Categories
Social Justice

The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion and the Legacy of Two Courageous Reform Rabbis and Religious Leaders Pre-Roe v. Wade

While we anticipate—and work to fight—the disastrous consequences resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s plan to drastically curtail reproductive rights in the United States, we can take a lesson in leadership and courage from the 1960s and two New York City CCAR members—Rabbi Lewis Bogage and Rabbi Israel Margolies, z”l—who were instrumental in forming the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion before the 1973 passing of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was against the law in New York State when Rev. Finley Schaef approached Rev. Howard Moody, both serving churches in downtown Manhattan. Rev. Schaef, haunted by the memory of being unable to help a woman seeking an abortion for her daughter who became pregnant under tragic circumstances, suggested that the two of them organize clergy to refer people for safe and affordable abortions. Rev. Moody welcomed the idea and the two called a meeting with other clergy and legal advisors to form the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of religious leaders organized to refer women for safe and affordable care.  

The group devoted many hours to planning and arranging the details. They attained a direct-dial telephone number and housed an answering machine at Rev. Moody’s church. They charged no fee. To ensure their doctors were trustworthy and not overcharging, the administrator of Judson Church, Arlene Carmen, pretended to be a pregnant woman and checked them out. If questioned by the police, they would claim that the referrals were part of confidential pastoral counsel. And they were committed to using the word “abortion” in the name of their consultation service so that people knew what they were doing, would be able to find them, and hopefully reduce the stigma so often associated with abortion. And they enlisted the participation of other Greater New York City clergy, including Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margulies. 

Finally, on May 22, 1967, a New York Times front-page article announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, listing twenty-one clergy—nineteen ministers, plus Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margolies. The article described the goals and work of the CCSA, listed each clergy member by name and congregation, included the call number, and quoted from the CCSA statement which underscored that a doctor performing an abortion is “living by the highest standards of religion and of the Hippocratic Oath.”  

The calls and referrals started immediately, reaching 800 by the end of 1967, 3,000 in 1968, and 10,000 in 1969. According to estimates, by the time of the Roe decision, the network expanded nationally to 2,000 clergy serving 100,000 women without a single fatality. There were a few clergy arrests and legal inquires, but nothing ever came of it all, and with the Roe decision, many of the clergy turned to other social justice needs.  

  

Sources:  

Tom Davis, Sacred Work, Rutgers University Press, 126–135. 

Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, To Offer Compassion, University of Wisconsin Press, 23–32. 

Dennis S. Ross, All Politics Is Religious, SkyLight Paths, 25–31.


Rabbi Dennis S. Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, is Acting Interim Specialist for the CCAR, and author of A Year with Martin Buber: Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion for the Jewish Publication Society Daily Inspiration Series. 

Categories
Social Justice

‘I Will Keep Fighting for Our Rights to Control Our Bodies and Our Lives’: Rabbi Hara Person’s Remarks at the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C.

In response to the draft of a United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which leaked to the public in early May, the Central Conference of American Rabbis—which believes that abortion access is a Jewish value, a human right, and part of comprehensive healthcare—cosponsored the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, presented by National Council of Jewish Women, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, was asked to address the thousands of attendees in Washington, D.C. Here, we share her remarks.


I stand here today, a Reform rabbi and the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in tribute to my great-grandmother, Lena.

I stand here 100 years after my great-grandmother Lena had two knitting needle abortions on her kitchen table. She turned to the best of bad options because she could barely feed the children she had. My great-grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She lived to tell the tale. When abortion became legal in this country, she made sure her family knew her story.

Taking away access to abortion is not pro-life. Banning abortion is about taking power away from and punishing people with uteruses.

I am here to say proudly that Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believe that abortion access is essential healthcare, a basic human right, and a Jewish value.

Today we have safe options for abortion, and these options must be protected and accessible to all. Taking away abortion access goes against our most deeply held American values of religious liberty and equality. It goes against our Jewish belief of prioritizing an actual life over a potential life.

Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believes that every one of us should have the right to make personal healthcare decisions based on our own faith and values.

In memory of my great-grandmother, Lena, I will keep fighting for our rights to control our bodies and our lives. The fight will be difficult but what a blessing to be in it with all of you.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Teaching and Preaching with The Social Justice Torah Commentary

Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to address today’s social justice issues. In this post, Rabbi Block discusses how the book’s diverse lessons have influenced his own sermons throughout the past year.

On many Friday nights in the last year, contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary have been de facto guest preachers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock.

For more than a year now, I have been in the unique position of having access to the brilliant work of our CCAR colleagues and other contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary. The last of the chapters was completed in late 2020. Transforming the content into a physical book takes a while, particularly in this era of contraction in the printing industry and global supply chain issues.

The book’s chapters have deeply influenced my own rabbinate over the last year; I hope this will be replicated as rabbis and others now have their hands on the full book.

I give formal sermons most Friday nights, and the authors of The Social Justice Torah Commentary have provided me with content that I have shaped into these sermons. I suspect that colleagues who speak more informally could similarly benefit from the book.

Last fall, when the Supreme Court forced the City of Philadelphia to continue contracting with a religious foster care agency that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, I preached on “Religious Certainty and Religious Liberty,” drawing both on that week’s portion, Vayeira, and Rabbi David Segal’s insightful piece on that parashah for the book. I turned back to Rabbi Segal’s entry this year, as we face a historic threat to abortion rights. In 5782, my sermon for Vayeira was entitled, “Abortion Rights: Bound to the Altar”. While both of those sermons drew on the same chapter in the book, neither recapitulated Rabbi Segal’s central argument in full. Instead, crediting Rabbi Segal repeatedly in each sermon, I shared some of his words—and, more importantly, texts that he provides.

In other cases, I have shared an author’s entire thesis more fully. Before I received Rabbi Reuben Zellman’s draft for Parashat Mikeitz, I had somehow never thought of Joseph and the cupbearer as formerly incarcerated people who had been given extraordinary opportunities to succeed after imprisonment. I shared Rabbi Zellman’s perspective rather fully last December, in a sermon titled “Joseph and the Cupbearer: The Potential of Formerly Incarcerated People”.

Rabbi Mary Zamore’s entry on harassment-free Jewish spaces for Parashat Vayikra is so compelling that I taught it even though the week of reading that portion wasn’t the right time. Shabbat HaGadol, when we read Parashat Tzav (close enough to Vayikra!), would be the occasion for me to share her wisdom in a sermon I entitled “Harassment, Bullying, and Jewish Institutions”.

In no case have I merely recited another author’s work verbatim as my Shabbat sermon. Instead, I have shaped kernels of these chapters into drashot that would fit the congregation I serve and the season when I have preached.

More recently, Rabbis Alan Freedman and Ellie Steinman and Temple Beth Shalom in Austin blessed me with my first scholar-in-residence opportunity since the pandemic began. My Friday evening sermon was based on The Mussar Torah Commentary. However, for the Shabbat morning Torah Study, I prepared a Sefaria source sheet based on Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s entry for Parashat Chayei Sarah, “Torah’s Precedent for Women’s Agency.” Rabbi Kelman focused on how women’s agency is taken away by the marriage and divorce laws of Israel’s chief rabbinate. Teaching in Texas in 2021, though, the matter of women’s agency is most relevant to the struggle for access to abortion.

Later that same Shabbat, our attention had turned to Parashat Tol’dot. In his chapter about systemic racism and water rights, Rabbi David Spinrad draws on Isaac’s digging and naming successive wells—and importantly, on Nachmanides’ midrashic reading of that story. Kernels of his work, encapsulated in a Sefaria sheet, were the perfect material on which to base a conversation about whether and how rabbis can properly speak on issues of the day: “Politics or Social Justice: Should Rabbis Preach about Issues of the Day.”

I hope that these examples, only a few of the many, many times I have employed the content of The Social Justice Torah Commentary over the last year, will inspire CCAR colleagues and others to draw on this new book to bring Torah and the prophetic voice for a brighter future to all the communities we serve.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Israel Rabbinic Reflections Social Justice

Implement the Kotel Agreement: An Open Letter to Ambassador Michael Herzog

Dear Ambassador Hertzog,

I am an American Reform rabbi. I am writing to you from Tel Aviv, where I am privileged to be spending a month with my Israeli family.

This morning, I joined friends and colleagues to celebrate Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, as I have many, many times before.

I am honored to join my courageous and resilient Israeli sisters to welcome the new month, even though we who join Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל) are often screamed at, spat upon, and prevented from praying together. Today was no different: we were corralled into a separate space as if we, not our hecklers, needed to be contained. The true desecration today was the screaming, the shrill whistles, and the guards’ bullhorns that attempted to silence our prayer. Instead of providing protection to us, the Kotel authorities ignored and seemed to support those who harassed us.

You know that the current situation at the Kotel causes grave harm and deep embarrassment for all of us who love Israel. Israel is my home, but being heckled by ultra-Orthodox men and women, and boys and girls, when I lift my voice in praise to the Source of all makes me feel unwelcome and alienated in one of Israel’s most sacred places. 

You also know that Israel is home to many Jews who do not identify as Orthodox, and that North American Jews from all liberal streams feel a profound sense of peoplehood when we visit Israel and attend one of the many Israeli Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative synagogues. And when we visit the Kotel, we want to pray in peace, in a space that welcomes us. 

No one heckles the men who gather to pray. No one prevents men from bringing a Sefer Torah to sanctify their gathering. No one prevents men from being called to the Torah for the first time, or to celebrate a simchah, or to remember a loved one. No one accuses other prayer groups of “disturbing the peace.”

Yet I return to Israel, and to the Kotel, whenever I can, in the hopes that the Kotel Agreement, approved on January 31, 2016 by the Israeli government will finally be implemented. This detailed, 45-page document, negotiated over three and a half years, provides full and unimpeded access to the Western Wall for Jews of all streams. It is my hope that once implemented, the harassment, intimidation, and שנאת חינם will cease. 

Today we welcomed a new month: Adar. Tradition teaches: משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה.

However, my joy today was diminished, and my heart heavy with disappointment and anger that Prime Minister Bennett, on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Kotel Agreement, is capitulating to extremists and denying that the Kotel Agreement is a fair and long overdue compromise. As you know, there is broad support in his coalition to finally move forward on this long delayed and eminently fair solution. 

Now is the time to rise beyond narrow political considerations. I implore you, as a representative of the Israeli government, to conclude the task begun with “Ezrat Israel” in 2013. Nine years later, it is time for the Israeli government to implement the Kotel Agreement.

Let us welcome Adar with joy, not shame.

Thank you.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

Learn more about the Kotel Agreement here.


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD serves as a Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books) and The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press), and has served as a congregational rabbi, worked with congregations and lay leaders through the URJ, and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, University of California, Los Angeles, and LaSalle University.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard

In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah CommentaryRabbi Mary L. Zamore, Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, draws on Parashat Vayikra to call for holding Jewish leaders accountable.

Yes, it is awful that he said those things. They are totally inappropriate, but he is a beloved member of our clergy team, a founder of our congregation. We must recognize that he only yells at our professional staff and lay leaders when he is stressed.

She just has trouble with boundaries, but she’s harmless. If we hold her accountable, she may leave the temple, which would be devastating. After all, she donates hours and hours to our synagogue. She is irreplaceable. The staff just needs to avoid her. We will remind her not to go to the staff members’ homes without permission.

We all know his behavior is not right, so we will make sure he does not meet with women alone. He’s going to retire soon. There is no reason to ruin his otherwise stellar reputation. Retirement is just a few years away. Maybe we can encourage him to leave sooner.

He has suffered enough by his sexual harassment coming to light. However, his contributions to the Jewish community are far too numerous not to quote him. Whom else could we cite? And why mention this dark spot on an otherwise sterling career?

Above is a compilation of remarks reflecting many real cases in the Jewish community, conflated here to illustrate a theme. The common thread is a lack of accountability for the productive perpetrator. This is the professional or lay leader in a congregation or institution who is successful in their work, yet has substantiated accusations of sexual assault, harassment, or abusive/bullying behavior against them. They are trusted and beloved, generous with their time and/or money; they excel in their field. And because of their success, their community will never hold them accountable for their bad behavior—even though it endangers the community’s atmosphere of safety and respect—leaving a wake of damage in their path. Often working to keep the behavior and its negative impact unknown to the wider world, community leaders act as if the bad behavior is an unavoidable tax for the benefits the community reaps from the productive perpetrator’s presence and work. However, Parashat Vayikra teaches us the exact opposite, commanding us to hold our leaders accountable to a higher standard.

Vayikra outlines the rituals for different types of sacrifices: olah (עֹלָה), burnt offerings; minchah (מִנְחָה), meal offerings; sh’lamin (שְׁלָמִים), well-being offerings; chatat (חַטָּאת), purgation offerings; and asham (אָשָׁם), reparation offerings. While on the surface this portion reads like a simple instruction book for the sacrifices, it is infused with foundational values. Holding our leaders accountable for their actions is intrinsic to the biblical design of the ancient sacrificial cult and the accompanying priesthood, as we can observe in the parashah’s commandments.

The Israelite sacrificial cult is designed to function in an atmosphere of radical transparency. After the engaging narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is easy to overlook the revolutionary nature of Leviticus. The laws regulating the sacrifices were given to the entire people of Israel, not just to the elite class of priests. There were no esoteric, secret rituals known only to the kohanim, the priestly class. Furthermore, sacrifices were performed publicly. As The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary explains, “Although Leviticus preserves the priests’ privileged monopoly regarding the service at the altar and its sacrifices, these instructions demystify the priests’ role by making knowledge about their activities known to every Israelite.”1 Coupled with the prohibition against land ownership by priests (Numbers 18:20), universal access to the law equalized power in the Israelite community. Kohanim were supposed to facilitate the community’s efforts to draw near to God rather than amass power for themselves.

The public viewing of offerings also created accountability. The Hebrew term eidah, “community,” is related to eid,“witness.”2 If a priest inadvertently made a mistake or knowingly deviated from the prescribed rites, the Israelites would know because they could witness the offerings in real time. The elevated status of the kohanim in the community required that they be held to a high standard. Parashat Vayikra demands a rigorous method of atonement for the priests’ misdeeds, whether they were known to the public (Leviticus 4:3) or not (Leviticus 4:13). It should be noted that the Torah also holds chieftains to a standard higher than that of ordinary Israelites (Leviticus 4:22), but not as high as the priests. This portion clearly teaches that the greater one’s status is in the community, the more accountable they must be for their actions.

The full chapter can be found in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves deeply into each week’s parashah to address pressing contemporary issues such as racism, climate change, immigration, disability, and many more.


1. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Reform Judaism Publishing, an imprint of CCAR Press, and Women of Reform Judaism, 2007), 571.

2. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 580.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is the editor of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic and The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, both published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

“Rabbi, We Want to Hear about Torah, Not Politics!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to confront injustice. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses how the book’s contributors approach the biblical text.

“Rabbi, we want to hear Torah, not politics, from the bimah.” Every rabbi has heard this refrain, and many echo it. The plea, though, has always been discordant to my ears. No, I don’t preach “politics,” which I define narrowly in this context as taking to the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office. I understand Torah to be the Jewish people’s primary teaching about how to live our lives, individually and collectively. Torah shaped our covenantal people in formation in ancient Israel and Judea, establishing fundamental norms—regarding ritual matters, yes, but even more, in legislating society’s obligations toward individuals and vice versa.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 offers a microcosm of the Torah’s dual emphasis. Famously beginning “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Holiness Code proceeds in the very next verse to tell us how to achieve this lofty, overarching goal of being holy. It first articulates an obligation toward other human beings, namely our parents, and then proceeds without pause to what may be viewed as a ritual commandment, the obligation to observe Shabbat. As the passage continues, injunctions to avoid idolatry and specific regulations about consumption of sacrifices are interspersed among directives about fair labor practices, care for the aged, and providing for the poor and needy. The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than through proper worship.

Even commandments that appear to regulate exclusively ritual matters often have ethical ends. For example, Professor Ruhama Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz will persuasively argue in these pages that the laws of kashrut (dietary regulations) cannot be fulfilled absent fair labor practices and the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, we will see that requiring purification for a person who has given birth, a practice out of use since Temple times and abhorrent on its surface, must inspire us to demand that our society ensure proper reproductive health care for all people. And Rabbi Craig Lewis will excavate the detailed regulations for creating the priests’ bejeweled choshen (breastplate), marshaling parshanut (commentary) alongside gemology to formulate a persuasive argument for equity in education.

Rabbis and others who articulate social justice arguments are sometimes accused—not always unfairly—of basing a complex and controversial assertion about society merely on a pithy phrase from Torah, such as one of the three aforementioned beloved passages, with little depth. This volume is both an antidote to that accusation and a refutation of it. Here, a diverse array of members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and our colleagues in other movements, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) staff, and lay leaders1 build their social justice arguments on robust and creative employment of parshanut haTorah (Torah commentary), including academic biblical exegesis, classical midrash and commentary, modern midrash, and more.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer begins his chapter with the familiar verse “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15), but he does not reach his conclusion about the rights of immigrants until he has drawn on sources as diverse as the Talmud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dennis Prager, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical lexicon. While Rabbi Tom Alpert begins his commentary with “justice, justice…,” (Shof’tim), he builds his argument about the ongoing need to uproot the sin of racist lynching by turning to the next verses, an apparently ritual commandment forbidding the Israelites from erecting “a sacred post,” a form of idolatry.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary is not, therefore, a book “about” social justice, nor, even in its breadth, does it seek to address every ill that faces our world. Instead, it probes deeply into each Torah portion to shape an argument that confronts injustice in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. I am grateful for the learning, teaching, and creativity of the contributors who enable CCAR Press and me to place The Social Justice Torah Commentary into your hands.


1. Many of the authors fall into more than one of these categories.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary is now available from CCAR Press. Browse the table of contents here.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited the The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary’

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, published by CCAR Press in 2018. The book examines this classic collection of rabbinic wisdom through the lens of contemporary issues and moral philosophy. In this interview, he discusses his unique approach and what readers can take away from the book.

Why did you choose Pirkei Avot as the text for your first social justice commentary?

Pirkei Avot is a startlingly awesome work that consists of timeless life wisdom. Each time I read these stunning rabbinic texts, I feel a deep, burning challenge to strive more robustly for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. Pirkei Avot is a work that continues to keep me focused on this spiritual journey. It also serves as a reminder that the challenging, and urgent, societal work of advocating for ethics and justice starts with our own personal reflection, refinement, and character growth.

Pirkei Avot was written two thousand years ago. What makes it relevant to readers today?

Indeed, with many ancient texts, there needs to be a big leap in interpretation for them to be perfectly relevant in our day. So much has changed since the biblical and rabbinic eras. But this is not the case, I believe, with Pirkei Avot. If we feel called to ensure that a singular Jewish charge—the spark of Jewish life and learning—is kept alive and relevant for the generations to come, then Pirkei Avot may be the best set of classical Jewish texts to engage future generations.

Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?

It is easy for many of us, myself included, to be swept away by conformity, on a progressive bandwagon where the newest way of thinking ultimately becomes the greatest. Immersing in learning and commenting on Pirkei Avot reminded me that what enables Judaism to be so eternally cherished is not only our ability to evolve to the new moment, but also our most classical virtues of the past such as humility, consistency, and respect. Pirkei Avot reignites a flame where these values once again become exciting and relevant as an essential complement to postmodern thought and progressive action.

Pirkei Avot was followed by your second CCAR Press volume, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary. Despite their similar approach, what makes the two books different?

From my perspective as a Jewish traditionalist, progressive social justice activist—and a dedicated pluralist—the Book of Jonah is remarkable in its ability to speak to many populations at once. In this sense of moral relevancy, it is quite similar to Pirkei Avot. On the other hand, the literary genre of the biblical work of Jonah could not be more different from the rabbinic dispensary of wisdom found in Pirkei Avot. The rabbis are concrete, direct, and prescriptive, whereas the Book of Jonah is abstract, perplexing, and descriptive. The two works can inform each other—Jonah zooms in to the individual’s particularistic journey and Avot zooms out to the universalistic human journey.


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 Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press, among many other books.

Categories
Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

A Jewish Approach to Transgender Awareness Week

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:

Some suggestions for a Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat:

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.

.וְנֹאמַר: אָמֵן

V’nomar: amein.

And let us say: Amen.

– by Ariel Tovlev, 2019, published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells


Ariel Tovlev (he/they) is the rabbinic intern at CCAR Press. He is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles. His writing appears in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020), and he was a featured speaker at the CCAR event Leaving the Narrow Space: Embracing and Elevating Jewish Transgender and Non-binary Experiences.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Editing ‘The Social Justice Torah Commentary’ in the Crucible of 2020

When I proposed The Social Justice Torah Commentary to the CCAR Press Council in December 2019, we were already in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—but then, aren’t we always? I could not have predicted the divisions and threats to democracy that were ahead. Some epidemiologists were already aware of COVID-19, but I was not. Though I had been engaged in racial justice issues for years—even specifically regarding extrajudicial executions of Black suspects by police—I could not foresee the murder of George Floyd or the way our nation would be both galvanized and divided by that crime and the protests that followed.

All that is to say that I did not expect and was not prepared to edit a Torah commentary focused on social justice in the crucible that was 2020. Contributors proposed their topics and wrote for the book during the spring, summer, and fall of last year. Though the book is dated and will be published in 2021, virtually every word of it was written and edited in 2020.

In the midst of the editing, I expressed a concern to Rafael Chaiken, Director of CCAR Press: Would the book be relevant by the time of its publication, let alone for years thereafter? So many chapters make reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I incorrectly imagined would be over long before the book would be in print.

Rafael calmed me. First, he reminded me that he and I had edited passages that seemed particularly tied to current events to make them more universal. Moreover, when contributing authors delved into problems that were brought into sharp relief while they were writing, they addressed larger and more timeless concerns. Even Rabbi Asher Knight’s piece on Parashat M’tzora, which addresses inequities revealed by the pandemic, is not written as a newsmagazine piece, calling for change limited to the moment of its authorship. Instead, Rabbi Knight addresses inequality that transcends the COVID-19 crisis: longstanding plagues in our healthcare system and the problematic ways people view those who are stricken. Yes, a large percentage of the book’s chapters confront racial injustice, but I hasten to note that the subject matter of virtually every commentary in the book was proposed before the murder of George Floyd.

Racial injustice is America’s most persistent and vexing malady. The summer of 2020 was a symptom of an infinitely larger problem, and no chapter of the book exclusively addresses the events of that time. Many of the commentaries on racial justice are not directly related to criminal (in)justice—including, among many others, Rabbi David Spinrad’s description of the way that systemic racism impacts access to water (Tol’dot), Ilana Kaufman’s argument for celebrating Jews of Color in our midst (B’midbar), and Rabbi Judith Schindler’s discussion of reparations (Eikev).

I am grateful, too, for contributors who proposed and wrote about injustices that are no less acute for their not having been one of the three issues most in the public eye in 2020. For example, Rabbi Marla Feldman addresses gender pay equity (B’reishit­), Student Rabbi Evan Traylor confronts toxic masculinity (Vayishlach), and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss highlights mortality in childbirth (Tazria). These teachers remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, that gender equality remains an unrealized dream. I could claim that Rabbi Mary Zamore is prescient in addressing harassment in Jewish spaces (Vayikra), a topic that would explode in 2021, had Rabbi Zamore, like Rabbi Hara Person and others, not been spotlighting the issue throughout her career. 

We could be forgiven for thinking that every year is election year in Israel, so 2020 was nothing special in that arena. Still, Israel is at the focus of several of our contributors’ offerings—for example, Rabbi Jeremy Barras’s chapter on the social justice imperative of supporting Israel (Lech L’cha), Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s piece on marriage inequality in Israel (Chayei Sarah), Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s critique of occupation (B’har), Rabbi Ethan Bair’s plea that we hear the full range of voices in discussions of Israel (Korach), and Rabbi Noa Sattath’s focus on Jewish supremacy (Ki Tavo).

I am grateful that CCAR Press, our diverse contributors, and I are able to present a book that delves deeply into Torah to call for justice in areas far more varied than those that rightly absorbed so much of our attention in 2020—not to mention more varied than I could name here.

Most amazing is that dozens of CCAR rabbis, rabbis of other movements, and an ACC cantor were able to muster these brilliant articles at exactly the same time that we were preparing for the most challenging and unprecedented High Holy Days of our careers. And most did so without time off that came anywhere close to approaching their usual summer downtime. For that commitment and for the sacrifice it bespeaks, our readers may be grateful.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary will be published in November 2021 and is now available for pre-order. Browse the table of contents here. Those who pre-order are eligible to receive online access to the initial parashot to begin the year of Torah study. Forward your confirmation email to info@ccarpress.org to request access.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is also the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Gun Control Social Justice

Choosing Life for Ourselves and Our Communities: NYSPRA v. Bruen Amicus Brief to Support Sensible Gun Laws

CCAR colleagues: I’m going to ask you to sign on to a Supreme Court brief. If are you rushed for time, you trust me, and you just want to sign on, you can skip to the bottom of this piece. But I’d recommend you read all of it first.

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear an important Second Amendment case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen (NYSPRA II). The plaintiff is the New York affiliate of the NRA. The defendant is an official of New York, carrying out the laws of that state. New York does not allow for the open carrying of firearms, and it requires a permit to carry a concealed handgun. An applicant for a concealed carry permit has to show “proper cause,” which is usually a bona fide need for self-defense.

The NRA lawsuit would eliminate this requirement and effectively give anyone who wanted one a concealed carry permit. If the NRA wins this case, similar laws in several other states would also fall. The result would be more guns in the hands of more people, a result that runs directly counter to a 2015 CCAR resolution.

An amicus curiae brief is being prepared for filing in the Supreme Court on behalf of religious organizations and clergy. An amicus brief is designed to help a court by sharing with it information that typically cannot be dealt with by the parties to the case. Here, the amicus brief explains why invalidating such laws would cause more danger to houses of worship, would increase their costs in terms of needing extra protection and liability insurance, and would chill the free exercise of religion by making the atmosphere around houses of worship tense with fear.

While many of us are especially busy now, this brief is especially timely. In the first place, for those having in-person services, our synagogues are as full as they ever are, and those who wish us harm know this. Having more such people with concealed weapons is not something many of us would want. Also, on Yom Kippur we read bacharta bachayim, “choose life.” We need to be allowed as a society to do exactly that.

I think the brief is a good one, and I have added the CCAR as a signatory. However, in this case, the authors would like as many individual clergy members as possible to join as well. If you would like to do so, you can sign on here.  I am told that the deadline is Sunday, Sept. 12.

Thank you, and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Tom Alpert, CCAR Amicus Brief Coordinator


Rabbi Tom Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Massachusetts.