I am the rabbi of a tiny community in the Rocky Mountains of Montana—the largest congregation in the state. Easily over eighty percent of our members have intermarried. Non-Jewish family members and friends are part of the life of my community.
B”Mitzvahs have become moments of interest to me. They are large gatherings with guests from all over the country. They obviously mean a lot to my families and their relatives, who almost always are excited to be a part of the service—and who cry no less than their Jewish family! They also are, by very nature, moments of commitment and exclusivity.
In thinking about a possible way for non-Jewish family members and friends to accompany, celebrate, and support their grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins, and friends, I wrote the following blessing.
Blessing for a B”Mitzvah by Non-Jewish Family Members
For generations, each member of our family has paved their own road.
Whenever we come together, we celebrate the vastness of our traditions, the depth of our stories, and the care that connects us.
On this day, you are taking upon yourself a heritage older than most others on this planet.
From this day on, you are a bearer of Torah, one of the sacred books of humanity.
We see that you are strong, wise, and ready to hold on to this book and make its teachings part of your own story.
We are proud of your pride in being Jewish.
We respect the respect you show for your heritage.
We love the love you feel for a people and a wisdom you chose for yourself.
Go, _______, find your own way. Take our blessings with you.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. It stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This resolution was groundbreaking, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah, behind the Torah, leading the Jewish community. In 1972, the peerless Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who’ve followed her. Still, to this day, the concept of women rabbis is new enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi in their town, first woman senior rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi to serve on boards. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
I grew up in Great Neck, New York assuming that the world was Jewish. Well, not the whole world. But my whole world. Every kid in school. Every house on my block. Every family I knew. “Old Mill Road” was known as “Temple Row.” For some peculiar reason, each of the synagogues were located on Old Mill Road. Every kid I knew went to either Great Neck Synagogue (it was Orthodox), or Temple Israel (it was Conservative), or Temple Beth El (it was Reform).
My family went to Temple Beth El. Or more aptly, my family belonged to Temple Beth El. (Interesting: today more people go to synagogue without becoming members. Back then, people joined synagogues but didn’t go.) My family was definitely among the “didn’t go-ers.” Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable not to be a member of a synagogue. My parents were the children of immigrants. Born and bred in Brooklyn. All of my grandparents, were from Poland and had left Poland for America in the early 1920s. My Uncle Aaron was born in Poland. His family was old-fashioned. They kept kosher. They were old-country. My parents were fiercely American. Even though they grew up speaking Yiddish in their home, my parents went to public school and became more American than the pope, to mix a few metaphors.
So I grew up in a household that was NOT observant and NOT religious and NOT kosher. We did NOT honor Shabbat in any way, but my parents were very proud of being Jewish. All their friends were Jewish. They joined a temple once they had children. And since they were blessed with two boys and a girl, they made sure that their two boys had bar mitzvahs. I still had to go to Sunday school, but when it came to the twice-a-week afternoon component that focused on Hebrew, I didn’t have to go. My brothers did. I was given a choice, and at the very wise age of seven, I said no. Besides, the only girl who went to Hebrew school was Marcie Harmon and she was the cantor’s daughter. Why would I do that?
A condition of my going only to Sunday school was that I had to stick it out through Confirmation in the 10th grade. I hated Sunday school. It didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t even where I could experience being Jewish because everybody in my public school was Jewish anyway.
When I got to Confirmation, there was a requirement that you had to go to services once a month. I lived for the onegs. The services were—sorry—unbearable. Somehow I learned, mid-year, that if you went to the youth group service, it would “count”’ for the monthly service requirement. I knew it’d be shorter (though I didn’t know if they had onegs there!) but I figured I’d try it.
I walked in, and there was a band on the bimah. Two guitars, a keyboard, and a drummer. They were playing “My Sweet Lord.” I guess you could say that George Harrison made me who I am today. I enjoyed the service, I liked the kids, and I got involved in the youth group. (Just this past February, we had a Zoom youth group reunion. Fifty of us were on the screen. Our youth advisors and our rabbis were also there.)
