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Economy omer Shavuot Social Justice spirituality

Economic Stability: An Ageless Quest

Last fall, my husband and I ordered a new sukkah decoration straight from Israel. The package arrived with a free magnet, imprinted with the image of a woman holding an umbrella, walking in the rain. The magnet had one word on it. Sasson (“joy”). It took me a moment, and then I realized my cultural gap. Living in New Jersey, joy is not the word I associate with rain. However, in Israel and other arid climates, rain is pure joy, because it is desperately needed. 

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes a section on the holidays, a calendar chiefly driven by the agrarian cycle. Theses verses are relevant to modern Jews because, thousands of years later, we still celebrate the holidays, albeit with layers of development around our rituals, but at the core, these holidays are still the same. But to be honest, the descriptions of the biblical holiday sacrifices, meal and fruit offerings, and animal sacrifices, do not resonate when compared to my modern observance of Judaism. 

For example, the parashah describes the counting of the Omer, the annual schlepping of grain offerings for seven weeks. This daily offering of grain bridged the barley harvest of Passover to the wheat harvest of Shavuot. But how do I count the Omer today? Do I schlep a bundle of barely to the Temple, to be offered, in recognition of God as source of all? Not at all! Today, an app on my phone sends me a reminder every night at sundown, and I count the Omer, with words. Done. 

Given the vast differences between now and biblical times, it is easy to forget how scary the harvest cycle would have been for our ancestors. In the winter they waited nervously to see if there would be enough rain to sustain the growth of their crops to feed their family and their animals. Then after the rains of winter, once the crops were planted, it was a waiting game. Would they be able to harvest the crops before something bad happened? The possibilities for failure were endless: too much heat, not enough water, locusts, or some other plague. It was a precarious time.

As the modern plague of COVID-19 unfolds, we are foremost concerned about life and health. However, we also hold our breaths as we watch the world’s economy spin out of control. Therefore, this year, while we count the Omer, we also count our balances in checking accounts and retirement funds. We wait to see if jobs will continue or salaries will be cut. And we deeply understand the fears of our ancestors, who prayed to be sustained by their storerooms. The biblical fears are near to us as ever. Our holidays, with their deep agrarian roots, are ultimately about the basic human need, shared by every generation, to have enough to sustain us, even when times are tough.

This desire for economic stability and sustenance is voiced in the following passage, added in some communities historically, at the conclusion of the daily morning service.

First, the community would read the passage from Exodus 16 about the manna and then add something like this example: 

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתַּזְמִין פַּרְנָסָה לְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפַרְנָסָתִי וּפַרְנָסַת אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתִי בִּכְלָלָם, בְּנַחַת וְלֹא בְּצַעַר, בְּכָבוֹד וְלֹא בְּבִזּוּי, בְּהֶתֵּר וְלֹא בְּאִסּוּר, כְּדֵי שֶׁנּוּכַל לַעֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָתֶךָ וְלִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹ שֶׁזַּנְתָּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַעֲרָבָה:

May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to provide sustenance for all Your people, the House of Israel, and sustenance for me and all the members of my household, with pleasantness and not with suffering, with honor and not with degradation, through permissible activities and not forbidden activities, so that we will be able to serve You and to learn Your Torah, just as you sustained our ancestors in the wilderness with Manna in a dry and desert land.[1]

Our Torah portion and this liturgical addition are examples of the human desire for economic stability. Our tradition does not suggest we merely pray for sustenance, but rather balance our longing for stability with financial literacy, community resources, educational opportunities, and generosity to others through tzedakah

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Elders, 3:17 teaches these famous words from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: 

אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח.

If there is no flour [meaning ability to earn money], there is no Torah. If there is no Torah, there is no flour [ability to earn money]. This is frequently interpreted as: the religious, spiritual, and ethical teachings of Torah must co-dwell with the mundane matters of earning money and sustaining ourselves. One realm should not exist without the other. 

The line in Pirkei Avot just before the flour/Torah teaching adds: 

אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה.

If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.

Perhaps, at this time of economic instability, we can read these lines together to understand that economic stability must be built on the best of Jewish values and the best of secular financial knowledge. 

May you and your loved ones know health and financial security, Torah and generosity, and therefore know sasson, (“joy”).

[1] Robert Scheinberg, “Money and Transaction in Jewish Liturgy and Rituals” in Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (New York: CCAR Press, 2019), 335.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to two acclaimed CCAR Press Challenge and Change anthologies, The Sacred Exchange: Creating A Jewish Money Ethic (2019) and The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (2011). The Sacred Table was designated a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards. She is also the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.

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Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

Categories
omer Social Justice

The Call to Account Will Continue

Last week’s parashah, Shemini, describes Aaron’s response to the unexpected, enigmatic death of his two sons: “And Aaron was silent” (Lev 10:3). The same verb appears in the book of Amos, when the prophet indicts the rich for exploiting the poor and subverting justice for the righteous and the needy. Amos warns: “Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).

Silence is one response to calamity; speech is another. During an address delivered on March 8, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters.” campaign represents an attempt to resist silence and to speak out about the values that matter most to us, as Americans and as people of faith.

Starting on Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, every day at 5:00 a.m. American Values Religious Voices has emailed a letter to the President, Vice President, members of the 115th Congress (through their Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Directors), and certain members of the Trump Administration. At the same time, a notice has gone out to over two thousand subscribers with a link to the letter posted on our website and publicized on social media @ValuesandVoices. Plus, a hard copy of each letter has been mailed to the President and Vice President.

These daily letters have been written by a diverse cadre of scholars of religion: Jews representing various affiliations, Christians from different denominations, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. The letter writers identify as African Americans, Latinx, Asians, Native American, and White. Go to the homepage of our website and look at the gorgeous mosaic of 100 faces. This is what America looks like. This glorious diversity is what makes America great.

The 100 letters articulate core American values rooted or reflected in our religious traditions, values like pluralism, freedom of religion, justice, truth, hospitality, compassion—just to name a few. Go to “The Letters” section of our website and look at the long list of values and topics addressed in the letters. You can click on any word—like “Empathy,” “Equality,” or “The Environment”—to to sort the letters and see how different authors treat the same subject.

For clergy, this archive of 100 letters offers a particularly valuable resource. Letter writers have responded in real time to the moves of the Trump Administration, with letters that confront issues in the news like immigration and the treatment of “the stranger,” the building of a wall, proposed budget cuts, the denial of climate change. Quotations from the letters can be used liturgically or homiletically; scriptural citations can be woven together for text study and interfaith conversations.

In the “Take Action” section of the website, you will find a link to a Seder Supplement and a Prayer for Our Country. The Prayer for Our Country compiles quotations from eight letters into a single composition that expresses our shared hopes for our country. The authors cited in this prayer mirror the diverse voices contained in this campaign, while highlighting our common aspirations for our nation. The prayer was officially debuted at my son’s Bar Mitzvah on April 1 and will be recited at HUC-JIR New York ordination on May 7. Think about adding it to your congregational worship and/or using it in interfaith gatherings.

Letter 100 has been written by American Values Religious Voices Advisory Committee member Elsie Stern, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and also the sister of our new CCAR President, David Stern. Elsie compares the counting of a president’s first 100 days in office to the counting of the omer. She writes: “While the letters and the counting conclude, the call to account will continue.” I encourage you to use American Values Religious Voices as a resource as we all play our part in holding our elected officials accountable for preserving and promoting our core American values.

Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.   She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.

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omer

Counting of the Omer

These days, with four small children in our house, I count a lot. I inventory lunches and shoes and loads of laundry. I track little back packs and waters bottles and ouchies. I measure fevers and hours of screen time and outside play. I tally toys and turns and the children themselves every few minutes. Every day fills itself with small, sometimes forgotten numbers.

When each of my children were born, we counted their lives according to hours, or feedings, or dirty diapers. As they aged, the measuring stick dilated into weeks or months, but never much longer than that. Ella, my first child, was only sixteen months when Aidan was born; and the twins, Daniel and David, followed just twenty four months and one week later. Now, for more than half a decade – since my pregnancy with Ella – I counted our lives in days, sometimes in weeks, and occasionally, in months. But the twins marked the last pregnancy my body can healthily carry. As they age, the measuring stick lengthens and stretches with their no-longer-so-little bodies. And steadily, my subconscious practice of counting the time since their birth in days, then weeks, then months faded into the the bittersweet ease of measuring their lives in years.

The practice of the counting of the Omer reminds us of each day’s preciousness. Some days are more exciting than others (I’m looking at you, Lag B’Omer) but every day merits a blessing. Marking and measuring the small things, the circadian passage of time, is what makes up the majority of our lives. Bigger milestones come and go, and I am grateful for them. But the counting of the Omer reminds me again of the joys of measuring our time in smaller increments.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

We All Count: Shavuot

This blog is the eighth 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. 

Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be.  From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others.  We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.

Shavuot  is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish.  The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique.  This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings.  Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter.  Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are.  Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.

Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week.  As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread.  Each person spoke from a strong place of self.  I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”

I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.   Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued.  I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors.  It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.  “Tell us what you want?”  is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new.  We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.

The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily.  Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people.  The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry.  Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.

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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 Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism. 

 

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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.

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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. 

barber1 - Copy   barber2 - Copy   barber3

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We All Count: Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, in Baltimore and Beyond

This blog is the sixth 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. 

The wisdom of Torah is applicable in all times and places. Especially during these tense days in the life of Baltimore, the city where I live and serve as a rabbi, the lessons of Torah help us understand what we must do.

The Shabbat before last, we read Parashah Kedoshim in the Book of Leviticus, the physical and theological center of the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, a document written primarily for priestly consumption, is concerned with distinctions. God likes orderliness. God does not want us to wear clothing of mixed fabric, to plow a field using diverse animals, or sow a field with mixed seed. God tells the priests to distinguish between the pure and impure, the priests and lay persons, the holy and ordinary, Israel and the nations. Yet, in the midst of these laws demanding distinction, we read Leviticus 19, the zenith of which is the verse “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka’mocha,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God commands us to love not only our fellow Jews but all human beings.

The rabbis acknowledge that it is difficult to understand this law. When asked to summarize the entire Torah, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is distasteful to you, do not do to another person. The rest is commentary; now go and study.”

I interpret this admonition in a positive sense: “Want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.” That seems to be easier to understand and simpler to achieve. We all want safety, security, good health, decent housing, and productive and meaningful work. We want our children to have a good education and a chance to reach their potential. We want to live in a community that helps us achieve these reasonable goals.

It has been a very dark two weeks in the life of our city. Baltimore has been roiling from violence and injustice. Freddie Gray, who was apparently healthy when arrested by Baltimore police, suffered mortal injuries during arrest and transport to the Western District Police Station. Legitimate peaceful protests demanding justice morphed last Monday to illegitimate and egregious violence. Youthful rioters set fires to buildings and destroyed businesses in their own community. Police were injured, and the National Guard was called in to restore order. A curfew was imposed. Business is suffering, and ordinary life has been curtailed.

Three weeks ago, I attended an emergency BUILD clergy meeting at a church in West Baltimore. We asked the residents of Sandtown what they wanted. We heard from them that they want the same things we want for ourselves and our children. The residents of Sandtown told us they want more police on the streets to drive away the drug dealers in the neighborhood. They want a relationship with the leadership of the Western District but have repeatedly been put off by “acting” majors, for there has not been a permanent commander in the Western District for the last two years. The police leadership, including Commissioner Anthony Batts, have refused to meet with them. I ask: How can we know what our neighbors want when we will not meet with them and listen to their concerns?

On Wednesday, I attended a BUILD action at City Hall. More than 150 of us went to the Board of Estimate to request that the president of the city council and police commissioner meet with the residents of Sandtown (the mayor, who has not met with neighborhood residents, will not meet with BUILD, the only multi-religious, multi-racial community organization in our city). Council President Jack Young, who knew in advance we were coming and what we were requesting, reluctantly agreed to meet with us. We then marched to police headquarters, where we were able to schedule a meeting with Commissioner Batts for this week.

All of life is about relationships. We cannot love our neighbors unless we listen to them. What do they want? What do they need? If we want to fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we must enter into relationship with our neighbors.

We call upon the political leadership of our city and state to meet with West Side residents and truly listen to them. There are endemic issues on the West Side and in other neighborhoods in Baltimore that have existed for generations and have only compounded in the last 30 years with the epidemic of drugs and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot (2:16), “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it entirely…” The task of listening and learning to love can never be completed. It is, however, our sacred obligation to begin.

 

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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 Steven Fink serves Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, MD

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Counting the Days toward Equality

This blog is the fourth 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. 

As we count the Omer this year in anticipation of receiving Torah, I am also counting the days in anticipation of a Supreme Court hearing on Marriage Equality to take place on April 28, 2015 and then sometime in June when the Supreme Court will likely rule on whether or not there is a right to marry in many of the states that have objected such as Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and others.  As a long time Marriage Equality advocate I remember the happy summer of love in 2008 in California when I officiated at over 60 Jewish weddings between June 16, 2008 including the first legal wedding between plaintiffs in our California case, Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen.   But on November 4, 2008 it was over as a majority of Californians had gone to the polls to elect Barack Obama on the one hand but pass the notorious Proposition 8 which took away the equal right to marry from Californians.  As I stood on a stage in Hollywood that night at an election rally bubbling from Obama’s big California win, I had to comfort a community that had been sucker punched by an unholy alliance between the Catholic Bishops and Mormon Bishops in Utah and California.  More than 40 million dollars had been spent to demonize LGBTQ people and their families once again. It was the most expensive proposition race ever.

The next days and weeks were spent at rallies and protest marches.  I worked vigorously both in front and behind the scenes.  On the night after the election during a big rally in the city where I serve as rabbi, we began passing buckets to raise money to take this back to the courts. My congregation turned out in droves as did many in the Reform Jewish community who were stunned by the results.  I climbed on to the back of a truck that led the protesters through West Hollywood and back down Sunset Blvd. as my fellow activists and I took turns at the bullhorn.

The next night of protests one of the gay community leaders suggested a march on the Mormon Temple the next day.  I knew this would be bad from the start. As she led the marchers the next day down Santa Monica Blvd from West Hollywood to Los Angeles’ Mormon Temple you could feel the tension in the crowd and in the LAPD.  Traffic was completely snarled during rush hour-never a good thing in Los Angeles and those caught in the standstill were angry that they couldn’t get where they were going. That’s when scuffles began between drivers who got out of their cars and protesters.  More than one bloody fight took place. As the marchers turned toward the Mormon temple, my good friend and interfaith partner, Rev. Neil Thomas and I ended up guarding the Mormon Stake behind their Temple. The protesters were beginning to rush the doors.  It was Rev. Thomas and I that stood between the protesters and the Mormons. Luckily the protestors listened to us, kept to the sidewalk, remained calm and kept moving.

There are so many more stories to tell of that time.  But now this many years later I give thanks that marriage equality is legal in more than 33 states.  And so I am counting down the days-not only to receiving Torah at Sinai once again but toward Tuesday, April 28 when the case for marriage equality heads back to the Supreme Court.  Hopefully, it will be a positive resolution nationwide where marriage equality will be the law of the land everywhere.

The work of justice will not be done though. As long as you can still be fired for being married to someone of the same gender, as long as there are no protections in housing or education for LGBTQ individuals the work of equality and justice is not done.  And so I will still be counting in anticipation of that day and counting on all of you to help make that a reality.

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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 Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We All Count: To See Ourselves, We Should Also See Others

This blog is the second 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. 

בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

“In each generation, a person is obligated to see things as if they themselves came out from Egypt.”

Looking through my father’s desk after he died, in the wallet that he had used in high school, in Baltimore in the 1950’s, I found two cards.  The first said something to the effect that “I am glad that your establishment chooses to serve people of all races, and I am proud to patronize it.”  The second basically said the opposite.  “I am sorry that your establishment does not choose to serve people of all races, and I will no longer chose to patronize it.”  I do not know that my father ever actually used these cards.  None of his friends remember this campaign.  I can only imagine the combination of courage, tact, and chutzpah it took to do so.  But before my father could have used such a card, he had to take a look around and notice the patrons of a particular store, or the signs that denied patronage.

In my middle school grade, there was one black child.  I noticed that he was black, but I did not consider what it might have meant for him to be the only black student in a white, suburban school.  My high school, on the other hand, was more diverse – I recall one of my teachers calling it a “ghetto school.” While the race of students in my health class matched the local demographics, there were no black students who were enrolled in all honors classes.  I didn’t recognize this until later.   To be honest, I might have noticed a large amount of African-Americans in a given situation; I didn’t noticed a demographically disproportionate small amount.

I have since learned that a vast amount of racial inequality happens under the radar of those who therefore reap, often unknowingly, the benefits of that injustice.  In learning about “the talk” that parents of African-American children need to give to their sons and daughters, I have discovered an entirely different view of our society.  Over the last several years, with a small group of individuals of different racial backgrounds, I have been engaged in deeply personal and open conversations about our experience of race and prejudice.  Educationally, socio-economically, and geographically, the leaders of this group (Social Justice Matters) are in the same location.  The world that we live in, however, is very different.  There has been much talk about what it means to “drive while black”, how the encounter of an African-American male with the police can be very different from that of a (seemingly) white or Asian male or female, even about being seen as an opportunity for a sale or a problem in a retail store.  What I have begun to see is the entire social construction that a black member of the group wears every day in order to live in a world where he must be ever-ready to explain himself, where any encounter can turn disastrous, and where he cannot even voice his frustration at the failure of another’s understanding or the non-existent pace of social change, lest he be branded an “angry black man”.

What does it mean for Jews to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt?  Even if we cannot live inside someone else’s skin, how can we begin to understand another’s story?  How can we not only share that we are willing to try, but that we can begin to open our eyes to see the world differently – through the eyes of oppression?  After my father put those cards in his wallet, and before he handed them out, he had to take account of where he was, and who was around him.  Because, only once we have begun to see and take stock of and to number what is around us – to truly count, as we are called to through the omer – can we even ask the question what we can do to make change.

We all count is not just about who matters.  We must also actually count – who sits at the table with us; who can even enter the same doors; who is present and who is not.  Only then can we seek them out, and ask what it is we can do to help.  I have just begun to open my eyes.  This period of the Omer, I, and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, invite you to open your eyes and take a count, as well.  Take the old story of the Exodus, and see through different eyes.  Look at the numbers that are people – in your communities and across the nation.  Only if we all count, can others count on us.

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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 Joel Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, NJ

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We All Count: Stacked Against The Underdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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