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omer Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

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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Chanukah Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Chanukah, Alabama, and Inequality

This blog is the fifth 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. 

There is a meditation in Mishkan T’fillah that was carried over from Gates of Prayer: “Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives.  Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city.  But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”  This meditation was penned by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was personally invited by Dr. Martin Luther King to help lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965.  When he returned from that march, Rabbi Heschel wrote, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”

Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King are long gone, but I felt their presence and those of everyone who marched from Selma half a century ago: those who marched and were beaten and clubbed in “Bloody Sunday,” those who tried to march and stopped to pray, and those who finally succeeded in marching to Montgomery, where they heard Dr. King tell us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I felt their presence and even heard from some of them when I traveled to Selma in March for the commemoration of the marches.

Rabbi Fred Guttman of North Carolina organized a Jewish contingent to participate in the event.  We met at Temple Mishkan Israel, the beautiful (Reform) synagogue of Selma’s now tiny Jewish community.  In addition to Jews, those present included members of the African American community, and among them was a contingent from the North Carolina NAACP.  I made friends with a future divinity student in that group.  We were challenged by Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, who reminded us that “moral dissent can never take a vacation.”

We heard from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was lynched along with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi during the Movement.  We heard from Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel, about the challenges her father set forth for us.  We joined in as Peter Yarrow sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” just as he had done in Selma 50 years ago.  And we heard Clarence Young, one of Dr. King’s chief advisors, tell us that “the true story of Selma is the story of the participation of the Jewish people and Jewish leadership.

And we saw a beautiful African American woman, short in stature but proud in bearing, who faced the weapons and the hatred 50 years ago.

Then we left, and with tens of thousands of others, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  It was celebratory, and it was emotional, but it was much more than that.

Our gathering in that synagogue was a form of prayer.  It served to rebuild a weakened will.  Much has gone wrong in our country when it comes to creating a unified society.  The Supreme Court has gutted the very voting rights protections that the Selma march was designed to guarantee.  Since then, states have engaged in campaigns of voter suppression.  Economic inequality continues to grow, and racist actions, some trivial, many not, continue to show up on our television and computer screens.  It is tempting to throw up our hands and let the world go on its way.

But Selma is always there to remind us that despair is not the way.  Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a conference on religion and race.  In his keynote address, Rabbi Heschel said,

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.  Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go….’  The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.  Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.  The exodus began, but it is far from having been completed.”

As we move away from Passover, we must recall that we are the descendants of those who challenged Pharaoh.  We are the people who crossed the sea to freedom.  We have to keep crossing it, and bring all those in search of freedom with us.

And this brings me from Passover to Chanukah.  The word means “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates our rededicating the Temple after the forces of oppression had vandalized it.  What I learned in Selma is that we have to rededicate ourselves every day to making this world – God’s temple – into a holy place.  We need to repair the damage that has been done.  That is the true meaning of tikkun olam.  And that is the meaning of Selma.

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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 Tom Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim.

Categories
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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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Last October, I went to Ferguson. Why?

This blog is the third 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. 

Last October, I went to Ferguson. Why?

The simplest answer is that my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Justice, invited me. There would be an interfaith service and a protest in front of the Ferguson police department. We would stand in solidarity with young leaders crying out for justice following the death of Michael Brown, Jr. an unarmed African-American 18 year-old gunned down in the street by a white police officer on August 9, 2014.

Rabbis, we’ve been taught, show up. We show up at moments of agonizing pain and joyous celebration. We show up to teach Torah, to illuminate moments of holiness. We show up to animate justice and hope in the world.

In 1978, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler (z”l) called for Reform Jews to engage in outreach.  He demanded that we “remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts.”

Twenty-seven years later, Rabbi Eric Yoffie compelled the Reform movement to “fashion our synagogues into face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth.”  This is what our best congregations are. Like Abraham’s guests, our members need to feel safe, comfortable, and connected. They need a congregation that supports the deep experiences of life; where you are there for other people and they are there for you; where they notice when you are missing and take the trouble to find out why; and where you never face a crisis alone.”

In 2013, Rabbi Rick Jacobs carried the holy light forward: “Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so that people don’t feel left out; it’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can become all that God wants us to be – and a way to transform ourselves in the process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street, where synagogue and stranger need each other. Hospitality is not just our chance to teach newcomers but, just as important, an opportunity for them to teach us.”

The result: Many of us have listened to these inspiring words and we show up. We’ve worked on opening our hearts and our congregations; we’ve told interfaith couples and GLBT people and Jews of color and those with disabilities that they are welcome in synagogue life; that they count; that we count on them to make the circle of Jewish life complete.

The proximity of “the other” transforms what could be a political debate into a pastoral encounter. These matters are no longer “issues” for debate but people with lives and stories that enrich our congregations and our lives.

Our communities today are the direct results of courageously transforming our congregations from one filled with Jews resembling the mythic “Ozzie and Harriet” to beautifully diverse, holy communities that transcend walls and state borders.

And that means we bear witness to very real pain and suffering:

When a mother comes to her rabbi following the death of Travon Martin and says, “I’m afraid to let my (African-American) son wear a hoodie outside the house,” how does such a statement not shatter our hearts?

Or when another congregant who is African American chokes up, offering the name Michael Brown Jr. at Kaddish, what is our response?

Or when a pregnant interracial Jewish couple sits in our rabbinic study and weeps “Rabbi, if we have a son, how do we keep him safe?”

Surely, stating that everyone counts has political implications.

It is also deeply, profoundly personal. And moral.

For a generation, we in the Reform movement have proclaimed that we seek to expand the tent of Jewish life, to engage in the Biblical process of welcoming the stranger, to practice “audacious hospitality.”

These ideals must go beyond mere sloganeering. If we are to take seriously and count each member of our community—and live into the reality that their stories, their pain, their suffering, their hope—then we cannot ignore the impact of racism and police brutality on the lives of members of color of our congregations and our communities. Our empathy, our compassion, our humanity demands a response to both people we love and people we don’t know but whose suffering is real.

We rabbis must show up and cry out with the voices of the prophets, with moral courage, with a vision of a just society where all our children can realize their dreams. And that means we must stand up and speak out about racial disparities in policing, arrests, and incarceration.

If not us, who?

As Rabbi Schindler so eloquently explained 36 years ago, “Let us shuck our insecurities; let us recapture our self-esteem; let us, by all means, demonstrate our confidence in the value of our faith.”

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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 Michael Latz serves Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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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

Categories
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.