Categories
Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

A Jewish Approach to Transgender Awareness Week

After services one Friday night, I was approached by a woman and child I had not seen before. The woman knew I was a rabbinical student, and said she had an important question to ask me. Then, slowly, trying to find the right words, she said, “Let’s say there was someone who was born female but realized they were male—a female to male transgender person. Would that person be able to have a bar mitzvah? Is that something Judaism would allow?”

What providence that I of all people would be asked this question!

I heard myself blurt out, “You don’t know? I’m trans!”

Shocked, the woman took a second to process my words. Then, she grinned and grabbed her son’s shoulders with excitement. “Look,” she exclaimed to him, “the rabbi is just like you!”

When joining a new community, I often hear that they’ve never had a trans employee, or even a trans member. I always respond, “That you know of.” Sometimes I’m in a position where I’m out and open about being trans, where I’m visible as a trans person, where everyone is aware that they’re talking to someone who is trans. Other times, I’m just another person in the room and people may not know I’m trans.

Even though I was “out” to this community, the news had not spread to everyone. While I had talked about acceptance and inclusion of trans people previously, I hadn’t mentioned it in that Shabbat service. The synagogue didn’t have any flags or stickers that indicated trans inclusion. Therefore, this woman had no way of knowing that the community was inclusive. Similarly, none of the other community members had any way of knowing that the little boy starting religious school was transgender.

As members of a community, we make certain vows to support and care for one another. But how can we care for our community if we’re not aware of who is in it? Many people think that “trans inclusion” is not relevant to their community. Yet in reality, there are trans people everywhere, in the smallest of communities, in the most remote of locations. There are trans people who are already members of our communities who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe celebrating that aspect of themselves in a Jewish setting. And there are trans people who wish to join our communities but may be afraid that they will not be welcomed or embraced for who they are.

Transgender Awareness Week (November 13–19) was created to celebrate trans people, honor our identities, and educate others about our needs and struggles. Observing Transgender Awareness Week with trans-specific programming is a wonderful way to signal to trans people that your community is open and welcoming. It is also an opportunity to educate non-trans individuals on how best to respect and support trans people in your community and beyond.

At the end of Transgender Awareness Week is Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20). This is the trans community’s memorial day to recognize the countless lives lost to transphobic violence around the world. This year, Trans Day of Remembrance falls on a Saturday. Many synagogues across the country will be observing a special Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat. Consider bringing this to your Jewish community this year.  

As Jews, we believe that all people are made in the image of God, and each of us is holy and sacred. As Reform Jews, we believe that caring for the most marginalized members of our communities is tikkun olam, repairing the world. By spreading awareness of transgender issues and by uplifting transgender experiences, we are doing our part in healing the brokenness of our world caused by hatred and bigotry.

Here are some ways to observe Trans Awareness Week:

Some suggestions for a Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat:

A Transgender Day of Remembrance Yizkor (Prayer of Remembrance): For Those Who Died Sanctifying Their Names

God full of compassion, remember those whose souls were taken in transphobic violence. Those souls reflected the tremendous, multitudinous splendor of Your creations; they illustrated Your vastness through their ever-expanding variations of being b’tzelem Elohim, of being made in Your image. Source of mercy, provide them the true shelter and peace that they deserved in this world.

Those deaths were caused by hatred in our society. It is upon us to repair this brokenness in our world. May we have the strength to sanction justice, speedily and in our days.

For those who died by murder, we remember them. For those who died by suicide, we remember them. We remember their names, for those names will forever be a blessing.

Nurturing One, comfort all who are mourning. Grant them healing in their hardship.

.וְנֹאמַר: אָמֵן

V’nomar: amein.

And let us say: Amen.

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


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

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Categories
Gun Control Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Tom Alpert, CCAR Amicus Brief Coordinator


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

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Categories
Holiday News Social Justice

Reflections on Purim in 2021: COVID-19 and Modern-Day Genocide

This year, the lessons of Purim feel truer than ever.

This pandemic will not prevent us from celebrating Purim (socially distanced, of course). But Purim needs to be more than celebrated; it needs to be observed. Exchanging disease prevention masks for Purim masks during online celebrations is not enough. To observe Purim is to protest ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We know—viscerally, painfully—that religious freedom is not a lesson from ancient stories but an ongoing quest even today. While many of us are fighting antisemitism in our home countries, we are also in solidarity with the Rohingya people of Burma, who have been persecuted for decades. A predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Burma (Myanmar), the persecution escalated to a full-blown genocide in 2017, and in the wake of the military coup just a few weeks ago, their dreams of one day returning to their homeland grows fainter. The military in Burma overthrew the democratically elected government a few weeks ago in a coup—the same military who, for years, has been carrying out the genocide against the Rohingya people and oppressing other ethnic minorities.

Right now in Burma, people from all ethnic backgrounds are joining together in civil disobedience in response to the coup—and their methods look familiar. People are taking to the streets banging pots and pans. The videos of these peaceful, noisy protests are inspiring: ordinary people are making noise. Listening to a m’gillah reading on Purim, we rejoice in shaking our groggers when we hear Haman’s name—making noise to express our solidarity with each other, and to find joy even in the midst of recalling painful stories. People all over Burma are making noise now—maybe not with groggers, but we are connected to them just the same.

With holidays like Purim to bolster us and our people’s recent history to ground us, Jews today know deeply the importance of standing up with and for people who face genocide, who face state-sanctioned persecution because of their religion. The suffering, mass murder, and forced displacement of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community speaks deeply to us and compels us to act. We know we need to make noise. We need to act.

But we can be grateful to live in a world where action is possible. That’s why the CCAR is now a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network: a network of thirty Jewish organizations from across the U.S. all taking action against the ongoing genocide.

This Purim, we are not only thinking about the Rohingya genocide as we read from the m’gillah once again and shake our groggers. I’m also holding how much the world has changed since last Purim, and what lessons we can learn from Purim in a pandemic.

Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel struggled with the problematic nature of Purim. How is it that a people who has suffered so greatly can make a holiday out of a state-sponsored genocide plot and the fighting that followed? Why is it that a people that values learning, wisdom, and fine distinctions created a custom calling on us to get so giddy that we cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”?

What does it say about our love of justice that not only the villain, but his ten sons too are killed once the king changes sides in the conflict? It doesn’t sound all that Jewish, does it? We were blessed to have Wiesel for as long as we did, but it would have been fascinating to read the insights he had to offer on the meaning of Purim during a pandemic. We now inhabit a reality where wearing a mask is not reserved for holidays and parties but a discipline of daily life. Like the Persians of the M’gillah, the American public has been fed misinformation about minorities while as recently as January antisemites and racists had ready access to the inner courts of power when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.

What would Wiesel, who spent Purim of 1945 in Buchenwald, struggling to stay alive for liberation a few weeks later, have to say about Purim 2021? We will never know the answer. What we do know is that Wiesel devoted his life’s work to bearing witness to genocide in the hope that future ones could be prevented. A modern-day prophet, he preached a message about the perils of apathy, complicity, and inaction. He told us to make noise when people are suffering because of their ethnicity, their religion. Like the prophets of old, his message was and remains all too often unheeded, and millions of people have paid the price.

Even in the midst of this joyful holiday, we mourn those lost to genocide. And we mourn those we have lost to the pandemic. We must bear witness to their deaths by making the world a more just and compassionate place. We must analyze the systemic failures that kept us from preventing more deaths and scrutinize the missed opportunities that would have saved more lives. So, too, we must be mindful that COVID-19 has not meant a hiatus from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya face an uphill battle, as do the Uyghurs in China, and the Yazidis in Iraq, who remain in peril while powerful nations procrastinate instead of using their power.   

To follow Esther’s example requires us to use our privilege and our access to advocate for others rather than just worrying about ourselves. Thank you to CCAR and the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network for giving American Jews a voice against modern-day genocide, so we can continue Wiesel’s work of bearing witness. Today, call your senator and ask them to move forward legislation that would support the Rohingya people, and all ethnic minorities in Burma. When you shake your groggers at Haman’s name this Purim, picture the Burmese people shaking their groggers against modern-day Hamans, and feel the warmth of continued solidarity even across generations and continents. Wishing you a Purim of happiness, holiness and hope.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Social Justice

Black History Is American History

When Black History Month arrives each February, I remember an exchange from a 2009 60 Minutes Morgan Freeman interview with Mike Wallace. In it, three important statements about the condition of racism in the United States emerge. Here is a brief YouTube clip of their exchange. It goes something like this:

:00 Wallace asks, “Black History Month you find…”

:04 “Ridiculous,” answers Freeman bluntly. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month?”