I had two rabbis: Rabbi Jacob Rudin and Rabbi Jerry Davidson. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rabbi Rudin was the senior rabbi. He looked like God. Or at least, if asked to draw a picture of God, I think everyone would have drawn a picture of Rabbi Rudin. Rabbi Davidson was the young, hip rabbi. Both were extraordinary rabbis.
To this day, I read Rabbi Rudin’s book of sermons every year before the High Holy Days to inspire me. I also quote him at every rabbinic installation I’ve ever been privileged to address. He first said these words to an ordination class of the Hebrew Union College in 1959. They have been in my heart ever since. He implored these about-to-be-rabbis with this advice:
“If you do not love those whom you serve, you will not be successful. If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”
It was in my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi. I had powerfully spiritual experiences in my youth group. My public high school allowed me to take Hebrew and Yiddish for my foreign language courses. I was also empowered to create my own curriculum and thereby study seriously, one-to-one, with my rabbi who introduced me to Rashi.
Both of my rabbis were great. It was 1971. There were no female rabbis….in the world. I had no female role models, except of course, my mother, who always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Being a rabbi was not what she had in mind. More like President of IBM or the United States. But she came along, and so did my father. They never ceased to be proud of me.
I had one secret though. I was gay. Ironically, I never worried that being female would keep me from being a rabbi. But being gay? That was another story. I worried. A lot. I confided in my friends. I wrote a letter (remember those?) to my high school confidante when we were each at our respective summer camps. I shared my anxiety. Her response—and this is a direct quote because I saved the letter: “What good does it do the Jewish faith for sincerely dedicated and concerned people like yourself to be alienated because of a Neanderthal attitude towards Lesbianism?”
I appreciated her logic. I decided to walk through that door. I had no idea what would hit me after I entered.
But first, I had to go to college. Kenyon College was the best choice I could have made. No Hillel. Barely any Jews, but a great Religion Department and the most Talmudic environment for learning that I have ever experienced.
Noted for its English department, I remember proudly turning in my first English paper— I believe it was on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When I got it back, it had a big red letter grade that did not make me happy. I had researched and researched. At the end of my paper, my professor had written: “What of it?” I went to speak with him after class and he said, and I am quoting from memory: “If I wanted to know what some important scholar has to say about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I could look it up myself. I want to know what YOU think.” That became a very important lesson in my life. Kenyon College taught me how to think.
I spent the first semester of my junior year in college in Israel, living on Kibbutz Usha, outside of Haifa. I picked a lot of grapefruit, ate a lot of falafel, learned Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan, and went twice a week to the University of Haifa. I fell in love with everything about Israel, and when I came back to the United States I explored joining Garin Arava, a group of young Reform Jewish Americans who were trying to establish the first-ever Reform kibbutz in Israel. Which path should I follow? Rabbi or Kibbutznik? Both afforded me the opportunity to live a serious, liberal Jewish life in community with others. Matthew Sperber, a Great Neck classmate of mine, was also in Garin Arava. He ended up starting what became Kibbutz Yahel in 1977. He still lives there. The headline of a recent article about his life reads: “His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz.” I decided to apply to rabbinical school.
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion has four campuses: New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. My family had moved from Great Neck to Santa Monica, so I figured I would go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles.
If I got in. I wasn’t worried about the academics and I wasn’t worried about the Hebrew. I was worried about the psychological testing you were required to undergo. Among the battery of tests was the Rorschach. In one of the inkblots, I saw two people kissing each other. I was convinced they would identify me as lesbian and there would be no rabbinical school for me. Oh, I neglected to say, but surely you realize—in 1977 there was NO CHANCE that a gay person would be accepted into rabbinical school. Zero. None.
I worried and worried, but a family friend who was also a psychologist, assured me that the inkblot was called, in the biz, “the love card.” “They just want to make sure you see love,” she said. Which I did.
I hated my first year of rabbinical school. I loved being in Jerusalem, but none of my classes did what Kenyon College had done. It wasn’t about thinking. It wasn’t about meaning. It was more about cramming and regurgitating. Thank God for Jerusalem. The city became my classroom and I was eager to learn.
