Categories
Reform Judaism Social Justice

Begin to Confront Discomfort and Uncomfortable Truths By Asking One Question: ‘Are You OK?’

Dear Rabbis,

I am very grateful to Rabbi Hara Person for offering me space on the Ravblog to share a few words with you. She suggested, with Biennial behind us, that I write about something that I would want the rabbis to know in the aftermath. While that list is long, I appreciate your consideration as I begin here.

As many of you know, my Biennial experience was an exercise in racism; both the constant experiencing of it and then speaking about it in the moment quite publicly at my Shabbat afternoon session, which was a first for me.

I thank each of you who took the time to write to me to after I shared my experiences both in the room at my presentation, and then on Facebook. The outpouring of support from the rabbinic community and the community at large following Biennial touched me deeply.

I am thrilled to see that there seems to be a great deal of time and energy being focused on how we can be more welcoming, both as individuals and in our Jewish spaces. It is a conversation that I have longed to have for three decades, and I believe that our ever beautifully more diverse community will only thrive if we continue to keep this effort at the top of the agenda.

“To be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.”

What I find that we are not yet talking about, however, is what happens after someone has been left feeling marginalized or dehumanized by our community. Even as someone who has experienced this for most of my life, I had not really considered it myself until after Biennial and I started to received messages from people.

The messages came, literally, in volume. Outrage. Disbelief. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. And now that I’ve found some quiet time and space to process things, I have found myself struck by what was not said. Or, more accurately, what was not asked.

Are you OK? What can I do for you?

I can count quite literally on one hand the number of people—friends, strangers and clergy alike—who asked if I was OK. Or if I needed support following Biennial. And that really surprised me. Had I, God forbid, been in an accident, people would have come bearing flowers or chocolate chip coffee cake. They would have asked if I’m OK. And what they can do to support me while I heal.

But was there no coffee cake on offer amidst the outrage and sadness. And, really, I could have used some.

It is often said that people do not ask questions that they do not already know the answer to. But I have come to learn that, many times, people do not ask questions that they know have an uncomfortable answer.

In my case, we all know that the answer is no. I was not OK after Biennial. We who are dehumanized for our race, religion, sexual orientation, or abilities are never OK when attacked. On my book tour, I tell people that it feels like my heart has been broadsided by a truck moving 75 miles per hour each time that I meet racism and intolerance. That I am never sure if my heart will start beating again. When I will be able to breathe again. And it is always a hit and run, where the offender slams into me and keeps moving. Without care or apology.

When it comes to speaking uncomfortable truths, I find that I am an exception rather than the rule. I am finally at a place where I am very comfortable speaking out when an incident takes place. And I am quite comfortable saying that I was not OK. But it has taken decades of therapy and very hard work to become this version of me. For many years, I choked on my silence, put on a brave face, and pretended that I was OK. And there are many—too many—who still remain silent, simply because we don’t find that there is really an open-ness to discussing it.

Until we are at a place where each person is greeted with the same warm communal embrace, I believe that it is important that we also consider proactively how to respond in the aftermath. To be asked, “Are you OK?” “What can I do for you?” is a critical place to begin because these questions say that we do not have to carry the pain alone.

And to be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.

I acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable ones for all of us. People who love me dearly did not ask if I was OK after Biennial. Some could not bear to even acknowledge what took place, including people who saw it for themselves. But I believe that sharing the truth of all of this a big part of how we begin to make sure that it does not continue.

As our rabbis, leaders and teachers, I encourage you to consider both the before and the after. We welcome the outrage, sadness, anger and sermons. But, please. Ask if we are OK. Ask if we need support. It matters so much more than you know.

B’ahava v’shalom,

Marra Gad

Marra B. Gad is a Los Angeles-based author and independent film and television producer. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University. Her memoir, Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Bolden in November 2019.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

Categories
Inclusion inclusivity Poetry Prayer

In Unity and Hope

This prayer was written by Alden Solovy and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh at the 2019 URJ Biennial in response to the many conversations around politics, policy, and the many challenges facing Jews in America and beyond. As we enter into Shabbat during the largest gathering of Jews in North America, we come together physically and spiritually in unity and hope. 