:16 Wallace is stunned. He’s tongue-tied. He stammers. “I’m Jewish,” he says.

:20 “Okay, which month is Jewish History Month?” asks Freeman.

Wallace: “There isn’t one.”

“Oh, why not? Do you want one?” Freeman asks.

“No, no, I uh…” mumbles Wallace.

:29 “Alright. I don’t either,” affirms Freeman. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Let’s say it again: Black history is American history. That it is relegated to a single and separate month is the first statement about the condition of racism in America. Instead of digging into Freeman’s powerful point that Black history is American history, and to relegate it to a month is to diminish the rich history and countless contributions of African Americans in this country, Wallace swings and misses:

:36 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

By turning to a question of racism, Wallace’s seemingly innocuous question unveils an unspoken truth about Black History Month. People think its purpose is to be an antidote to racism. It is not. To see Black History Month as a way of ending racism in our country is to implicitly claim that there would be less racism if folks just saw and understood that Blacks are just as good and worthy as everyone else and have contributed to our country in innumerable ways far beyond Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. Black History Month as a remedy to racism is a racist idea in and of itself and is the second statement about the condition of racism in our country. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has said numerous times, “The only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”

Black history is American history, and it is misguided to believe that Black History Month could serve as a remedy to racism. The clip from the 60 Minutes interview with Morgan Freeman adds one final statement about the condition of racism in our country:

:37 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

“Stop talking about it,” Freeman answers. “I’m going to stop calling you a White man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a Black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”

Here, Freeman unwittingly evokes a perspective that is no longer right thinking. It never was. Like Freeman’s opinion, I was also raised during a time when colorblindness was seen as a curative to racism. However, that was never true. It is harmful. Children as young as three years old see color differences and, being socialized in a society that is systemically racist, are unconsciously taught to prefer White over Black. The final statement about American racism to be learned from this brief clip between Morgan Freeman and Mike Wallace is this: to fail to see the color of someone’s skin is to erase a core component of their identity. The covert racism hiding in our biases and stereotypes will not be overcome by pretending we don’t see color. It will certainly not contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism in our society.

This February, ask yourself: Why does Black History Month exist? On the whole, does it help construct an anti-racist society? Pay attention: How are the stories and histories of Black Americans told? In the process of honoring their legacies, are there subtle implications that they are being elevated to prove Black worthiness? Finally, we must see color. Colorblindness perpetuates racism because it pretends that we and our institutions are without bias, prejudice, and stereotype.

As a Reform rabbi, b’tzelem Elohim—that we are all created in the image of the Divine and therefore possess equal worth—demands that I speak out when I witness harmful acts of racism. As an aspiring White antiracist, it is my obligation to take action and use my privilege to fight oppression always—not just one month out of the year. Our covenantal relationship with God commands us to never turn away from the struggle and to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. I implore you to see, honor, and lift up our differences and be a committed ally in the ongoing fight to dismantle racism.


Rabbi David Spinrad serves Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.

Categories
News Social Justice

The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

All of us are capable of racism. The first family of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are no exception, and neither are we. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). In a sensitive and thought-provoking Torah commentary, Rabbi Hannah Goldstein acknowledges Miriam’s contributions while still holding her accountable for her ugly behavior in this particular passage:

“Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains. I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert. Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.”

For far too long we have selectively celebrated our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while conveniently forgetting or ignoring examples of our failures. Yes, there were brave and righteous Jews who marched in Selma, donated generously to the cause, and even gave their lives in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet there were also far too many of us who were complicit and complacent with racist regimes. Too many of us were silenced by fear of what would happen if we stood up and spoke out. Too many rabbis were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their self-respect. We need to allocate more time to reflecting on racist realities and less time to an overly romanticized version of how heroic we were.

Today’s growing chorus of voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” compels us to do more than demand an end to police brutality, terrorist attacks on Black Churches, and appalling disparities in income, education, housing, and health care. Like the disturbing sibling story in this week’s Torah portion, our current moment calls on us to consider the unsolicited comments, nasty quips and cruel utterances that we have hurled within our own families and within the greater family of the progressive Jewish world.

Painful testimonials of how congregants, or prospective congregants of color, were spoken to with condescension, suspicion, and ignorance demonstrate that we have tremendous work to do in making Jews of Color feel at home in our congregations. 

Over the past few weeks, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center have made a number of videos and conversations about these experiences available. Improving the way we engage with Jews of Color was already a priority for our Movement but the most recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police and former police have added a greater sense of urgency to this self-scrutiny. 

Just because we Jews have experienced oppression doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of saying or doing racist things. Our history of enduring injustice does not constitute immunity from engaging in it. The fact that Miriam was a slave in Egypt didn’t prevent her from making racist comments. Being a religious minority doesn’t preclude us from enjoying privileges of whiteness, making unwise choices, and saying foolish things. 

God of Grace and Goodness, grant us the humility to admit when we have been wrong, the integrity to confess unflattering chapters of our history, and the tenacity to confront racism and bigotry both within and without the congregations we call home.

 May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

B’rit Olam, Racial Justice, and Black Lives Matter

When Donald Trump stood in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church and declared martial law, we witnessed birkat HaShemBirkat HaShem is cursing the name of God. Birkat HaShem is blasphemy. And the one who commits it is a megadef.

In his sanctioning the use of tear gas, flash-bang shells, and in the firing of rubber bullets on American citizens who were exercising their Constitutional right of peaceful assembly so that he would have a clear path to a church as his stage and a bible as his prop, I condemn as a megadef the President of the United States. With a bible held sanctimoniously in his hand while simultaneously condoning violence and threatening far worse against the very people he is sworn to lead, I accuse him of cursing the name of God. 

God has held my broken heart every day of the eight since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing. The God I trust is the One who spreads sheltering wings over all the people in the night, guarding them, guiding them, and granting them peace. The God I pray to takes note of our afflictions and takes up our struggles, hears our prayers for every illness, wound, and pain. The God I cry out to listens when we call for the voice of liberty to be heard and for the oppressed to be redeemed.

The Eternal of my faith requires me to pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I followed the President’s march from the White House to his staged photo opportunity in front of St. John’s, I witnessed his pursuit of retribution, not justice. I witnessed his love of violence, not mercy. In his faithless taking up of the sacred word of God, I witnessed blasphemy and no humble walk with God. 

As our cities burn, the God I believe in calls us to think deeply about the uprisings. God commands an honest accounting for the real reasons behind them. God demands our dedication to overcome them. We are a nation physically gripped and emotionally exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no end in sight. Its economic impact is devastating. Given 400 years of evidence, further proof of racial inequity and injustice was unnecessary, but the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic truth that African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans are being disproportionately infected and dying, and people of color are experiencing even greater unemployment and underemployment than they were before. In communities of color, the suffering is greater. Recovery will take longer, if it comes at all.

Emmanuel Levinas taught us that our responsibility to the other is infinite. Our responsibility is of such a magnitude that it drowns out the noise of anything we’ve accomplished. There is nothing to rest on. Since Ferguson, some of us, the CCAR, and the Movement have made limited progress in understanding our own racism, the racism of our institutions, and the malignant, systemic racism in our country. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing is dismantled and infinitely more is demanded. 

So I share the following points:

1. Our covenant is eternal. God commands us to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. And by our lives, to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. We can’t ever turn away.

2. Black Lives Matter. To BLM, in our context, I suggest a second BLM: 

B = Believe.
L = Listen.
M = Maintain support from behind Black and Brown leaders.

3. Locate God now. The cries we hear are God’s cries. The tears that fall are God’s tears. God is reaching for help to raise this burden from God’s shoulders.

4. We are commanded to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. The covenantal relationship is forever. A b’rit olam. Covenant is not convenience. But it is rooted in chesed. Not sappy chesed, not “loving kindness,” but chesed how Rabbi Brad Artson teaches it: Chesed as resilient love. The root of our covenant with God, the basis of our covenant with each other, is a resilient love that invites us surpass ourselves and to risk growth.[i] The resilient love of our covenant means we can be a part of great team, a team where no one plays just for themselves and everyone plays for each other. Keep showing up.

These ideas are based upon the same text: Moses at the burning bush.[ii] Larry Kushner teaches us the burning bush was not a miracle. The bush was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention. Only when Moses really paid attention, did God reveal himself to our teacher…There is another world, right here, when we pay attention. [iii]

Here is our test: Pay attention. Believe and listen to the experiences of people of color, especially Jews of Color. Check our motivations and resist that temptation of white privilege, to pretend we have Superman capes. Our test is to maintain support from behind black and brown leaders.

Last point, same text: Moses at the bush. From the depths of hell in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, gave his disciples a gift: he taught his Chasidim that the covenant is not only eternal. It is also interdependent. God needs us. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like one who struggles beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity. [iv]

Rather than teaching a simplistic faith or the belief that suffering is somehow part of some greater, cosmic plan, the rebbe reminded them that we are in an interdependent, covenantal relationship with God. The b’rit binds us together forever. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like a person struggling beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity.

Our responsibility is infinite. The covenant and chesed’s resilient love demands we stay in this for the rest of our lives. Believe. Listen. Support from behind. God is crying out from the burden of witnessing this suffering.

The God I believe in cries out to us now. The God I place my faith in calls us to pursue racial equity and justice in our country, in our cities, and in our synagogue. The God I turn to and the God I invite you to be in relationship with is the God who commands kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name and the opposite of birkat HaShem. Let us sanctify and make holy the name of God by the ways we live our lives. As it is written, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.

Amen.


[i]  Bradley Shavit Artson, The God of Becoming and RelationshipThe Dynamic Nature of Process Theology
[ii]  Exodus 3:1-4:17
[iii]  Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning 
[iv]  Esh KodeshVayikra, March 16, 1940


Rabbi David Spinrad serves as the senior rabbi of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He loves to laugh and believes the covenant is rooted in a love that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

Categories
CCAR Convention Immigration Social Justice

Embedding Ourselves in Baltimore: What Rabbis at CCAR Convention 2020 Can Learn From an Immigration Outreach Center Born Out of a Catholic Church

When the planning committee for the upcoming 2020 CCAR Convention met last spring, we asked ourselves, “How could we be in Baltimore and not look to understand the issues that the residents of this city meet each day?”

Like Cincinnati, Orange County, and Atlanta in recent memory, this convening of the Central Conference of American Rabbis will include opportunities to learn from some of the social justice issues endemic to Charm City. When we are together in March, we will explore issues around immigration, the toll of gun violence, climate change, the safety and care of people who are sex workers, and much more. 

One workshop I am excited about will be with Baltimore’s Immigrant Outreach Service Center (IOSC). This 501c3 organization is an immigration center which grew out of a social justice campaign at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore, through the help of foreign-born parishioner volunteers. IOSC helps immigrants build successful lives, offering a variety of services as wide as the variety of people they serve. There is a lot for us to learn from this organization that we can apply to our work settings: in advance of Passover, we will hear from people who came to the United States running from terrible circumstances towards a better opportunity for themselves and their families. We can also find inspiration from the experience of St. Matthew; the congregation’s demographics shifted with each passing year and so did the variety of programs they used to meet the needs of this changing population. And we will learn from the IOSC Executive Director and Senior Pastor of St. Matthew about how they created an independent non-profit organization that does essential justice work and has served immigrants from 123 countries.

As the CCAR continues to serve rabbis who serve in a multiplicity of settings, the Convention committee is also working to create learning opportunities that serve us. As we navigate the future of Jewish life in this time of change, I know that the social justice offering at CCAR Convention will inspire us all and supply tangible resources and inspiration to fuel the work we will do at home. I will see you in Baltimore. 


Rabbi Eleanor Steinman serves as an associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. 

Categories
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.