Books CCAR Press Torah

Reclaiming Prophetic Judaism: Rabbi Barbara AB Symons on Her New Book, ‘Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah’

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah, discusses the origins of the volume, the process of creating it, and what she hopes it will bring to the haftarah canon.

What was the inspiration for Prophetic Voices?  

In synagogues, as a faculty member at URJ camps, and at the URJ Biennial, I came to the realization that we were not hearing from the prophets. My own rabbinic education also lacked such focus, even though we in the Reform Movement spoke of “Prophetic Judaism.” It was an issue beyond Jewish literacy; it was an issue of not being called to action. At a conference run by the Religious Action Center in 2018, the final (brilliant!) session was an offer to take the microphone, share an idea about social justice, and invite others to join you for an hour to work on it. Over the following year and a half, on and off, our small group continued to work on it, and that eventually led to my proposal to CCAR Press.

Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? 

Many things! I learned about the history of the haftarah cycle and how the term “Prophetic Judaism” came to be. I was reminded how the haftarah has the flexibility to connect to any part of the Torah portion, which is an invitation for creativity. I learned how much insight contributors can share in a mere 250 words, and I was exposed to many of the alternative texts for the first time. 

What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? 

With 179 contributors, there were a lot of emails! Because of the skills of the CCAR Press team, who were the professionals, the most challenging part for me ended up being helping potential contributors understand what this book was seeking to accomplish.

How did you determine which additional Jewish American holidays would receive haftarah readings?   

We had an open call and gave the examples of Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pride Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Juneteenth, and Mother’s/Father’s Day. Forty-two holidays ultimately appeared in my inbox, characterized by authenticity, passion, insight, and vulnerability.

How do you hope readers will use Prophetic Voices

I hope that it will bring the prophets and prophet-like voices beyond the bimah and the sanctuary into our daily lives. Each interpretation ends with a call to action. Some are direct, some are indirect, and some are questions, but overall the idea is to reclaim Prophetic Judaism as a verb.

The subtitle for this book mentions “renewing and reimagining” the haftarah cycle. What do you mean by that?  

“Renewing” refers to better understanding and finding relevance and inspiration from the prophets of the traditional haftarah cycle (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos). “Reimagining” refers to allowing haftarah, which means “conclusion,” to go beyond the N’vi-im (Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible to texts that deserve to be “between the blessings.” Those texts include verses from the K’tuvim (Writings)—such as Job and Psalms—and expand into Jewish texts from the Talmud, poetry across the ages, music lyrics, fiction pieces, official government declarations, speeches, and more. These not only conclude the Torah reading but punctuate it. Furthermore, the book offers three new haftarah cycles: the Omer cycle, the Elul cycle, and the Winter cycle (from Thanksgiving to Chanukah).

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville, PA, and the editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah (CCAR Press, 2023). Rabbi Symons and select contributors are available to visit communities for speaker events and lifelong learning classes. For more information, please email

News Social Justice

The Beauty of a Southern Jewish Heritage

The front desk clerk at my Montgomery, Alabama hotel cheerfully told me, “I have a river-view room for you.” Night had fallen; but the next morning, when I opened the blinds, there it was: The Alabama River makes an exquisite horseshoe in downtown Montgomery. It’s surrounded by lush woods and is fronted by an historic railway station. A beautiful sight to behold!

Only hours later, though, the loveliness of the scene became more complicated. I was among fifty Reform rabbis participating in “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: A Central Conference of American Rabbis Pre-High Holy Day Seminar” this past August. As soon as the program began, I learned of the critical role that gorgeous river played when Montgomery grew and prospered as the center of a robust domestic slave trade. That river was the conduit, bringing enslaved human beings north from Mobile Bay into the interior, where families were cruelly separated, small children ripped from their parents’ arms, and spouses forever separated, enriching white Alabama slave traders.

We entered The Legacy Museum, a powerful testament to the horrors that white supremacy has wrought on African Americans for 400 years. In the museum’s first exhibit, only feet from the door, I was hit hard by a declaration I should’ve always known to be true: Many of the same families who were enriched by the slave trade continue to be prosperous citizens of Montgomery today. Their wealth, inherited down the generations, cannot be separated from the enslaved human beings their ancestors oppressed to earn their generous living.

Why, you might ask, was I so bothered by these particular words, among all the museum’s horrors?

I have long proclaimed, “In my family, the ‘old country’ is the Mississippi Delta.” All of my grandparents and four of my great-grandparents were born in the American South. I treasure my great-great grandparents’ family Bible from Trinity, Louisiana. When Reform Judaism’s detractors assert the libel—that the children of Orthodox Jews become Conservative; their children, Reform; and their children leave Judaism altogether—I take out my great-great grandfather’s Minhag America for Yom Kippur, a prayer book written by American Reform founder Isaac Mayer Wise. If that’s not enough, I produce my paternal great-grandfather’s Union Prayer Book—alongside three more in direct succession, which my mother, her mother, and her grandmother each received at her Confirmation, each name embossed in gold on the cover. When I was 18, my beloved paternal grandmother gave me her mother’s Hours of Devotion: A Book of Prayers and Meditations for the Use of the Daughters of Israel, which her mother had given to her when she was 18. That great-grandmother was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1871, but that prayer book was published in 1868, so I presume that it belonged to her mother before her.

I was raised in the warm embrace of this family, with a strong Jewish identity and a confidence about the place of Jews in America.

As I got older, I became aware that my mother’s family had known financial security for more generations than we know. And my paternal grandmother told of her father’s tremendous success, reversed in a financial crisis in the early 20th century.

I seriously doubt that any of my ancestors were slave traders. Most who immigrated before the Civil War came to this country only shortly before it. I learned that two of my great-great-grandfathers had fought in the Civil War only because I asked, not because my grandparents boasted of Confederate glory or yearned for its return. Still, that Montgomery exhibit got to me.

As I continued through the museum, I saw stark reminders that slavery didn’t end in much more than name with the Civil War. Sharecropping, convict leasing, and racial terror lynching kept Black southerners in shackles, albeit of a different kind, until World War II, with Jim Crow persisting until the mid 1960s. During that period, all of my ancestors lived in the South. Again, I have no reason to believe that any were outwardly racist. Instead, I heard stories of kindnesses to Black customers and domestic employees. I never heard my grandparents use racial epithets. At the same time, I was never told that any of my family were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, for example. We Jews know, though, that bystanders have enabled the greatest evil perpetrated against us. Before the Civil Rights era, and often during it, southern Jews were bystanders at best.

After the museum, our group went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known as “the lynching memorial.” There, I found memorials indicting every county where my family lived during that period: Adams County, Mississippi. Attala County, Mississippi. Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Harris County, Texas. Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. My ancestors’ Black neighbors were terrorized by lynching in each place that they lived.

The organizers of our rabbinical group provided the words to “Strange Fruit,” a poem written and set to music by Abel Meeropol and popularized by Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The Alabama River in downtown Montgomery is indeed beautiful, and I continue to treasure my southern Jewish roots. I particularly honor the memories of my grandparents, who were consistently present, positive influences throughout my childhood and beyond it.

Still, at this season, I cannot help but ask what repentance is required of the grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson of bystanders who prospered while their Black neighbors bled?

T’shuvah, ut’filah, utz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zeirah, “Repentance, prayer, and charity,” we learn, temper judgment’s severe degree. I now regard my own commitment to racial justice as an act of t’shuvah, of repentance. I will do what my ancestors did not, and perhaps could not, given their insecurity as Jews in what was still a new land for them. During Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon, I will pray that God forgive them their sins, even if those sins were mostly of silence. And I will continue to direct tzedakah to redress racial inequality that persists to this day, with a thought toward returning some of the prosperity they enjoyed between the end of the Civil War and World War II.

And yes, I will continue to celebrate the beauty of my southern Jewish heritage, bringing me to where I am today.

gender equality News Social Justice

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell on the Anniversary of the Hyde Amendment

We read Nitzvaim the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and again on Yom Kippur Morning.   In this portion, we are told we have choices, to do good or bad, for our lives to be ones of blessings or curses.  The case is made for choosing blessings.  Again, we are empowered to make these choices with Moses working hard in this text and other places as God’s advocate, to steer us to make our choices for living up to our covenant with God and Torah and doing the mitzvot, those things which we are obligated to do for ourselves, for others and for God. September 30th this year was not only Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Tishrei.   September 30th also marks the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Hyde Amendment, the policy that bars federal funding for abortion in the United States.

On the federal level, one of the most notable and longstanding restrictions is the Hyde Amendment, which was first passed in 1976 and has been renewed every year since. 

The Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal money for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnant person’s life is in danger in all federally administered health care plans such as Medicaid, TRICARE, and Indian Health Service. Many people that are have insurance through these plans, particularly Medicaid, are of low income. Thus, the Hyde Amendment largely and disproportionately impacts low-income people and other individuals with marginalized identities. It is reprehensible that someone would be denied their right to serve as their own moral agent for their reproductive health simply because they are insured by a federal health care plan. 

We as Reform Jews support women having choices, bodily integrity, the right to weigh their situation and beliefs and make knowledgeable thought out decisions for themselves and their families.  

Our tradition teaches that all life is sacred, and Judaism views the life and well-being of the person who is pregnant as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life.

We learn from Mishnah Ohalot 7:6 that a woman is forbidden from sacrificing her own life for that of the fetus, and if her life is threatened, the text permits her no other option but abortion. In addition, if the mental health, sanity, or self-esteem of the woman (i.e. in the case of rape or incest) is at risk due to the pregnancy itself, the Mishnah permits the woman to terminate the pregnancy. It is due to the fundamental Jewish belief in the sanctity of life that abortion is viewed as both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances.  

The 1975 URJ Resolution on Abortion states, “While recognizing the right of religious groups whose beliefs differ from ours to follow the dictates of their faith in this matter, we vigorously oppose the attempts to legislate the particular beliefs of those groups into the law that governs us all. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

 In an environment in which abortion access is becoming ever more restricted, the Hyde Amendment creates additional barriers to abortion access for women, particularly those from communities of color or with low incomes. With the High Holy Days providing an occasion for all of us to think about how we can advance justice and equity in our communities, advocating for reproductive justice – including the repeal of this harmful policy – is part of that equation.

The Equal Access to Abortion in Health Insurance or EACH Woman Act  (H.R. 1692/S. 758) was introduced into the 116th session of Congress on March 12, 2019. The EACH Woman Act seeks to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and would guarantee that every person who receives care or insurance through a federal plan or program has coverage for abortion.

If you feel compelled to take action on this matter of women’s health and free agency to make decisions about their own body,  please consider urging your member of Congress to support the EACH Woman Act. The EACH Woman Act would end bans on abortion coverage, restoring respect for each woman’s moral agency, ensuring fair treatment no matter her income, and protecting her health and safety.

Parashat Netzavim gives us the choice to act or not to act, to follow our convictions, our Jewish values and our communal interests.  Please consider your choice in acting on this matter and advocating for women to have choices in their control as well.

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell
Temple Concord, Binghamton, NY

Related resources from the RAC and from Planned Parenthood:……/ab…/hyde-amendment

Social Justice

Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

About two years ago, my friend and teacher Rabbi Peter Levi described his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah service. Instead of doing the early part of the morning blessings, they would sing a couple of introductory songs, leave the sanctuary, and enter the social hall for a social action project where they would pack boxes of grains and canned goods for the homeless. I admit that when I heard the idea, I was nonplussed. Seeing the look on my face, Rabbi Levi put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s called a Bat Mitzvah, not a Bat T’filah.”

My mind was opened.

He made me realize the whole issue I have with our B’nai Mitzvah rubric as it has been for years. We want to create engaged Jewish adults, and we are creating cookie-cutter kids who will be able to their their kids, “You’ll do it because I suffered through it, too,” just like we are telling ours. So after hearing Rabbi Levi’s simple sentence, I began to plan.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek, we hold a semi-annual “B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp,” where I gather the students who will become B’nai Mitzvah within the following nine to sixteen months. We discuss the four things a child has to accomplish before they can receive the title of Jewish Adult: Lead services, Teach through a D’var Torah, Commit to a Mitzvah, and Give Tzedakah. Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, Tzedakah. As much as this talk may inspire them, which I hope it does, it still leads to the same thing. The children lead a service, have a party, give tzedakah, and maybe remember to keep doing their mitzvah.

Some kids have an easy time with this they enjoy it, they love performing and they thrive on the bimah. Others struggle.

In thinking about Rabbi Levi’s words, I wanted to encourage our emerging Jewish adults to make their B’nai Mitzvah experience more personally meaningful. But first I needed a guinea pig.

I had known Jonas Holdaway for nearly four years when he and his parents sat in my office to discuss his upcoming Bar Mitzvah experience. I knew he was already a passionate giver of his time and resources, and I asked him a question. Knowing that the requirements of becoming a Bar Mitzvah are still Leading, Teaching, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, is there one he would like to highlight over the others? Jonas chose Mitzvah. He wanted to make sandwiches for the hungry, and he already had an idea for his guests to participate with him. I asked him if he would like to cut out some of the prayers from the morning service and do that as a part of his Saturday morning celebration.

After a few months of planning and organizing, Jonas became a Bar Mitzvah on September 9, 2017. He did a spectacular job of reading Torah and leading some of the prayers, but the best part was when he started to teach after just two introductory songs. The look on the faces of the regulars was priceless. They were intrigued as to why he might be speaking at this point. He spoke eloquently about how important feeding the hungry is to him and his family. He spoke about volunteering at soup kitchens and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then he told his guests that they would be making sandwiches and sack lunches for the hungry that very morning.

We ushered his guests into the Social Hall where Jonas had set up stations for packing bag lunches. One table made sandwiches, another decorated bags, a third put apples and cookies into bags, and there were boxes for collecting the finished lunches. Participants went from station to station, making two or more lunches, which Jonas took the following day to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. After boxing up 346 lunches, Jonas led the congregation in the rest of the worship service, including reading beautifully from the Torah.

Jonas allowed us all to feel uplifted that Shabbat morning, showing us what it really means to be a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish man committed to the commandments. The service Jonas led and the experience he had was much more of a revolution, and he has inspired future nigh-13-year-olds to have the same choice.

Instead of doing the same service their peers do, each student at CBT from this point on will be taught that the four things they need to do are Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, but whichever one they put at the forefront is up to them. If they want to break from services to organize a social action project for the community, or organize a longer lesson plan that allows us to dive deep into the weekly Torah portion, or even coordinate a fundraiser that will bring tzedakah to a cause about which they are passionate, any of these things can be the focus of their B’nai Mitzvah service. Of course, if Leading services is their passion, they will lead a great service. They will do what we did, but they won’t be dragged to it. They will take on the helm of B’nai Mitzvah with passion, and God willing, they will stay connected to the Jewish community by their own choice, because they will know that they are part of a revolution.

Rabbi David N. Young serves Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. 

shabbat Social Justice

Shabbat and Social Justice

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

God then surveyed all that [God] had made, and look—it was very good! (Genesis 1:31)

When we think of Shabbat, we think of the smell of challah baking, festive singing, time with family, delicious meals, and sweet wine. The Sabbath is a day of such joy, that as Rabbi Theodore Friedman has shown, the classical Rabbis understood it as a taste of olam haba, “the world-to-come”[1]—a messianic time of perfection in which “every man will sit under his vine and beneath his fig tree, and none will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

For this reason I would argue that ultimately Shabbat is a call to action. Though on the seventh day we experience the world as it should be, the other six days a week we inhabit the world as it is. The “real world” is broken. Therefore, while Shabbat is a day of rejoicing, it also has the power to agitate. Shabbat pushes us to see injustice in our world—to worry for those who cry out in hunger around us, to mourn the loss of our natural resources, and to rage against the forces of oppression and injustice that plague humanity.

Our rituals, observances, and celebrations of the seventh day all seek to fulfill the promise of Creation, to inspire our hope for redemption, and to depict a vision of tikkun olam, a world repaired. The Rabbis understood the connection between appreciating God’s Creation and the human responsibility for stewardship. They taught in the classical midrash: “When God created Adam, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘Behold my works. See how wonderful and beautiful they are. All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. Now see to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’”[2]

Just as Shabbat calls us to provide rest for the earth, it reminds us that rest for human beings is an imperative of social justice. Shabbat reminds us that we are children of God (created in God’s image), not instruments of Pharaoh or any other oppressor. The connection between Shabbat and freedom from the slavery of Egypt is first made in the Torah, Deuteronomy 5:13–15:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the Deuteronomy text is that every being enjoys the Sabbath, including animals and slaves. Since its very inception, Shabbat obligates the Children of Israel to treat all workers ethically and, even more radically, to see every human being (Jew and non-Jew alike) as deserving of freedom, equality, and justice.

Let us remember Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and described it as if “my legs were praying.” He famously wrote, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[3] On Shabbat, we taste perfection—and then we are called to action, responsible for the well-being of the earth itself and for all those who suffer amidst the brokenness of injustice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he is an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.  Rabbi Pesner is also is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation!

[1] Theodore Friedman, “Shabbat as a Preview of the Perfected World,” Judaism 16, no. 4 (Fall 1967).

[2] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity:  Essays (New

York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 225.


Social Justice

One Road – Two Worlds: Modern Shavuot Story of Justice in the Fields

As we near Shavuot, our thoughts turn to the agricultural roots of our people.  For many, discussions of justice in the fields, fair treatment of farm workers, and standing up against slavery fail to resonate with our modern experience.  I felt the same until one Tuesday morning last December.

I live in Naples, Florida.  If I turn left out of my housing development, a ten minute drive brings me to the Gulf of Mexico.  On that day I drove out of my development and turned right, driving past the coffee shop, grocery store, and bank where I normally stopped.  Almost thirty miles later, that same road brought me to another world within the same county, the town of Immokalee.

This was my first trip to Immokalee, but I know it will not be my last.  My travels came as part of a group of rabbis participating with T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  Since 2011, more than seventy Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis, from communities across the country, visited Immokalee with T’ruah to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  Affectionately called Tomato Rabbis (#TomatoRabbis on social media), these groups spend three days meeting farm workers, learning the history of the CIW, and bearing witness to the transformation that has led to fields of justice.

One’s heart breaks listening to the stories of the workers and the conditions that existed prior to the Fair Food Program (FFP).  Workers had no shade, no break times.  Wage theft was rampant as crew leaders doled out pay.  Sexual harassment was used to threaten and demean female laborers.  One worker was beaten for stopping to drink water, with the crew leader saying to the others, “Are you here to work or drink water?”

As if the conditions in the fields were not bad enough, many workers lived as modern day slaves.  Eight instances of modern day slavery were discovered, with the last occurring less than ten years ago!  Workers kept in trailers, hosed off at the end of each day, and then locked in to prevent their escape by night.  It was so unprecedented that the Justice Department did not know how to even handle the first cases that came forward.

There is a Haitian saying, “A bull would not let a child lead it if it knew its own strength.”  The workers began to realize that they had the strength to change their situation.  Lucas Benitez, one of the founders of the CIW, explained, “Immokalee was a desert of justice.  We searched for hope, and discovered the waters of justice.”  The effort began with actions to push the growers to improve conditions.  Later, the CIW realized that the chain really went beyond the growers up to the buyers – the corporations who purchased the tomatoes for restaurants, grocery stores and other food services.  Rather than being in conflict with the growers, they formed a partnership together.

Torah teaches in Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” – “Justice, justice, shall you pursue!” Lipman Produce and Pacific Tomatoes, both started and owned by Jewish families, were the first two growers to participate in the Fair Food Program in order to protect workers’ rights, increase safety in the fields, and provide a better wage. These two growers, who joined in the fall of 2010 after a critical mass of corporate buyers had come on board, served as models.  Soon thereafter, the majority of Florida’s tomato growers joined in – representing 90% of all tomatoes grown in Florida.  Working in partnership, the Fair Food Standards Council was established, to protect the rights of workers, ensure compliance by the growers, as well as monitor the buyers.

Fourteen major corporations have joined this effort, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Aramark, Compass, and more recently Ahold USA (Stop & Shop and Giant) and Walmart.  Each corporation commits to only sourcing Florida tomatoes from growers who are part of the Fair Food Program, paying a penny per pound premium for tomatoes that goes directly to the farm workers, and accepting responsibility for their role in the supply chain.  Conditions in the fields improved dramatically in recent years.  Participating growers provide shade stations, water, time-clocks for fair wage management, and education to identify and prevent sexual harassment. As evidence of the Fair Food Program’s success, incidents of violence toward workers in the fields have greatly decreased and workers now exercise the right to complain without fear – over 1100 complaints have been received and resolved since the FFP’s inception.

The New York Times recently identified the Florida Tomato industry as an exemplar in the field of agriculture.  Once called “ground zero” for modern-day slavery, the CIW and its partners transformed tomato farming into fields of justice.  Efforts continue to expand participating buyers and move into other fields of agriculture.  Campaigns exist to encourage Publix and Wendy’s, two corporations that have refused to meet with the CIW, and as a result still do not treat the farmworkers fairly and with respect.

One road links together two worlds.  On this holiday of Shavuot, let this story of justice in the fields serve as our reminder that while the world may have evolved, our work is far from done.  May each one of us find our road to justice – the path we need to follow as we pursue justice, support the right to human dignity, and act so that fairness, equality, safety and freedom are experienced by all.


Rabbi Adam Miller,  the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom of Naples, serves on the Commission for Social Action of the URJ and emphasizes building relationships with the community at large around issues of social justice, interfaith dialogue, Israel, and Jewish education.

Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

My Broken & Filled Heart: A Takeaway From the 2015 Consultation on Conscience 

My heart is full and my heart is breaking. That’s my take away from this week’s Consultation on Conscience.

Sure, my heart is full because of the formal program that the RAC put together–powerful speakers who were inspiring and challenging. And yes, we had some incredible moments as we celebrated David Saperstein and Jonah Pesner. But my heart is full because here at this conference, I encountered colleagues and lay leaders who share the thirst for justice. My heart is full because I am surrounded by a community who cares, and a community who is ready to work.

At the same time, this conference has also exposed my broken heart. Yesterday, I participated in a Rabbis Organizing Rabbis workshop in which participants shared stories of injustice in their own communities. One woman in my group told about how she noticed how the extra food in her synagogue’s fridge disappeared, only to realize it was the janitorial staff taking it home to feed their families. Another woman told about how she felt powerless when she saw drug addiction in her community. Each of these stories, we realized, were symptoms of larger economic and racial structural injustices. Heartbreaking.

Dinner only brought more heartache. While sitting with colleagues talking about where we see racial and economic injustices in our communities, all we had to do was look up to what was happening on the TVs in the restaurant–news about the riots in Baltimore was just beginning to break.

Consultation has been about how we hold full and broken hearts together. It strikes me that that is also the message of Leviticus. We begin the book with the message that we need to get proximal to God (more on that language in a moment). The sacrificial system should bring us close to God. We know, though, about moments in which the community is distant. Nadab & Abihu, Aaron’s silence, and the affliction of tzora’at teach us that there are moments, both extreme and mundane, in which we are not the community we strive to be. But then enters kedushah. Be holy, be set apart as a people who know what the right and just thing to do is. In so doing, we bring ourselves back closer to God. Our hearts can break, and the prospect of holiness can make them full again.

This was the message of the most powerful speaker of the conference–Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s also a prophet and yodeah Sefer. As he described the blight of mass incarceration in the United States, I felt my heart breaking wide open. Horrific situations that we cannot even begin to imagine. Children jailed in dangerous and violent situations. Mental health being ignored behind bars, despite the consequences. But then, he called for love and kindness to fill us up. He is an optimist, and he offered a heart-full prescription for what we can do to make things a bit more just: (1) We have to get proximate to the people who are affected by the injustice. We can’t only read about it. We need to get into relationship with those affected by injustice. (2) We need to change the narrative around faith and race. (3) We should protect our hopefulness, insisting on believing in things we have not yet seen. And (4), we should do uncomfortable things.

Hearts filled and hearts broken, this is an uncomfortable dichotomy. It is also real and energizing. I know that I now need to get to work.


Rabbi Neil Hirsch serves Temple Shalom in Newton, MA