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
When we stand together,
In unity and love,
In the the name of hope and harmony.

How fragile are our tents
When our fears divide us
When we allow outside winds
To blow within.

Who but You,
Ruach Elohim,
Can define who we are?
What keeps us strong.
What keeps us whole.

Who but us,
Klal Yisroael,
Can shield us,
Carrying each other
As one against the storm?

How fair are our tents, O Israel,
When we stand together,
In the name of unity,
In compassion, in strength,
For our children,
And for our children’s children.

Ken yihi ratzon.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont and has been the recipient of the Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Leadership Fellowship, the Michael Chernick Prize in Rabbinic Literature, and the Weisman Memorial Prize in Homiletics, among others.

Categories
inclusivity

Behind the Veil: Inclusion Under the Chuppah

I have known Niv since he was a baby. Living in LA we had a group of Israeli friends with whom we celebrated the Jewish holidays as well as our families’ life cycles. Niv’s parents were part of this group. Being less than one year old when we first got to know him, he crawled like every other baby that age. But when our son, who was his age, and other children started to take their first steps, Niv still crawled, and he crawled all the way to first grade and after. There had been a severe complication at birth, and he had gone through an operation that paralyzed his legs and left them undeveloped. His parents went through many different treatments, both medical and alternative, hoping he would one day stand on his feet, But when their efforts did not lead to a breakthrough, they finally put him in a wheelchair.

I remember him playing “I have a little dreidel” on his tiny violin in first grade. As the years passed, the violin became his life’s project. He played beautifully and with all his soul, I was deeply moved every time I heard him play. He ended up going to the Juilliard School, where he met Leah in one of the master classes. Actually, she was the one who paid attention to him while he was completely busy perfecting his performance. It took her some time to finally approach him and ask him to go out. It took him some time to understand that she wasn’t inviting him to practice or study together, and they started dating. Last spring they approached me about their wedding. I immediately said yes, not thinking about the 15-hour flight to LA or the time of year, being so close to the High Holidays. I was so moved and happy by their choice of one other, by their deep and unrelenting love, with my appreciation and sense of wonder growing as I got to know them more and appreciate the way they related to each other in preparing for the big day.

On top of all the many details a couple needs to consider when planning their wedding, there were many more: where and how were we going to perform the ritual dipping in water? Would we need a ramp going on to the chuppah, the marriage canopy? would Niv be able to cover Leah’s head with the veil just before she entered under the chuppah? And lastly: how do you break a glass sitting in a wheelchair?

Carefully and gently Leah and Niv figured out the right way for them, which was very simple when I come to think about it: Niv was going to find a way to do everything that a groom would do, including the glass breaking, the first dance and all the rest. That’s how simple it was!

It was a magical wedding. Just watching Leah go down the aisle and Niv rolling his chair to greet her. Then watching her lean down so he could pull the veil over her. I was in tears, as were many of the friends and relatives in attendance. It wasn’t only for the strength of will, which Niv proved throughout his life by not giving up anything that his classmates and friends did; it was her wondrous ability to see beyond what the eye perceives, to acknowledge that the real deep meaning of things is veiled, as I had learned from a beautiful ‘children’s’ book that I read throughout my adolescence and adult life, The Little Prince, which taught me that ‘the real important things are hidden from the eye’, resonating in a quote from Rev. Adelaja: “The most precious things are always invisible; they are always kept hidden.”

These days in the Jewish year, the days just before the coming of the New Year, we are forever more aware of the veil that too often hides the essence from us. The most meaningful practice of this time of year is cheshbon nefesh, soul searching, which means to look through the veil and find out the truth about ourselves, about our own lives. This is what we need to do so we can welcome the new year in a deep and truthful way.

I wish you all a meaningful time of soul searching,


Rabbi Ayala Miron serves Kehillat Bavat Ayin in Rosh Ha’ayin,
Israel.

