High Holy Days

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall perish by water and who by fire…

The Unetaneh Tokef – Rosh Hashanah’s central prayer – is truly terrifying and disturbing.  It tells us that next year at this time, some of us will be gone via a series of dreadful possibilities: floods, fires, illnesses and the like. God issues this decree from high above, sitting on a throne of judgement. Our behavior determines our fate according to the biblical and rabbinic system of reward and punishment. Not only does the prayer arouse people’s fear of dying, it adds a layer of blame and shame, suggesting that our illnesses and losses are deserved and self-inflicted. For this reason, I used to much prefer the interpretive versions by Jack Riemer and Stanley Rabinowitz. They transform the prayer into a psychological reckoning. For example, rather than “Who shall live and who shall die,” Rabinowitz’s version offers “Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist.[1]

These interpretive efforts are much more in line with my theology. I do not believe in the kind of God who metes out our fate according to strict rules of justice. Indeed, I am not even certain the Bible believes in that kind of God. For example, the book of Job is a powerful challenge to that theology. As the story goes, Job is righteous and good, he loves and praises God even when everything is taken from him. However, Job suffers unfairly, not because he deserves it, but because God has made a bet with Ha-Satan, the Prosecuting Angel. Presumably, the rabbis included Job in the Bible because they realized that the world does not work like clockwork — and neither does God.

So it is no doubt surprising that I have come to value the prayer in its original. I appreciate it because it lends itself to multiple interpretations. If you believe in reward and punishment, you can read the prayer that way. If you prefer a psychological understanding of how our attitude affects our lives, that is an option. And the prayer gives expression to a reality we are forced to face, often regardless of our intentions and our behavior: the fact that some of us won’t be here next year or will be struck by heartache. Some will die of old age; some will become ill; some will lose homes to fires; some will lose loved ones to floods. These are life events over which we have limited control. And God is not necessarily responsible for them.

The question we must really ask is: How will we respond? The concluding verse of the Unetaneh Tokef suggests: U’t’shuvah, u’filah, u’tzedakah, ma-avirin et roa ha-gezera, “Repentance (return), prayer, and righteousness will mitigate the harshness of the decree.” A beautiful way to understand how this works is offered by Rabbi Helen Plotkin:

Teshuvah—repentence (sic), response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.

Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.

Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.[2]

If we follow these practices, our lives will be richer and more rewarding, despite tragedies and setbacks. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah – a happy and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA. She is also a member of the Reform movement of Judaism’s Commission on Social Action as well as on the Leadership Team of California’s Religious Action Center.

[1] Adapted, in David Teutsch, ed., Kol Haneshamah: Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Elkins Park, PA: The Reconstructionist Press, 1999, p. 345,

Immigration Passover Pesach Social Justice

Let My People Go

Over 1,000 men in detention. Fifty men sharing a dormitory room, sleeping on bunk beds seemingly made out of plywood and nails, topped with thin plastic “mattresses.” Men under constant surveillance, wearing prison uniforms, fed unappetizing-looking meals, and  working as barbers, cooks, or custodians for $1 a day. Days spent mostly lying on their beds, with occasional outings to a cement yard topped with barbed wire. For most of them, they have committed no crime, only exercised their human right to seek asylum. 

These are the conditions inside the New Mexico Otero Detention Center for migrants awaiting a hearing. It is run by the for-profit company Management and Training Corporation(MTC) which collects $100,000 of our tax dollars daily to house these men. There is one part-time physician and one chaplain for all of them. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office made a surprise visit to Otero in 2017 and “found evidence of the unjustified use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions and non-working telephones.”

The Torah tells us 36 times that we are to care for the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our freedom from slavery is celebrated every year at Passover, which begins the night of April 19. So when I see hundreds and thousands of people from Central America fleeing from violence and desperate poverty, coming to our borders seeking asylum, only to be locked up in detention centers or detained in the elements under a bridge, my heart aches and I am called to action.

This is why I joined HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on a recent trip to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to learn what is going on at our border. I was not unfamiliar with the plight of migrants from Central America. Near where I live in Riverside, CA is the town of Adelanto, a desolate location in the high desert and home to another private detention center, this one run by the private company GEO Group. With the help of organizations such as the New Sanctuary Movement and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, I had visited detainees there but was never allowed beyond the visiting room. The conditions at Otero were more upsetting than I had expected.

Under international and federal law, people have the right to request asylum. Asylum seekers are not criminals; many are people with legitimate fears of being killed in their countries of origin. Why are we treating them like this? Judaism certainly insists that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. How do we as a country justify making a profit off those seeking safety by locking them up in private prisons?

As a rabbi, I take seriously our mandate to free the captive — those who are unjustly imprisoned. The people in these detention centers made dangerous journeys to arrive on our soil. As they await their trial, their detention can last months in these conditions. In El Paso, the rate of deportation following this ordeal is close to 97 percent.

On this trip, we also visited shelters in El Paso and on the other side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez. We met true tzaddikim, righteous people doing everything they can to provide a respite for those on these arduous journeys. At the nonprofit Annunciation House, for example, Ruben Garcia tirelessly places migrants released by ICE in a variety of shelters throughout the area. In fact, ICE would have to release over 600 people a day if Garcia did not provide them with these locations.

At this point, the shelters are being overwhelmed beyond capacity. The day we left El Paso, Customs and Border Protection had begun to detain migrants under the bridge connecting the U.S. to Mexico. We were horrified to witness crowds of women and children behind barbed wire, forced to sleep on the rocky ground outside.

What can you and I do to address this problem? You can support any of the wonderful organizations mentioned above. You can volunteer your time at one of the shelters, whether you live in El Paso or not. And you can bring these stories to your seder table, drawing the parallels between the journeys made by our own ancestors and those of today’s refugees. Let us adhere to Rabbi Hillel’s dictum: If I am not for myself, who will be?  But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.


Don’t Let the Light Go Out

Rony, a former bus driver, escaped from his native Honduras when his life was threatened. The “mafia” had already killed his father and his brother for failing to pay the required extortion. He was next. Seeking asylum in the US, Rony was arrested and detained at a private prison owned and run by The GEO Group in the California high desert town of Adelanto. I met him this past year, my second visit to the facility. My first attempt was aborted when, along with a busload of people of faith and clergy, I tried to visit detainees there. When GEO learned of our plan, they put the facility on lock-down, not only refusing to let us in, but also ejecting family members waiting to see their loved ones. It was 110 degrees outside.

A recent report by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General flagged serious health and safety standards violations in Adelanto. There have been suicide attempts: nooses fashioned with bed sheets were hanging in 15 of the 20 examined cells. There are no recreational facilities or skills-building classes, and detainees are allowed a one hour visit per day — given the distance from their families, many get few to no visitors. Is this how we want our country to behave?

Our tradition teaches us to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our Statue of Liberty proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” So are we OK with a private prison incarcerating 2,000 human beings for the crime of trying to find refuge and safety, to escape from persecution, violence and extreme poverty?

To shed light on the conditions in Adelanto, Bend the Arc, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and I, organized an interfaith vigil there on the 8th night of Chanukah. At the darkest time of the year, we wanted to shine the candles’ brightness on the reality of our government’s policies towards immigrants and refugees. But we also wanted to offer the expansive light as a symbol of the possibility of hope to those locked behind bars.

Part of our effort was to rally support for Rony. His bond (a form of bail) was set at $10,000, a staggering amount for someone with no ties in the US. We had hoped to get him out by Chanukah, but had not raised sufficient funding. However, just this week, we reached our goal: Rony was bonded out this week, though he still faces a court decision about his asylum application.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against GEO on behalf of thousands of detainees, and we will continue to be vigilant on their behalf.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

Searching for Possibility and Hope

A smile can make a huge difference. That is what two of my congregants and I discovered when we came to McAllen, Texas to volunteer for a week with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center for immigrants newly released from detention. McAllen is the largest processing center for immigrants seeking to enter the United States. After arriving at the border, they are detained by immigration authorities. If and when they are released, they are taken to the Central Bus Station. That is where staff and volunteers from the Respite Center pick them up and bring them to the center for a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothes, before being accompanied back to the bus station where they are sent off across the country to meet their sponsor — usually a family member. Once there, they will face a court date and the decision of a judge as to whether they can stay here or be deported back home.

These are the lucky ones. They are not placed in detention beyond a few days, and they are not being permanently separated from their children. It is not entirely clear why they are being released while so many others are kept in detention for many months. It may be because they have a sponsor and a credible case for asylum, but no one we spoke to was entirely sure as the system seems to be somewhat arbitrary. However, their situation is far from fortunate. They come primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries torn apart by violence and plagued by extreme poverty. These immigrants are fleeing the violence, often fearful for their own lives and that of their children. Their dangerous journeys average 3-4 weeks during which they travel by foot, by bus, and/or on La Bestia, the freight trains which they ride on the roof. Some of the women are pregnant, some of the adults are carrying newborns.

Once they turn themselves in or are arrested at the border, they are put into detention for 3-4 days in what the immigrants call “La Hielera” — the Ice Box — because of how cold it is in there. One woman, Maria Luisa, told us that she was separated from her two sons, forbidden from hugging them, forced to sleep on the floor with only an aluminum blanket, barely fed a frozen burrito, allowed to shower once for three minutes, and kicked awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. She along with all the others who are released, was forced to wear an ankle monitor to ensure that she would appear for her court date. Her ankle bracelet, as was the case with the others we saw, was tight and uncomfortable, and made her leg swell.

This inhumane treatment is in marked contrast to how these immigrants are welcomed at the Respite Center, which was established four years ago by Sister Norma Pimentel. In that time, something like 100,000 immigrants have come through their doors. The motto over the front door, “Restoring Human Dignity,” is what drives the staff and the revolving groups of volunteers from around the country. The immigrants here are met with kindness, concern and care. When they first arrive, they are rather stone-faced and wary, but soon they relax and respond to the warmth being shown to them. We tried as much as possible to look them each in the face and to smile, acknowledging their humanity. We served them a bowl of chicken soup, helped them find a fresh set of clothes and shoes, and guided them to the showers where we kept two washing machines and two dryers going constantly to keep up with the volume of towels. Because the clothes on their backs have been worn for close to a month, we threw them away. We also put together snack bags and sandwiches to take with them when they returned to the bus station for the next step of their journey.

One of my congregants was asked by some of her friends whether the children we saw actually belonged to the adults they were with. There is no question that these adults were their parents! They demonstrated a great deal of love and affection for their children, and the children were clearly very attached to them. They are people like you and I, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They are looking for a new start, one with possibilities, one with hope. As we enter the month of Elul on the road to the High Holy Days, we too are in search of a new beginning. Let us be thankful for our good fortune. Let us also resolve to remember those whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil unrest, gangs, and poverty. At the very least, we can offer them a smile, a reminder that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

The Strangers among Us

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).

“You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike” (Lev. 24:22)

As a Jew and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, these verses resonate particularly strongly with me, as does the request for asylum from so many fleeing the violence in Central America. My personal history and that of my people compel me to respond, now. Aside from writing letters, donating money, speaking at rallies, I feel the need to do something practical, on the ground. As a friend, Chani Beeman, posted: “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, you’re doing it now.”

So, last week, I visited a detainee in Adelanto, California, home of a private detention center owned and operated by GEO, one of the largest private prison companies in the country. This facility currently houses two thousand immigrants. Since it opened in 2011, Adelanto has faced accusations of insufficient medical care and poor conditions, and a number of detainees have died in custody.

Luis (a pseudonym) is 24 years old. He fled Honduras several months ago because his life was in danger. He had worked for ten years as a driver of a 25 passenger minibus. What he refers to as the “mafia” extorted money from his family. Luis’ mother sold her house in order to meet this gang’s demands. Eventually, unable to pay up, the family was at its mercy: Luis’ father, two uncles, and brother were all murdered, and Luis was next. So he fled, leaving behind his beloved mother and his three young children.

He traveled by bus from Honduras to Mexico where he worked for a few months. He says the Mexicans were very kind and generous, but he was only able to make enough money to feed himself. His goal is to pull his mother out of poverty and to buy her another house. Not to mention the fact that Mexico is no more welcoming to Central American migrants than we are. Luis traveled on the roof of La Bestia, or The Beast, a network of freight trains from Mexico to the US border,  on which migrants travel at the risk of their lives. It took him a month because he was apprehended numerous times along the way by Mexican authorities, and repeatedly sent back. When he finally crossed the US border, he was arrested and has been in detention for three months.

Luis has appeared before a judge three times, and has one more chance to prove his asylum claim. Unfortunately, he has no actual proof that his life is in danger. And he does not have an attorney. According to the Los Angeles Times, 95% of asylum seekers from Honduras without attorneys lose their claim. His final court date is on August 8th.

This was my fourth visit to Adelanto. The first was in 2014 to attend a City Council meeting to protest the building of a private jail to house the overflow of inmates from Los Angeles County. The second was in the summer of 2017 when a group of clergy and people of faith joined CIVIC, now Freedom for Immigrants, to visit detainees. When the GEO facility heard we were coming, they went on lockdown, not only denying entrance to us, but also ejecting waiting family, friends and young children in 110 degree heat. The third visit was recently, to stand during a court appearance with another detainee seeking asylum.

Later in July, I plan to volunteer with Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas to provide comfort to immigrants seeking to enter the US. I also plan to attend Luis’ court hearing in August. It is the very least I can do.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Social Justice

How Social Justice Work Blossoms in One Congregation

I have always had a passion for social justice, both in my career as a television producer and in that as a rabbi. Over my nearly ten years at Temple Beth El (TBE), I have pursued this work with interfaith partners but rarely with my own congregation. There is a twofold reason for this. One, when I first arrived, the congregation had been through a decade of revolving door rabbis and was emotionally scarred and diffident. I determined that my job was to heal the wounds, not to rally folks around causes. Two, TBE had no history or culture of social justice engagement. I make a distinction between social justice and social action. Feeding the homeless is social action, and many of our congregants are involved in that. Addressing the causes of hunger or homelessness is social justice, and this is where we have not participated.

A little over a year ago, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) offered a Community of Practice called “Bringing Justice to the Center.” This was a two-year training program in how to engage one’s congregation in this work. I immediately signed up with two lay leaders, Diana Goldman and Dalia Martinez. Over the past year, we attended monthly webinars, consulted with our coach, Lee Winkleman, and began the process of community organizing. This involved finding folks who would hold one-on-one conversations as well as house meetings with other congregants to determine how they viewed the brokenness of the world and what their vision of a more perfect society looked like. Eventually, the idea would be to find an issue we could all work on together, an issue that would represent systemic change.

Our congregation is pretty solidly middle class. There are not many people of means and leisure: the vast majority of our younger families have two working parents who also spend a great deal of time shepherding their children to a wide variety of activities. Our older congregants have, for the most part, been there, done that. They want to enjoy life and spend their time with friends, family and, particularly, grandchildren. All to say that this model of community organizing, where people need to step up as leaders and take ownership of the process on a consistent and long-term basis, did not work for us. We conducted some one-on-ones and some house meetings, but the appetite for undertaking advocacy work on the part of a majority of the congregation was not there.

On the other hand, through this process, we were able to identify 15-20 people who were enthusiastic and eager to become involved in some way. It became clear that a different model was appropriate for us: rather than a grassroots effort which characterizes community organizing, we needed a more grass tops one. I found that, if I proposed an action, I could rally these 15-20 congregants to join me in the work of Reform CA whose leadership team I am on. Reform CA, the West Coast arm of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, determines which California legislation to support, and educates our congregations about the issues involved prior to lobbying our state representatives to vote in favor of these bills. I have had success in bringing TBE members for legislative visits, both here in Riverside and in Sacramento, to make phone calls to constituents, to educate other congregants, and to attend a regional meeting of Reform CA. Indeed, with 11 people from TBE attending the Los Angeles area gathering of Reform CA in early December, we had the largest delegation of any congregation by far.

My congregants and I learned that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be effective social change agents, and that it is absolutely essential to work in coalitions. With Reform CA, we have been able to join forces, not only with other Reform congregations, but also with partners such as the national network of faith-based community organizations, PICO, and the ACLU.

I am grateful to the URJ and to Lee Winkelman for helping guide us on this path. I know we will continue to do important work in the year ahead.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA.