity, the blessing of humanity, will rise again and again over the forces that oppress. And therein lays hope and promise.

As we near the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and as we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the message of the Moral Movement shouts out of the prescience of this convergence. We count the Omer to remind us not to take our harvest for granted, to remind us that our bounty is not our bounty; but, rather, a gift that God brings forth from the earth. When we count the Israelites, in this first parasha of the book of Numbers, we do not count souls or heads. We count ½ shekels, one per person. In that way the rich and the poor are equal; the wood cutter and the CEO have the same value; no life is valued as greater than another. Thus it becomes apparent that the regard we afford the least among us reflects the greatest regard we have for human life. Each life matters. 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 Lucy Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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Prayer Rabbis

Where I Find Prayer, Where Prayer Finds Me: Thoughts for Elul

I am an exercise-aholic. I count on exercising like others count on caffeine. I exercise for all of the requisite health benefits, but the real icing on the cake for me is how exercise transforms my prayer life.

No surprise that prayer plays a central role in my life: after all I am a rabbi. I say the Shema before I go to sleep and the Motzi when I eat. I create rituals filled with prayer for the peak moments in people’s lives. I extend prayers of consolation to soothe the wounds of the down heartened. I sense the thread of God’s presence connecting members of my congregation when our voices unite chanting Tefillah.

Yet my purest prayer comes when I am deep in the woods in North Carolina’s Umstead Park, traversing the miles of trails, trees buffering the sights and sounds of the world. When I first get on the trail, my mind is racing, organizing: what do I have to accomplish today; where are my children; what do I need to do for them; what is weighing on me? Deeper into the woods, my mind cannot carry all of those organizational charts, and it slowly lets go – until I fall into a rhythm of one foot in front of the other, moving forward, with no clutter, my body advancing in one fluid motion.

It is then, when my foot and the trail are flowing in tandem, at once letting go of the stuff of my world, and connecting to the entirety of it; the border melts between movement of body and meandering of path; between the acorn fallen from the tree and the forest that renews it. All is one. And at that moment, not because I have planned to offer it like all the other rituals of my life, but more that it has planned to offer me, thanks pours forth from my soul. My heart blurts out THANK YOU GOD. Pure and unadulterated thanks — ZEH ANI MODAH.

Thoughts for your personal introspection during Elul:

  • For what are you grateful?
  • How do you express thanks?
  • How does thanks express from you?

Rabbi Lucy Dinner serves as Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Among several communal and professional commitments, she sits on the executive board of international relief agency Stop Hunger Now. Walking, cycling, and occasional jogging keep her in balance to be present for her family, her congregation, and her service to community.