Back in Los Angeles, school was better. But I was closeted. I still couldn’t be my whole self. So, I took a leave of absence to see if I was better suited to be a bank teller. I went to San Francisco for the year but never made it as a bank teller. I got a job with the Union for Reform Judaism and developed retreat programming for students all over the Bay Area so they might have a better time in Religious School than I had experienced.
I returned to rabbinical school, but this time in New York. The campus is right off of Washington Square and I figured that would be a better environment in which to plant myself. I was still closeted. The College made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they learned that a student was gay they would be expelled. I confided in friends, I came out to my parents, but while I didn’t fear that my good friends would break my confidence, they feared that my own yearning to be open would ruin me. As Rachel Kadish wrote in The Weight of Ink, her recent book about the Inquisition: “Truth-telling is a luxury for those whose lives aren’t at risk.”
I was ordained May 24, 1984. I stepped off the bimah at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York, and onto an airplane headed to Minnesota to become the assistant rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. My motto: “To know me is to love me.” Surely, once we get to know each other, everything will be okay.
I had a blessed four-year tenure at Mt. Zion Temple. I loved the temple and the people who comprised it. We flourished together. Though it was not yet an official federal policy, I think we lived happily together under the rubric of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Falling in love with Nancy Abramson changed all that. While Nancy and I still jointly adhered to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, our decision to live together pushed Mt. Zion members over the brink. Rumors started to fly and complaints started to be registered with the senior rabbi at the time. He and I had such a good relationship that I had shared my sexual orientation with him back in my first year, and he was okay with that, as long as it remained a secret. It wasn’t a secret anymore and there were an awful lot of complaints, he told me, and so, he told me, I would have to go. And now, get this: I understood! Of course, I would have to go.
But thankfully, when my departure was announced, there were members of the congregation who did NOT understand. There was a ruckus. On Thursday, February 18, 1988, I received a phone call from Clark Morphew. He was the religion editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We had a relationship over the years. He told me, not unkindly, that there was going to be an article in the next day’s paper.
There was a lot of snow on the ground when I woke up that next day. I walked down our driveway and pulled the newspaper out of the mailbox. I opened it. My knees started shaking. Front page. Headline. Lesbian Rabbi Fired. So much for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
First worry: our kids. They were in fourth grade and seventh grade. What would happen to them? That evening, Jill’s best friend’s parents came over with flowers. Charlie’s best friend’s parents came with a box of chocolates. Nancy and I cried. So much hate, and so much love.
Our family’s world was imploding and exploding around us. But I truly felt the fierce power of the biblical words: those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). And at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened: those congregants at Mt. Zion Temple who felt they’d lost their spiritual home created a new one. They called it Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope. In June of 1988, Shir Tikvah became the first mainstream congregation to hire an openly gay rabbi. Together, over twenty years, we grew the congregation from 40 households to 400 households.
I loved my congregation, and I poured myself into my work. We were true partners in creating meaning in people’s lives, shifting the world towards justice, and living and breathing Jewish values and teachings. Nancy and I assumed we’d one day retire in Minnesota, she from her amazing career in mental health, and me from Shir Tikvah. We’d live happily ever after and one day be buried in that beautiful Jewish cemetery around the corner from where we lived.
But that was not to happen. Out of the blue, I received a phone call one day from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I was recruited to be a Vice President at the URJ. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being the rabbi of one congregation, I would be rabbi to the 900 congregations that formed the URJ. Besides: our daughter and son-in-law now lived in New York and my parents had come back to New York, where my mother was now living with terminal cancer. It had always plagued me that I wouldn’t be able to walk with her through her final days and this was an opportunity to do just that.
Nancy and I packed up our Prius and moved to New York City. We did have more time with our children, and yes, our first grandchild was born and we were able to be right there. Nancy and I spent time with my mother daily. She died ten weeks after we came to New York.
I missed synagogue life. I missed holding the Torah. I missed being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a bureaucrat, I discovered, was not for me.
But what to do? Shir Tikvah had been my “one and only.” I wasn’t convinced that I could go back to synagogue life. So I decided to try it out by serving as an interim rabbi at Adath Emanuel, a congregation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I loved my time at Adath. I loved being back at the synagogue, standing on the bimah before the open ark. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to seek a long-term relationship with a congregation.
And that is where Temple Beth Tikvah comes into the story. It felt like a match made in heaven. The people. The values. The potential. The history. The hope. Nancy and I were taken with it all.
You are all a part of the rest of the story. Nancy and I have treasured our years with you. We have grown together and learned together and been challenged together. There have been births and b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death. There has been illness and recovery. There has been a pandemic, and still, we are building and growing.
And soon, there will be a new chapter. A new chapter for Temple Beth Tikvah and a new chapter for Nancy and me. In Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the rabbis discuss the proper relationship with the Torah. It counsels that the Torah should never be a kardom lachpor, the Torah should never be a spade to dig with. In other words, don’t use it to make a living. Rather, the best experience of Torah, the best learning of Torah, is torah lishmah, Torah that is learned for its own sake (Pirkei Avot 4:5).
It’s a tricky path, but I have been blessed to have my life’s work be Torah. And soon, upon retirement, I look forward to the sweetest Torah of all, that which is lishmah, Torah for its own sake.
I feel twice blessed. It has been a privilege to make a career of Torah and to be personally sustained and anchored by Torah at the very same time.
Rabbi Stacy Offner served as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah from 2012 – 2021. Rabbi Offner is also the Founding Rabbi Emerita of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Kenyon College, Rabbi Offner earned both her M.A. and Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.For more about women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.
After services one Friday night, I was approached by a woman and child I had not seen before. The woman knew I was a rabbinical student, and said she had an important question to ask me. Then, slowly, trying to find the right words, she said, “Let’s say there was someone who was born female but realized they were male—a female to male transgender person. Would that person be able to have a bar mitzvah? Is that something Judaism would allow?”
What providence that I of all people would be asked this question!
I heard myself blurt out, “You don’t know? I’m trans!”
Shocked, the woman took a second to process my words. Then, she grinned and grabbed her son’s shoulders with excitement. “Look,” she exclaimed to him, “the rabbi is just like you!”
When joining a new community, I often hear that they’ve never had a trans employee, or even a trans member. I always respond, “That you know of.” Sometimes I’m in a position where I’m out and open about being trans, where I’m visible as a trans person, where everyone is aware that they’re talking to someone who is trans. Other times, I’m just another person in the room and people may not know I’m trans.
Even though I was “out” to this community, the news had not spread to everyone. While I had talked about acceptance and inclusion of trans people previously, I hadn’t mentioned it in that Shabbat service. The synagogue didn’t have any flags or stickers that indicated trans inclusion. Therefore, this woman had no way of knowing that the community was inclusive. Similarly, none of the other community members had any way of knowing that the little boy starting religious school was transgender.
As members of a community, we make certain vows to support and care for one another. But how can we care for our community if we’re not aware of who is in it? Many people think that “trans inclusion” is not relevant to their community. Yet in reality, there are trans people everywhere, in the smallest of communities, in the most remote of locations. There are trans people who are already members of our communities who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe celebrating that aspect of themselves in a Jewish setting. And there are trans people who wish to join our communities but may be afraid that they will not be welcomed or embraced for who they are.
Transgender Awareness Week (November 13–19) was created to celebrate trans people, honor our identities, and educate others about our needs and struggles. Observing Transgender Awareness Week with trans-specific programming is a wonderful way to signal to trans people that your community is open and welcoming. It is also an opportunity to educate non-trans individuals on how best to respect and support trans people in your community and beyond.
At the end of Transgender Awareness Week is Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20). This is the trans community’s memorial day to recognize the countless lives lost to transphobic violence around the world. This year, Trans Day of Remembrance falls on a Saturday. Many synagogues across the country will be observing a special Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat. Consider bringing this to your Jewish community this year.