Categories
Books Holiday Inclusion

Sukkot Inclusion and Children’s Books

After the power drill is put away and all of the pointy parts of the s’chach that is just right for poking your brothers’ eyes out is finally on top of our little booth, Sukkot transforms into one of my favorite holidays to celebrate with my children. In the Moroccan Sephardic tradition, we leave a chair out for Elijah. This special chair is often laden with books for ushpizin. As the younger of my three year old twins still occasionally chews on the furniture, I prefer to leave more child-friendly books within reach (rather than, say, my favorite binding of Psalms I enjoy periodically weeping over). But which books to pile onto our special chair this year?

To me, the value of inclusion is deeply related to the concept of hachnasat orchim (the welcoming of guests). After all, hachnasat orchim, treating each other with empathy and kindness, is the first step into true inclusion. We particularly celebrate these values at Sukkot, as we welcome both real and spiritual guests into the sukkah. In honor of a holiday in which we greet and happily receive others into our dwellings, here are eight non-traditional children’s stories about welcoming others into our hearts. I included several about narwhals; narwhals are so hot right now.

You could read one a night with the ushpizin who come to your sukkah!

Wendell the Narwhal How do we invite in though who want to be included, but don’t know how and feel overwhelmed?

Not Quite Narwhal How many communities do you belong to? How does belonging to a variety of communities enrich our identity?

Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea Sometimes it is hard to make friends with someone from a different background; but these friendships can be some of the most important. (This is set up in semi-graphic novel style and is the beginning of a series about Narwhal and Jelly’s adventures together.)

Something Else Have you ever felt excluded? What does that feel like? How can you use that experience to prevent someone else from feeling the same way?

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed  Authority figures setting the standard to create a culture of inclusion

Can I Play Too? Learning how to find a way to play together might take some creativity, but means that everyone can have fun!

Ada Twist, Scientist Sometimes even the people who we love most (and who love us the most) aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge who we are, celebrate our differences, and include us. Inside a family, how can we figure this out?

Winnie the Pooh Written in a time before many of the diagnoses we now use today, Winnie the Pooh’s friend circle as an example of inclusion of individuals with a variety of dispositions and procivities. No matter which story you choose, note how this community of toys consistently and naturally includes one another, without ever asking anyone to “just get over it.”

Do you have any other books you love to use when talking about inclusion? How do you practice including your Sukkot guests?

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
Passover Pesach

The Freedom Seder

Last year, two brave mothers approached me for a meeting. They were looking to find educational opportunities for their children with special needs. Tired of turning to other synagogues where they felt less connected, or Chabad where they felt philosophically or religiously uncomfortable, they wanted Temple Israel to be place of learning and experiencing Judaism for their children, just like it had been for them and the other children we serve. It was such a beautifully authentic need that I could not ignore. Thus begun my first humble steps into Special Needs programming for our synagogue.

I quickly consulted with colleagues and then more seriously applied to the Matan Institute for Educational Directors to help me best serve the needs of this community. Matan educates Jewish leaders, educators and communities to empower them to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs, through training Institutes and consultations across North America. By advocating for the inclusion of diverse learners, Matan enables the Jewish community to realize the gift of every individual and fulfill its obligation to embrace all children regardless of learning challenges in every Jewish educational setting.

And so I set out to create our first holiday program designed for special needs children and their entire family, called the Freedom Seder. The Freedom Seder is designed to look a lot like a camp program. There is music with a song leader, it is interactive and inclusive, it aims to inspire and educate learners on multiple levels (including adults) and it is flexible. We have learned that the space should be a safe one. Children can be who they are – we don’t expect them to “sit still” or do all the activities. We hope they will participate, but we also know that some days are tougher than others and the quiet room, with Passover books and pillows and soft lighting might be a great option for a particular child on that day. We offer tactile activities, but we make sure there are alternatives for those that struggle with sensory processing disorders. Our Freedom Seder is a one hour program that gives these children the “freedom” to explore different aspects of the Seder. They can plant parsley seeds, vote on their favorite part of the story, taste different kinds of matzah and tell us which one they liked the best. They can make an afikoman bag and color in different parts of the Seder. And their parents can meet one another, get to know our clergy (who all volunteer to be present) and watch their children explore with excitement their rich and engaging tradition.

All of our families deserve and so yearn for a place that lacks judgement or places unrealistic demands on their time, energy or child. We need to provide educational opportunities that are stimulating and adjustable. At Temple Israel we are committed to providing more of these opportunities where we educate differently then we have in the past, we assume nothing, we build relationships of care and trust and we provide interactive and tactile activities at the heart of all we do. Most importantly we have reframed our goals – we do care that the content be current, engaging and deeply enriching but we are also supportive of other goals. For some of these new families the goals may be to meet new faces, hear Jewish music, or simply feel comfortable in the building. We have only just begun. This year we provided two family programs (Chanukah and Passover), we will begin to make our family Shabbat services an inclusive and warm setting for all of our families – including those whose children have special needs and we opened our Purim Carnival early for those children who need a more quiet approach to a Purim celebration.  These steps towards an inclusive community for all help us break down the walls that for too long restricted some of our families from participating in Jewish life and learning.

I can say without hesitation that these hour-long programs are the most rewarding hours of my career; the joy of learning is palpable, the enthusiasm contagious and the gratitude overwhelming. Each year we read the Passover story I always find myself lingering on the moment at the sea. As the Israelites crossed between two walls of water, perhaps they found themselves also caught between feelings of gratitude and nervous anticipation of the unknown. Where would this journey lead the people? Did they know enough? Were they strong enough? Would they live up to the expectations of the God who redeemed them from the darkness?  I too face this new path, humbled by what I don’t know, but grateful and eager to provide new ways for each learner to connect powerfully to our beautiful tradition.

Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman serves the Temple Israel of the City of New York.

Categories
Inclusion

Each of Us is a Letter

Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.

Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.

However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.

When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.HeadshotwZach

How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.

Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.

May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.

Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA 

Categories
News

On Welcoming

My family’s move from New York City to Westchester last summer reminded me about the fine art of genuine welcoming. We had explained to the few people we knew in Larchmont how it seemed an idyllic place to raise a family. To make a home. To grow old together. My husband and I commented on the quality of the schools, the abundant options to enjoy the outdoors, and the outright friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone we encountered during our touring. The few people we knew were so encouraging. So were those we met along the way. It is scary to uproot a family of five, yes, but we could do it, they said, and make our lives alongside theirs. They fielded endless questions and offered their ready and helpful friendship.

Moving my family, while continuing to build a rabbinate around interfaith and conversion work, has made me extremely sensitive to these facts: Adjustment to a new way of life is difficult. Belonging takes time. And perhaps the most important: Every encounter in a new place– especially the first one– is a potential game changer. Those very first words and acts of welcome leave an indelible mark. The follow up care and concern only solidify the foundation.

Leviticus 19:33 saysThe stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself… My understanding of this verse is that we are not only commanded to accept non-Jews and converts into our community but we are to show love and kindness toward them. Abundant, abundant kindness, as we would the natural born Jews among us.

We don’t have to turn interested parties away three times, or bring up three hardships they might encounter, or put any other obstacles in front of them. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll doubt themselves, doubt their intentions, doubt religion, doubt their choices. Our job is to walk them through the inevitable vulnerability and insecurity and steadily march them toward their goal. We must be the steadfast and solid voice of encouragement: You can do this. Our community wants you. You belong with us.

Isn’t it true? We should be so lucky that anyone is interested in Judaism. It is a fabulous, modern phenomenon that non-Jews want to marry into our community, much less become Jewish themselves! This was not the case throughout most of history. There is no reason not to feel utter respect, compassion, and excitement toward anyone remotely interested in our tradition. It deeply angers me to hear the stories (which I am treated to weekly) of rejection, humiliation, insensitivity, and discouraging first encounters with clergy. To what end were these actions meant? The tradition is not ours to give or withhold. Judaism belongs to whoever will have its blessings and join its struggle. Was Naomi standoffish, arrogant, and nasty with Ruth?

We need to be fearlessly inclusive. We must have a visible, remarkable openness to those who want to join our ranks—conversion or not. Our past validates this: Hillel, Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and many more wrote about embracing the gentile. And our future depends on it. The landscape of liberal Judaism is inextricably linked to how we handle issues of interfaith marriage and conversion. The borders of our community are not fixed. We are privileged to augment our numbers with those attracted to our tradition and teachings.

My worlds collided when I was waiting on a friend to have coffee with me in a Larchmont bakery. I ended up sharing my story with a stranger at the next table. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, “but we always have Passover seder with our neighbors and for years our kids celebrated Hannukah with a family down the block.”

Her comment reminded me of initial meetings in my office when people recount experiences from their childhood with Jews. They pave the way, they say, to being open (and attracted) to Judaism. At a recent Bet Din of a 79 year old, she spoke to us about the very first Jew she knew—a warm, kind, open, inspiring woman who was the principal of her elementary school. Seventy years ago, a Jewish principal left an impression on a young girl who would then go on to seek out Jews her entire life, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and convert in a late chapter in her life.

In every encounter, a Jewish future hangs in the balance. We must personify being a light unto the nations. It is commanded of us as Jews, and demanded of us as Jewish professionals.

Rabbi Lisa Rubin is the Founding Director of Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism & Conversion Program. Exploring Judaism, operating since 2010, serves 80-100 people a year who are considering living a Jewish life and/or converting to Judaism.

Categories
Social Justice

Reaffirming our Commitment to Inclusion for All

Although I was saddened that I could not attend the CCAR Convention last month due to an injury, I was overjoyed to hear such great things about the Convention from the colleagues I’ve talked to over the past few weeks. I was especially delighted to learn that the CCAR passed a resolution affirming the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

The Reform Movement has come a long way in welcoming and affirming LGBT individuals. I am proud that our Movement continues to serve as an example of inclusivity to other Jewish movements and other faiths.

While the Convention, rightfully, focused on the importance of LGBT inclusion in our Movement, I would be remiss if I did not highlight another minority whose struggle for equality is often overlooked: people with disabilities. An estimated 1 billion people — 15 percent of the world population – live with a disability, and nearly one in five Americans has a disability.  Yet the voice of that significant majority is barely heard.

Despite progress in advancing disability rights, such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and incremental additions to it, people with disabilities still lag behind the national average in education completed, employment rates (the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is almost double the national average), income, technology access, homeownership and voter participation. People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities and are overrepresented among the poorest people worldwide.

The Religious Action Center has been a tireless advocate for disability rights for many years. At this time, the RAC and the larger disability rights advocacy community have been focusing their advocacy efforts on ensuring the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund. SSDI provides monthly benefits to millions of people who have contributed to the SSDI trust fund through payroll taxes in the past but whose ability to work is currently limited because of a disability. SSDI beneficiaries are some of the most vulnerable Americans; around 70% of SSDI recipients are over 50 years old and it is estimated that half of those receiving SSDI benefits would live in poverty without the program. In 2016, the (SSDI) Trust Fund is set to become insolvent, resulting in 20% across-the-board cut in benefits to all SSDI beneficiaries.

Just as I am proud of the strides our community has taken to include LGBT individuals in Jewish life, I am equally proud of our Movement’s work to include people with disabilities. Yet, there is still more work we must do in order to fully include people with disabilities in both our Jewish communities and our larger society. If we want to make changes in our community in order to include people with disabilities, we must begin by opening the eyes of people without disabilities and help them understand that they have to change their attitudes. There is a saying in the disability community that goes, “Before ramping buildings, you’ve got to ramp attitudes.”  We have got to encourage our communities to change their attitudes from “pity” to “possibilities.” This idea is rooted in our tradition; Psalm 82:3 3 reads, “Defend the poor and the orphan, do justice to the afflicted and needy.”  The Midrash on that psalm (Midrash Tehillim) points out, “It does not say, ‘Have pity on them,’ but ‘Do justice to.’”

On the heels of the 2015 Convention, I hope we rabbis can recommit ourselves to creating and fostering inclusive environments for all people. To that end, we must challenge ourselves to seek out and empower Jewishly those with disabilities. As Americans and leaders of the Jewish community, we must continue to display our support for clear inclusion for people with disabilities, as well as the LGBT community. We do so most effectively by educating our communities, thereby ensuring accessibility and inclusive programming in our synagogues and larger community. We also must offer an articulate voice to advocate for the rights of Americans with disabilities and the larger LGBT community on the local, state and national levels.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg
Co-chair, CCAR Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion Senior Advisor on Disability Rights Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism