Post-Election Reflection

I’ve had a few weeks to reflect since our post-election call; I imagine you all have.  I have experienced a heightened awareness of something I feel at a lower level the rest of the time, and that is the knowledge that there are times I miss being on the bimah and there are times I don’t.  This is one of those times where I do – and I don’t.   I miss the sense of exciting opportunity but not the dread of momentous responsibility that rests heavily on rabbinic shoulders at a time like this.  This post-election moment continues to be a wonderful-terrible time to be a rabbi.  It’s wonderful because people need us; ditto for terrible.

Let’s start with wonderful.  Most rabbis are kol bos.  Because we are called upon to do many different things and may even do many different things well, we often feel an amorphous sense of purpose.  We look at other colleagues who seem to have found a particular visionary path – those we think of as a social action rabbi, a scholarly rabbi, a pastoral rabbi, or an entrepreneurial rabbi – and we find ourselves wishing for a similarly defined objective.  This kind of thinking  (largely a fantasy) often devolves into an excuse for the self-punishing question, “How come they have it figured out and I don’t?”

Well, this may just be the moment you’ve been wishing for (and yes, I know what they say about getting what you wish for).  If you have ever longed for a clear definable purpose, you have it now.  You don’t have to consider yourself a “specialist rabbi” to find a renewed sense of mission in the days ahead.

That doesn’t mean that it is clear exactly how you should carry out that mission.  That specific decision will depend upon who you are and what the needs and desires of your constituency might be. This is not an emergency although our feelings may be urgent.  An emergency requires instantaneous response; we have time to consider our next step. It also makes no sense to think that every rabbi will or should take the same path. But it does make sense to start thinking and talking about your own possible courses of action.

What principles should you keep in mind in figuring out where you want to focus your own energies?

First, we all know the usual difficulties of finding committed volunteers. We often grumble as we find ourselves doing what we had hoped our laypeople would do. What’s different now is that our laypeople have been roused to action by this election.  We have a chance to partner with them in choosing a course of action.  This means that we need not take on the burden of changing the world alone; it may start with us but it can’t end there.  Adding more to our plates is not a long-term solution; finding a genuine sharing is the goal.

Second, we have an opportunity to widen the Jewish tent. If we can publicize our plans to make a difference in the world, we might draw people to our communities who previously have seen no purpose to organized religious communities. We can show them the power of community in a new and real way.

Third, we have constituents who disagree with us. That isn’t a problem if they are making themselves heard in ways that are appropriate. Working with people who are cooperative is something we do well. It’s when we are working with the uncooperative that we run into trouble.  Some people really do desire to talk; others simply seem to be discharging aggression with us as the target.  It’s important to find a way to relate to these more aggressive people without letting ourselves be abused on the one hand or responding aggressively on the other.  The best response for us is to avoid “fight or flight” and instead hold our ground and choose to engage.  We can say things like: What should happen if you and I disagree? Why should that be what happens? Could something else happen? Should we agree on everything? How could that be possible?

Fourth, whatever your feelings might be, you can’t let them get in the way of the task at hand.  Yes, you need to be in the moment and have your feelings.  But it’s also important to keep the future in mind at the same time. As the rabbis did centuries ago, we have a religious mandate to dwell in both places, balancing today’s concerns with planning for those of tomorrow.

And finally, find a place where you can speak your truth in an unfettered way (RavBlog is a good place to start).  One of the challenges of being a rabbi involves knowing when to speak and when to stay silent, how to say things and to whom.  No one can operate with that level of self-restraint every moment of every day. Find those safe places where you can feel relieved of that responsibility even just for the moment.

Many of us felt such overwhelming grief in the aftermath of the election that we used the analogy of death and shivah.  Our intention was never to trivialize grief, although some mourners heard it that way.  Having had a few weeks to sit with this, I prefer now to use the language of loss.  We grieve losses the way we grieve death to some degree.  Yet while this election may carry some sense of finality, it is not final like death. It is hard to escape the fear of more losses to come. We need to plan for them.

Buy that parcel of land in Anatot. Lead with hope for the future.

Rabbi Lewis is a certified psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, NJ, and New York City. She is a member of the Society of Modern Psychoanalysts  and the National Association for the  Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

chaplains General CCAR Healing Rabbis Reform Judaism

On the Eve of Thanksgiving, Further Post-Election Reflections

On this eve of Thanksgiving, I am reflecting deeply and with profound movement of spirit and heart upon two weeks of listening, processing and holding the feelings raised by the election. In my role with the CCAR, it was a tremendous privilege to help organize the call we offered to our members and to share in the leadership of that call with our insightful, skilled and heart-open colleague, Ellen Lewis. All that Ellen taught us that day has remained present to me in the passage of these weeks and has helped immensely. To summarize a couple of key points, Ellen reminded us to be attentive to the truth of our own feelings and to remember that those feelings can inform how we act but need not control our actions. She invited us to self-care and compassion, and to hold close the knowledge that, in times of heighted feelings (particularly anger, fear and anxiety), we are all prone – and this includes those we serve – to acting out and displacement. I know those teachings will have proven helpful to those who were on the call (or who availed themselves of the recording as found at on the CCAR member’s site) as they have to me.

Upon reflection, I have a couple of additional thoughts to offer, particularly to those who have been in pain over the results. First, I have felt and noticed heard people speak of feelings that resemble those of mourning. And I would caution us against buying too fully into that metaphor. As many of us know from pastoral work, when someone is gravely – even life-threateningly ill – it is not uncommon for people to slip into anticipatory grief. It is almost as though the psyche is saying, “If I just experience the anger or the sadness now, maybe I won’t fall into despair when the inevitable death happens.” And it is a dangerous place to go. Chevre, the patient(s), our own souls and the soul of our country are gravely wounded, but the wounds have not yet proven fatal nor even been pronounced mortal. As was the case after 9/11, certain ideas we had about how things were may well have died two weeks ago, or at least been seriously altered. But we are here, as is the nation. We need to avoid falling into the anticipatory grief which will prevent us from doing whatever is to be our tikkun in responding to the wounds.

And one piece of the tikkun – in the framework of Rebbe Nachman’s teaching, especially on this eve of Thanksgiving, we can be looking for the od m’at (see Psalm 37) – the little place where evil/despair/rage do not hold sway, and from that little place “azamra l’Elohai b’odi” (Psalm 146) sing our way into inviting abundance back into the world – abundance of love, of hope and of commitment to justice. On this Thanksgiving, may the little place sing to each of us and help us inch our way toward healing and sacred purpose. And then, back to the work.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter is CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness

Reform Judaism Social Justice

Standing as Witness and Capable Ally in Voter Protection

Today is Election Day. Along with my wife, colleagues at The Temple Rabbis Peter Berg, Loren Filson Lapidus, Lydia Medwin, an inspiringly large number of our congregants, Reform rabbis and other Jewish leaders from across North America, including CCAR’s own Rabbi Steve Fox, I am in Macon, Georgia, to partner with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to provide non-partisan election protection. We will be in the field to monitor polls to ensure that those who desire to vote are able to cast their ballots for their candidate of choice, freely exercising their Constitutional right to vote. Our work is part of the Religious Action Center’s Nitzavim campaign, a national voter rights initiative of our movement’s Racial Justice Campaign.

What I say about all of this work is simply an incredulous, “Really?!” In 2016, is the freedom to vote still an issue? Why yes, my dear, sheltered, Northern California boy, the unfettered right to vote is still in peril and a cloud of voter suppression tactics with racist overtones hangs above Macon.

Here in Atlanta at The Temple, we have been working within our own version of the RAC’s Reflect/Relate/Reform model. Responding to our congregation’s call to honor our legacy of the Civil Rights Movement by getting current on racial inequality and working harder and smarter to create a just society for all, we spent the better part of the past summer and into the fall doing difficult and sometimes painful reflective work. It has not been easy to own up to our own implicit biases, racism, and our failures to stand as witness and inabilities to act as capable allies and I suspect we have a ways to go. I know I do. Truth be told, six months ago I do not believe we would been able to see or have been able to respond to race-based threats of voter disenfranchisement. But the threats are real.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder no longer requires certain jurisdictions to demonstrate to either the Attorney General or a federal court in Washington, D.C., that any proposed voting change is not discriminatory before that change can be implemented, we are now living in a society in which a core measure of the Voting Rights Act has been undone. We now can see better what we could not have seen before we undertook this work. Much of today’s racism flourishes because for too long we acted like the Civil Rights Movement was a singular and eternal victory for righteousness and that the problems, inequalities, and injustices of today were not based on racist, discriminatory, and under the guise of modern colorblindness, legal practices.

We have a long road ahead of us to fulfill the vision of the Beloved Community, but we are walking together in partnership with each other and with churches and organizations representing and led by people of color. I could not be more proud of the Reform Movement’s awakening to racial inequality and as we head to Macon to fulfill our commitment, I know with every ounce of my being that our work will be on the right side of history.

Rabbi David Spinrad serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Reform Judaism Social Justice

Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation

As we approach the Presidential election this Tuesday, I think we are all experiencing a bit of fatigue.  The stakes certainly seem high to all of us in Ohio.  Whereas election news is garnering a lot of air time and thought time everywhere, in Ohio, the election has become an entity unto itself.  When I moved back to Cincinnati 12 years ago from Massachusetts, I realized the kind of weight and responsibility of living and leading in a “swing state.”  In Massachusetts, we never saw commercials or billboards for the Presidential election.  In Ohio, one is inundated with political ads.  It is exhausting.  At times, it is disheartening.  But, we might also look at this election as a time to lift up voices and to listen.  To speak and to hope.

Through our congregation’s involvement with our movement’s Nitzavim campaign to Stand Up for Voter Participation and Protection, we have come to understand that this election can be a time to try to understand our neighbors, to open up dialogue with those who might be different than us.  We are looking at this election as a springboard to build relationships across denominations, religions, race and class so that we might uplift every voice. We are building opportunities and coalitions as we get out the vote and volunteer to monitor polls.

For those of us who have been concerned about racial injustice in our country, this election will be a touchstone.  I will vote in Cincinnati, which has been identified as an area most at risk for voter suppression.  This election is our opportunity to face some of our own biases and our neighbors’ and to stand up for the right to vote as well as exercising our own obligation to be part of the political process.  As Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a).  Our democracy will be measured by access to the polls in the inner cities and by the desire to make a difference.

Our tradition challenges us to embrace pluralism, even when it is difficult; even in a “purple” state.  Tosefta Sotah 7:7 teaches, “Make for yourself a heart of many rooms.”  On November 9th, this will be the real goal for all of us.  We should be like Hillel, who always respected and uplifted Shammai’s voice despite their disagreements.  The Talmud teaches that the halacha followed Hillel because “Beit Hillel were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs” (Bablylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b).

In Ohio, we pray that we argue and vote for the sake of heaven.  But we challenge ourselves to move past this election with humility, kindness and respect.  And we dream of hearts of many rooms, moving together to lift all voices.  That is the true obligation and responsibility of this Election Day and the days to follow.

Rabbi Sigma F. Coran serves Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.

News Social Justice

A Vote For, or a Vote Against

Something strange has happened this election year.  Instead of focusing on how uniquely qualified, informed, compassionate, and passionate the candidates are, both Republican and Democratic parties have been hoping people will vote for their candidate as a vote “against” the other.

This is not what any of us want.

We want to hear about the candidates gifts, about their visions, about the work they are already doing on behalf of the American people.  We want to be inspired, uplifted, and above all else we want to feel proud of our nominee.

It reminds me of Noah.  The Torah tells us three things about Noah: he “walked with God”, he was “blameless in his generation”, and that God found that Noah “alone has been found righteous before Me in this generation.”

Over the years, many rabbis have noticed the qualifier in that statement “in this generation,” and have asked, “If Noah lived in a different generation, would he still have been considered righteous?”  In other words – was God’s choice to save Noah a vote for him, or just a vote against the other guys?  Was Noah truly a righteous person, or did he merely look good in comparison to the corrupt, violent and lawless community he was living amongst?  Noah is often compared to Abraham.  When Abraham learned that God was going to destroy the corrupt towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham fought for them, even saying to God “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to wipe away the righteous along with the wicked!” Noah is not depicted as arguing with God, as warning the people to repent, or as Rabbi Berechia questions, Noah did not even pray for his generation to be saved and repent.

As Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (Levush he-Ora) put it so bluntly, “His righteousness bore the stamp of mediocrity.”

Moreover, while there is something to say for someone who remains “blameless” in a time of corruption, is being “blameless” all it takes to be righteous?  Or do we expect a righteous person to do more?  Be proactive?

Peter Singer, professor at Princeton University, author, and utilitarian philosopher argues that to be truly righteous, we must be actively seeking opportunities to do good.  For Singer, it is not enough to “do no harm,” we have to do good.

Many in our country are voting for a candidate because they did not do something the other candidate is accused of doing.

How about what they have done? Pirke Avot teaches us that a truly wise person, someone who truly loves Torah, their deeds will be greater than their wisdom (3:9).  This teaches us that if you really want to know who someone is, don’t listen to their wisdom.  We can all be taught to give the polished answer, the one that will impress – but that answer doesn’t mean anything unless it is backed up by deeds.  You want to know who to vote for?  Our rabbinic masters are saying – look at their deeds – what have they done to back up the wisdom they are spouting?

18th century Chasidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk tells a beautiful story that illustrates two kinds of righteous people.  Imagine a freezing winter.  In this freezing winter, one righteous person is compared to someone who wraps themselves in a fur coat, therefore keeping themselves warm and protected from the harmful elements.  This is the person who does no harm.  They are not hurting anyone else, they are doing the right thing for themselves, and they are kept warm and protected.   But there is a second righteous person.  This individual collects wood and builds a fire.  They warm themselves and invite others to gather round.  This is the person who seeks to do good.  This is a person who is not only concerned with their own righteousness, but with that of others.

Noah had a chance to warn the people, but didn’t.  He still did what he was told to do, he still built an arc, gathered either 2 or 7 of all living creatures, and he is still a righteous man.  But we have had better leaders, leaders like Abraham who fought for Sodom and Gomorrah, leaders like Moses who plead to save the Jewish people from both Pharaoh and from God’s wrath.

And so, who are you voting for?  Are you voting for someone simply because of what they did not do?  Is your vote a begrudging vote?  Or are you voting for someone because of the good they have already done, because their deeds are at least as great, if not greater, than their words?

Either way, I pray that you vote.  I voted early this year.  I voted for a candidate that I am incredibly proud of, and would be proud to call my president.  As I left the voting booth, I said a shechechianu:  Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this election season.

Rabbi Rachel G. Greengrass serves Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida      


Making America Great Again?

With the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, echoes from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are filling the airwaves, including Trump’s campaign tagline and promise to “Make America Great Again.”  It would be fair to say that nearly every presidential candidate has a vision for “making America great;” however, it is this campaign’s use of the word again which is somewhat irksome, especially at this season in the Jewish calendar.

This Shabbat is the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar, and the beginning of a period known as t’lata d’puranuta, “The Three Weeks of Admonition.”  (As the 17th is considered a minor fast day, the fast is delayed until Sunday.) The three weeks that follow are considered a time of mourning, leading to our communal observance of the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av), and our annual commemoration of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time.

One of the major ritual practices associated with Tisha b’Av is the chanting of the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations).  The penultimate verse of the book reads, “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, / And let us come back; / Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21, Jewish Study Bible translation, p. 1602).  This particular verse offers a brief, uplifting moment of comfort at the conclusion of an otherwise bleak biblical text.  Additionally, the verse is recited at the conclusion of every Torah service in the synagogue, and is chanted when the Torah is returned to the Ark — hashiveinu A-do-nai ei-lecha v’nashuva, chadeish ya-meinu k’kedem. 

To be brought back to God, to have our days renewed, and to be given another chance in the wake of tragic circumstances all make sense.  But to have our days renewed as of old, implies that things used to be better, that there is some vision of the past that has been lost that we somehow need to recapture, and that God will somehow provide for us again.

The recitation of chadeish yameinu k’kedem (renew our days as of old) is familiar, comforting, and is a moment in the synagogue service where most people sing along.  Yet this verse presents a problematic view — namely, that our best days are truly behind us and we seek to return to them.  While it is most likely that the original text from Lamentations was written in a time of exile the destruction of the temple was fresh in the author’s mind, these days, we would do better to ask ourselves, “What is the as of old that we seek to return to Jewishly?”  Most of us are divested from the notion of rebuilding a sacrificial temple in Jerusalem, and two thousand years of distance from the ancient priestly rites means that what once was cannot lead to what will ultimately be. 

Similarly, suggesting that we should be engaged in the process of “making America great again,” implies that America, at one time or at various points in our history, was great, and we need to go back to reclaim that nostalgic understanding of greatness.  But America will never look like it once did.  How it might have appeared is different to each individual, a personalized painting of yesteryear, with brushstrokes smoothing over painful, long-buried realities, a fictionalized story that we tell ourselves so often that we convince ourselves of its veracity.  Life is never as glorious “as it used to be.”

Or can life and our world be somehow better?  We might do better to ask ourselves, “Where are we going?”  Every year at our celebration of the Pesach seder, we are (in the words of Rabban Gamliel) to see ourselves as if we went forth from slavery in Egypt.  Where some of our biblical ancestors may have waxed poetically about life in Egypt and expressed a desire to return, our seder reminds us that we must be eternally forward-looking, that l’shana ha-ba’ah bi-y’rushalayim (next year in Jerusalem) is not a hope whereby we return to the past, but a vision for hopeful future redemption, a better time, still ahead of us.  That the Torah itself concludes without the Israelites setting foot in the Promised Land, with Moses only seeing the land from afar, conveys the notion that the story, our collective journey, is not yet complete, and we are still completing the journey.

Our past, our days of old, can only serve to inform us and remind us of what was. We need to build for a better future, learning from “our days of old,” but we don’t need to go back in time to relive the concept of again, the idea of what once was.  Crafting a vision for the future is an immensely difficult task, but articulating a forward-thinking and forward-looking hope of a world redeemed, remains a characteristically Jewish idea.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson serves Temple Avodat in River Edge, New Jersey.


News Social Justice

Fighting Intolerance in an Election Year

Looking back on my first three years as a rabbi, I am embarrassed to admit how often I have shied away from policy issues in my sermons, adult education sessions, and even published articles. I do speak more openly about my views individually and in small groups, but spend most of my time in larger presentations delving into Torah and broader questions of meaning.

Yet multiple times so far this election, I have felt called to address what I see as egregious discourse that does damage to our social fabric. Are leading candidates calling for a ban on Muslims this week  – or singling out immigrants? Have women been maligned once again in sound bites designed to “go viral” online? Has the call for “revolution” (and the subsequent mockery of that call) obscured meaningful discourse on policy? Have rhetoric-filled social media diatribes by diehard supporters of individual candidates caused people to lose meaningful friendships?

I don’t think many of us have been able to remain silent with public discourse so fraught. This is one of the messiest and most strident elections in modern American history. I also think it affords us with a tremendous opportunity.

The day before the New York state primary, I had the opportunity to speak at a hope-filled multi-religious “Faith Not Fear” rally at the Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side. Organized by the Reverend Jennifer Crumption, our call was simple and non-partisan: as religious leaders, we call on candidates for public office to eschew hateful rhetoric and other actions that pit Americans against each other. It was an unlikely honor to be among a roster of speakers that included the president of Auburn Seminary, the Reverend Katharine Henderson, television host and Senior Minister Jacqui Lewis, activist Professor Simran Jeet Singh, and Muslim community leader and mayoral advisor, Dr. Sarah Sayeed.

It seems that gatherings and rallies like this are springing up in different states – and could provide a helpful counterweight to what will likely remain a divisive election cycle. Though clearly cathartic for the religious leaders who spoke, it far more importantly gave renewed purpose and sense of urgency to community organizing and interfaith collaboration. It would be unlikely and truly noteworthy if a legacy of this election could be strengthened community relationships and deeper trust between community leaders. It would not come from political leadership – but instead from us. Enduring bonds of trust and friendship would give meaning to the idea of religious leadership in the public sphere and remain an asset to our communities going forward.

One date in particular will call us to act together. As I learned from a fellow presenter at the rally, this year, September 11th and the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha coincide. Given the state of political discourse, images of Muslims celebrating their holy day on a day of national commemoration and mourning are likely to flood the media. Muslims will be called terrorists. Calls for deportation will increase. Genuine acts of hatred or violence could take place against a fellow minority religious community.

Especially given that the Muslim holy day commemorates our shared ancestor, Abraham, perhaps we can change the conversation and give nuance to an all too Manichean electoral contest. Perhaps we can reclaim one day out of the election year for civility, humanity, commemoration, and pluralism.

In New York, religious leaders have only just begun visioning a commemoration for our shared losses on September 11th that affirm pluralism. With just over four months to go and political rhetoric only spiraling, time is of the essence. Yet I remain optimistic that with vision and renewed collaboration, a day that could be hate-filled could instead become one in which we bring communities and people together.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.