As Jews, we believe that all people are made in the image of God, and each of us is holy and sacred. As Reform Jews, we believe that caring for the most marginalized members of our communities is tikkun olam, repairing the world. By spreading awareness of transgender issues and by uplifting transgender experiences, we are doing our part in healing the brokenness of our world caused by hatred and bigotry.
Here are some ways to observe Trans Awareness Week:
Include a blurb about Trans Awareness Week in your newsletter
A Transgender Day of Remembrance Yizkor (Prayer of Remembrance): For Those Who Died Sanctifying Their Names
God full of compassion, remember those whose souls were taken in transphobic violence. Those souls reflected the tremendous, multitudinous splendor of Your creations; they illustrated Your vastness through their ever-expanding variations of being b’tzelem Elohim, of being made in Your image. Source of mercy, provide them the true shelter and peace that they deserved in this world.
Those deaths were caused by hatred in our society. It is upon us to repair this brokenness in our world. May we have the strength to sanction justice, speedily and in our days.
For those who died by murder, we remember them. For those who died by suicide, we remember them. We remember their names, for those names will forever be a blessing.
Nurturing One, comfort all who are mourning. Grant them healing in their hardship.
And let us say: Amen.
– by Ariel Tovlev, 2019, published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells
Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, was published by CCAR Press in the spring of 2020. In this post, Rabbi Eger shares how the book came to be.
Some rabbis collect their sermons and publish them. They are pearls of wisdom for the ages.
I may yet do that at some point.
But more urgently, I saw the need to center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout my years of service as a rabbi, I had to create ceremonies and prayers for my community when there were no resources. I was ordained in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when our beloved HUC-JIR still wouldn’t ordain openly LGBTQ+ people as rabbis or cantors. We lived in fear and in the closet. Maybe that is hard to believe now for our many openly LGBTQ+ rabbis and seminarians, but it wasn’t that long ago when we gathered secretly at CCAR Conventions late at night in someone’s room to connect with other queer colleagues.
Over the years, I wrote prayers for Pride Month and National Coming Out Day. I would write invocations and blessings for interfaith gatherings affirming the worth and dignity
of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and people with HIV. I had to invent, create, and imagine an authentic queer Jewish life when there was little liturgy available.
Religion is so often used to shame and hurt LGBTQ+ people. Too much violence and hatred are directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religion. I purposefully write from a different perspective.
I tried to create prayers in a genuine Jewish voice that uplifted, instilling hope and healing. I tried to combat homophobia through prayers and reflections that reinforced the theology that all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. I tried to convey what today we call audacious hospitality, writing naming ceremonies for those transitioning gender, wedding ceremonies before we had any templates, and rituals for coming out. I wrote my first ceremony to celebrate someone coming out as gay in 1986! It was centered around an aliyah to the Torah, as a riff on benching Gomel and a Mi Shebeirach for well-being.
But luckily, over these same three-plus decades, LGBTQ+ Jewish life has grown and blossomed. We have seen tectonic shifts in not just welcoming LGBTQ+ and non-binary Jews home, but embracing queer life and queer Jewish voices.
Often when Gay Pride Month would roll around, many of you, my colleagues, would call or email me to ask for materials for Pride Shabbat. I shared whatever I had created that year. Clearly there was a need for a collection of resources to help communities live out our commitment to be welcoming and embracing places of LGBTQ+ folx. Not one for sitting around, after my time in leadership of the Conference, I knew it was the right moment to collect not only some of own writings, but to invite others to share their poetry, prayer, and passion—centering the voices and experiences of our queer Jewish community.
Mishkan Ga’avah represents some of the collected wisdom, voices, and experiences of Jewish LGBTQ+ people. It is a spiritual resource for both the individual and the community. I hope it inspires others to write creative liturgy and prayers using their own voices. And I hope it will offer comfort, solace, inspiration, and hope to LGBTQ+ people everywhere—a beautiful strand of pearls for all of our Jewish community to wear.
Besides coronavirus, there is another epidemic raging in our communities: the ongoing scourge of violence targeting transgender people, particularly trans women of color. Transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people [ɪ] are more likely to be denied equal access to jobs, housing, and medical care, and they are frequent targets of violence—including murder. Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folx are afraid to go to the police for help; when they do seek out legal remedies or safe harbor, they often are further harassed by law enforcement, facing violence at the hands of the very people charged with protecting them.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), “In just seven months, the number of transgender people suspected of being murdered in 2020 has surpassed the total for all of 2019.” Black and Latinx transgender women have been particularly targeted. NCTE’s US Transgender Survey, which included more than 28,000 participants, found that nearly half (47 percent) of all Black respondents and 30 percent of all Latinx respondents reported being denied equal treatment, experiencing verbal harassment, or being physically attacked in the previous year due to their transgender identity.
The Family Research Project has shown that nearly three out of four trans and gender-expansive youth have heard family members say negative remarks about LGBTQ people, and over half of transgender and gender-expansive youth have been openly mocked by their families for their identity.
These harrowing statistics don’t have to be the norm. There is an urgent need for education and awareness-raising about transgender issues, both in our Jewish communities and in the cities and towns in which we live. As rabbis, we can make our synagogues places of safe harbor and support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, whether they are Jewish or not! Just as we build coalitions with interfaith partners, our congregations can build important bridges, becoming advocates for our Jewish transgender and non-binary members while providing connection, safety, and partnership for the larger transgender and non-binary community. One way we might do so is by reaching out to local LGBTQ organizations to sponsor and host ceremonies for Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Every year, November 20 is designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The week prior is known as Transgender Awareness Week, with the goal of increasing visibility of transgender people and addressing the painful issues their community faces. TDOR was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered the previous year. The vigil commemorated all of the transgender people lost to violence since Hester’s death, beginning an important annual tradition.
This year, TDOR is on a Friday. Perhaps at your Shabbat evening service, you will invite a transgender activist to speak and educate your community. Perhaps during the Kaddish, you will read aloud the names of transgender victims of murder from this past year. Or in the week before TDOR, perhaps you will schedule a program to help raise visibility and acceptance of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.
Rabbi: We praise You, Holy One, for the gift of life, precious, stubborn, fragile and beautiful; we are grateful for the time we have to live upon the earth, to love, to grow, to be.
Congregation:We give thanks for the will to live and for our capacity to live fully all of the days that we are given;
Rabbi: And for those who have been taken by the devastation of violence used against them. We remember them and claim the opportunity to build lives of wholeness in their honor.
Congregation:We give you thanks for the partners, friends, allies and families who have been steadfast in their love; for the people who have devoted their life’s work to the prevention of violence, support and making transitioning from one gender to another possible with passion and commitment,
Rabbi: For the diligent science, brilliant ideas, and insights that have led to new life-giving procedures, for those in leadership who have acted to provide health care for people who are in transition.
Congregation: We give thanks for those whose prejudice and judgment have yielded to understanding, for those who have overcome fear, indifference, or burnout to embrace a life of caring compassion.
Rabbi: We praise You, Eternal One, for those who have loved enough that their hearts have broken, who cherish the memories of those we have lost, and for those who console the grieving.
Congregation:God, grant us the love, courage, tenacity, and will to continue to make a difference in a world even with the violence aimed towards our community;
Rabbi: Inspire us to challenge and stand strong against the forces that allow needless harm and violence to continue—prejudice, unjust laws, repression, stigma, and fear.
Congregation:Into Your care, we trust and lift up the hundreds of souls who have been tortured and murdered.
Rabbi: We lift up to You our dreams of a world where all are cared for,
Congregation:Our dreams of wholeness,
Rabbi: Our dreams of a world where all are accepted and respected,
Congregation:A dream we know You share.
[ɪ] The Human Rights Campaign has a useful glossary for anyone unfamiliar with these terms.
In the wake of the racist killing of George Floyd, Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, shares his call to action, based on Jewish values, to listen to African-American leaders to form bonds and alliances to help fight racial injustice and inequality.
I am struggling to articulate a path through the pain and worry I feel. I truly fear for our nation. Ever since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worried about our physical, psychological, and economic health. I have wondered how we would emerge from our quarantined homes and return to our shuttered offices, restaurants, schools, and public spaces. I have witnessed the trauma of over forty million Americans out of work, but I believed that there was some hope of a vaccine that might immunize us from this virus. There was a promise that eventually that vaccine would allow us to return to our normal life.
But now, I am far more fearful. There is a more insidious illness of racism and inequality that is deeply ingrained in American history and culture. There is no true cure on the horizon. Racism can destroy us. As TheNew York Times reported, August 1619 marked the beginning of African-American slavery in America, and sadly that moment of origin has defined our current world. I recognize that I am a privileged and truly fortunate white man. Yes, I am a Jew, but I am seen as white. When my children, especially my son, received his driver’s license, I did not have to warn him about the consequences of a broken tail light. I was not worried that he would be stopped for a minor traffic offense and then be subject to a police response that might end in his death. But my African-American friends, no matter how prominent, successful, or respected, have each had that talk with their 16-year-olds.
It is appropriate to condemn lawlessness, looting, and arson. Those acts will not achieve equality and justice. Indeed, those most harmed are often the people living in the marginal neighborhoods destroyed by the looters. But if we focus only on the issue of rioting, we ignore the legitimate sources of the rage. We must not ignore the legitimate cries of those who fear a knee upon their necks or other uses of power to keep them down.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson created the Kerner Commission to look at the causes of urban rioting and civil unrest. Its most famous phrase stated,”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Fifty years later, far too little has changed. As I stated at the Chicago Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday breakfast, we are fortunate to live in a sparkling, vibrant Greater Chicago, but we know that much of the South Side and West Side have not shared in Chicago’s transformation and prosperity.
We are suffering the consequences of the great entrenched disparities of American society. As Langston Hughes asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” We should not be shocked by the anger and frustration of an African-American community that has known far too many unjustified killings by police, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many more.
What can we do? We cannot leave the task of fighting racism to the African-American community alone. At the same time, the Jewish community cannot respond with paternalism. When our community suffered the trauma of the Tree of Life massacre, our Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i friends and religious leaders stood beside us in our sanctuary. Reverend Jesse Jackson joined us in prayer that night. So too, Congregation Sukkat Shalom will hear from Reverend Janette Wilson, Esq., National Director of PUSH Excel. We want to hear directly from a leading voice in the Black community. We are honored that she is joining us. We must hear directly from Black leaders who speak with voices informed by the pain of inequality and discrimination.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot, 2:21 that, “It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid its demands.” Racial inequality, discrimination, and violence are enormous problems deeply ingrained in American culture. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Indeed, some of the most violent protests have occurred in our most progressive cities in which too many Black lives have been taken in unjustified police killings. Chronic poverty, substandard education, gang violence, and other problems will not be easily solved by people of good intentions. We need to do more, and we cannot give up. Elsewhere we are taught: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” We must continue to struggle to bring about the promised fulfillment of an American dream built on justice and equality.
Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus reflects on the importance of community outreachto his rabbinate.
I think community outreach has been one of my most memorable accomplishments in my 50 years in the rabbinate. With the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in 1989, I organized the mentoring of some 100 immigrants who settled in Columbia, arranged to have English classes taught at my temple, and welcomed many of the adults and children as members of temple. B’nai mitzvah and weddings among the newcomers were unique occasions celebrated by the entire Jewish community.
I had organized a Catholic-Jewish dialogue that resulted in numerous interfaith programs alternately held at temple and at Catholic churches. It included members of the Conservative congregation along with ours. This led to the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina speaking at my temple with over 400 Jews and Catholics attending. That was front page news here. The bishop invited me to be an observer at a diocese synod, which provided a unique insight into Catholic religious policy in the making.
I also was a member of a steering committee which formed a statewide Partners in Dialogue with Christians of various denominations: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Native Americans. It sponsored occasions for sharing faith observances and ethnic foods. And with the co-sponsorship of the University of South Carolina Department of Religious Studies, the Dialogue brought to town internationally known religious leaders for an annual event.
With the leadership of Dr. Selden Smith and South Carolina Holocaust survivors and their children, we formed the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, designed to honor South Carolina survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and the South Carolinians and their descendants who participated in the liberation of concentration camps. This led to the erection of a beautiful monument honoring their memory in downtown Columbia.
Shortly after arriving in Columbia, I joined The Luncheon Club, a racially diverse group that promotes collegiality and is informative on current issues. It originated in 1962 when African Americans were unable to eat in white establishments. It continues to meet today. I became heavily involved in interracial relations and formed a Black-Jewish Coalition which held dialogues, pulpit exchanges, and a joint Passover Seder held at my temple.
All in all, I feel that I have grown in knowledge and discretion over the years of my rabbinate and have a greater understanding of how interdependent we Jews are with the rest of our population and how important good community relations are.
Sanford T. Marcus is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. He served as the spiritual leader of the synagogue for twenty years prior to his retirement in 2006. Ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970, he is a recipient of two master’s degrees, and was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, When we stand together, In unity and love, In the the name of hope and harmony.
How fragile are our tents When our fears divide us When we allow outside winds To blow within.
Who but You, Ruach Elohim, Can define who we are? What keeps us strong. What keeps us whole.
Who but us, Klal Yisroael, Can shield us, Carrying each other As one against the storm?
How fair are our tents, O Israel, When we stand together, In the name of unity, In compassion, in strength, For our children, And for our children’s children.
Ken yihi ratzon.
Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont and has been the recipient of the Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Leadership Fellowship, the Michael Chernick Prize in Rabbinic Literature, and the Weisman Memorial Prize in Homiletics, among others.
After the power drill is put away and all of the pointy parts of the s’chach that is just right for poking your brothers’ eyes out is finally on top of our little booth, Sukkot transforms into one of my favorite holidays to celebrate with my children. In the Moroccan Sephardic tradition, we leave a chair out for Elijah. This special chair is often laden with books for ushpizin. As the younger of my three year old twins still occasionally chews on the furniture, I prefer to leave more child-friendly books within reach (rather than, say, my favorite binding of Psalms I enjoy periodically weeping over). But which books to pile onto our special chair this year?
To me, the value of inclusion is deeply related to the concept of hachnasat orchim (the welcoming of guests). After all, hachnasat orchim, treating each other with empathy and kindness, is the first step into true inclusion. We particularly celebrate these values at Sukkot, as we welcome both real and spiritual guests into the sukkah. In honor of a holiday in which we greet and happily receive others into our dwellings, here are eight non-traditional children’s stories about welcoming others into our hearts. I included several about narwhals; narwhals are so hot right now.
You could read one a night with the ushpizin who come to your sukkah!
Wendell the NarwhalHow do we invite in though who want to be included, but don’t know how and feel overwhelmed?
Not Quite NarwhalHow many communities do you belong to? How does belonging to a variety of communities enrich our identity?
Narwhal, Unicorn of the SeaSometimes it is hard to make friends with someone from a different background; but these friendships can be some of the most important. (This is set up in semi-graphic novel style and is the beginning of a series about Narwhal and Jelly’s adventures together.)
Something ElseHave you ever felt excluded? What does that feel like? How can you use that experience to prevent someone else from feeling the same way?
Can I Play Too?Learning how to find a way to play together might take some creativity, but means that everyone can have fun!
Ada Twist, ScientistSometimes even the people who we love most (and who love us the most) aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge who we are, celebrate our differences, and include us. Inside a family, how can we figure this out?
Winnie the PoohWritten in a time before many of the diagnoses we now use today, Winnie the Pooh’s friend circle as an example of inclusion of individuals with a variety of dispositions and procivities. No matter which story you choose, note how this community of toys consistently and naturally includes one another, without ever asking anyone to “just get over it.”
Do you have any other books you love to use when talking about inclusion? How do you practice including your Sukkot guests?
Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.
Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.
Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.
However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.
When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.
How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.
Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.
May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.
Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA