Categories
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: 

https://cqrcengage.com/reformjudaism/app/write-a-letter…

https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/…/ab…/hyde-amendment

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Reckoning with the Sins of Slavery & Racism

I was pleased to see that the Central Conference of American Rabbis led a rabbinic mission to Montgomery, Alabama. A little more than a year ago, I, too, went on a pilgrimage to the deep South with members of my congregation. Our trip changed me. As we enter our most sacred season and prepare to make teshuvah, for the wrongdoings of our past, the lessons from my pilgrimage stay with me still. I believe as a nation, the United States must make teshuvah, atoning for our legacy of slavery by making reparations to African Americans. 

As we traveled by bus through the region, I recalled how in the Hebrew Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and God, horrified, exclaimed: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the earth!” All these generations later, here on American soil, nothing has changed. Blood also cries to us from the earth, the blood of millions of individuals kidnapped in chains, tortured, beaten, brutalized, lynched, incarcerated and senselessly shot down. This is why the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, where we commemorate the thousands of victims of lynching, is hallowed ground.

Teshuvah, atonement, is recognizing our sin and repairing the damage it has caused. Sometimes, when shame blinds us, we cannot see our wrongdoing clearly. Our nation has suppressed our shame over slavery and its consequences for far too long. Many of us who benefit from systemic racism—that is, those of us who are white—often suppress our shame because we are repelled by the agony that has been wrought to our advantage. We avert our eyes from the terror that’s been inflicted on millions of African Americans; we’re sickened to realize that we’re safe by virtue of our skin pigmentation. For some of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we resist the truth because to accept it means we’ll need to shift the status quo and make substantial sacrifices. And many other white people are paralyzed by the knowledge that the full damage caused by slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, will never be rectified. Whatever the reasons, when white people sublimate our shame over slavery, our moral standing as a nation is diminished, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

I believe our shame as a nation has kept us from doing the right thing: We must make reparations to the African American community. I do not know exactly what a reparation package looks like, but I do know that there are economists, lawmakers, and scholars who have given this issue deep consideration. I know that Congress has rejected HR 40, a bill that seeks to develop reparation proposals. I know that The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has reported that “the transatlantic trade in Africans and enslavement…were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism…Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.” I also know that truth and reconciliation commissions have helped other nations begin to heal from heinous crimes against humanity that occurred on their native soil.

We in the Jewish community have a unique perspective on this issue. The shadow of the Holocaust still looms large; we will never fully recover from the grief over the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Yet, because of reparations offered by Germany, we Jews know what it means when perpetrators (or the descendants of perpetrators) acknowledge their crimes and try, insufficiently but earnestly, to make amends. Some of our energy expended on anger and mourning has been re-channeled into rebuilding our lives. Because of our experience, Jewish Americans can bear witness to the healing power of repentance and reparations.

We can set ourselves free from the past. We can create our nation and ourselves anew. It is time. Let 5780 be the year in which we make teshuvah and begin the reparations process.

Ruth A. Zlotnick is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, Washington, and is Vice President of Membership of the CCAR Board of Trustees. A version of this post appeared in The Seattle Times.

Categories
High Holy Days

Deeds, Not Fasting

In Talmudic times of trouble, tractate Taanit tells how the Jewish community needs to move forward:

The elder among them says words of admonition, “People! It does not say of the citizens of Nineveh that God say their sackcloth and their fasting, but rather: God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.”

Our High Holy Days are a time for turning.  And we know that it is neither our fasting nor our penitence that matters, but how we change our daily behavior, our deeds.  What is true for individuals is true for nations: the entire citizenry of Nineveh needed to turn from the improper path they walked together.  We know the ways in which our own nation walks are sometimes stepped in sin; our High Holy Days come to admonish us to find better pathways to the future.

This past August, we marked two sad national commemorations.  2019 marked a century since America plunged into its Red Summer, a season of violence in which white supremacists in over 36 cities (and many rural areas) unleased their fury on  black communities, killing hundreds of human beings, injuring countless others, burning many black neighborhoods to the ground.  August 18 of this year also marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores.  Our summer has forced us to confront the evil ways of racial injustice that have been a part of our country since its inception.

This past August also witnessed fifty Reform Rabbis stepping forward, learning what we could do to help repair this historic and painful breach.

We travelled together to Montgomery, Alabama.   The destination was the new Legacy Museum and Memorial, build by the Equal Justice Institute to teach our nation about the direct racist trajectory from slavery through Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration.  Bryan Stevenson, the heroic founder of EJI, delivered a powerful keynote at our Cincinnati convention that called us to get proximate to this narrative, to the history, and to the lived experience of others.  Of course, Stevenson called us to learn the lessons so we might take action.  Over 50 CCAR colleagues answer Stevenson’s call for three powerful days this summer.

What did we learn? To begin with, we saw how deeply structures of injustice are built into our American way.  For many of us who had grown up proudly counting important pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the heyday of the Movement, we realized that those laws guaranteeing equal protection and equal opportunity never took their full effect.  Inequalities along racial lines are still starkly visible whether looking at the poverty line or at the distribution of prison sentences.  We learned that while individuals might consider themselves “colorblind,” our system still not only accounts for the color of one’s skin, but—according to overwhelming data and research—also disproportionally disserves people the darker their pigmentation. We learned that in an America that has always baked racism into the system, it is not enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist.”  In a system as consistently oppressive as ours, we must actively become anti-racist.

Being anti-racist racist means many things.  First and foremost, being  anti-racist means we cannot be passive.  Being anti-racist it means actively learning about the depths of American racism, and then actively working to end our racially unjust system.  Being anti-racist means travelling outside our comfort zones to get proximate to difficult truths.  Being anti-racist means looking at the benefits we have unjustly won from the American system, and then being willing to sacrifice those most ill-gotten gains.  Being anti-racist means we have a whole lot of work to do, not just in our words, but in our deeds.

On the very day that marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah taught us about the difficult of dismantling racism.  The Talmud questions the extent to which we need to return objects that were stolen.  The example is brought of a stolen log that has been used—for decades—as the structural support for a grand palace.  Our Rabbis of blessed memory remind us that that stolen beam needs to be returned, even if it mean taking apart the palace, brick by brick. 

We learned this lesson in the cradle of the Confederacy, just hundreds of feet from the Confederate White House.  Yet we know that the other White House, the one that stands as symbol to many of America’s greatness, was built by enslaved individuals.  The labor that built the White House in Washington, D.C., was stolen.  The White House, therefore, symbolizes America in a different way: a structure rooted in injustice whose foundations must be rebuilt, and that which was stolen, returned.  That return, in Hebrew so appropriate for this Holy season called teshuvah, goes by many names we should not be afraid to say in English: repayment, restoration, reparations.

It is not enough that we learn about, that we talk about, that we write about these injustices of old that continue through to today.  Fasting and lament have their place, but they will move the Divine no more than they will change society.  We need a national time not just of truth and reconciliation, but of restoration and reparations.  Our High Holy Days call us to turn from our evil ways.  It is time for all of us to act.  It is time for all of us to help turn our nation from its inarguably racist path towards a future of true liberty and justice for all.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and also as a Member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.  Together with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, he is editor of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Justice, available from CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Immigration Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation – Day 3

The last day of any mission, trip or conference leads one to think about travel and arriving safely at home.  I mean, what could this last morning offer us that could possibly match the power and intensity of the previous two?

The answer was not long in coming.  We began, as we had done the previous day, in study.  Instead of text, we were guided in history by our esteemed colleague, Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, Emeritus Rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston.  With the aid of video materials prepared by Rabbi Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives, we learned the stories of senior colleagues who served in the South, rabbis whose names we recognized but whose stories were unknown to us.

For we had reached the moral crossroads of our journey to Montgomery and Selma.  What had the Jewish community done in the face of rigid segregation and the violence employed to maintain it?  We like to bring out the names of Reform rabbis who traveled South to stand with Dr. King  We mention Jews who were jailed, beaten and even killed during the tumultuous fight for civil and voting rights for African-Americans.  But most of them came from the North.  They played their valiant part and returned home, singed but not burned.  The Reform rabbis who lived in the communities of the South, who served Jews whose lives and livelihoods were at stake, had to balance a tightrope taut with fear and danger.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, Mississippi, Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham, Alabama and Rabbi Charles Mantiband of Florence, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi were on the front lines as much as the more famous Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, if not more.  In a big city like Atlanta, you could find allies for equality.  In small cities like those mentioned above, one’s capacity to serve, one’s ability to survive, was much more tenuous.

 They were in physical danger from racists, but often without support in their own congregations.  Jews were afraid of losing their jobs, having their businesses torched and their homes firebombed.  Their fear was real and legitimate.  But from gradualists like Rabbi Grafman to those who took public stands against racism like Rabbi Mantiband, they stood and withstood pressures that I cannot imagine in my own rabbinate (despite once coming face to face with the notorious James Wickstrom of the Posse Comitatus in northern Wisconsin in 1987).

We then visited a holy place, the parsonage of Dr. Martin Luther King when he served in Montgomery.  Dr. Shirley Cherry guided us from the visitors’ center and told the story of the street we were on, how the neighbors opened their homes to the Freedom Riders from the North and hid them from the Klan.  She told of us Vera Harris, who lived four doors down from the parsonage where we stood and how she had personally fed and cared for those brave activists.  She told us that Vera was in her mid-90’s and was in hospice care at home.  All of us, 48 rabbis strong, would go that morning to her house and pray for her body and soul, that her passing from this world to the next might be without pain and in peace.

Dr. Cherry took us from room to room in Dr. King’s house, starting with the front room that had been bombed while he was preaching at church.  Coretta and her baby were there, but in a back room and miraculously emerged unhurt.  From there we went looked into the bedrooms and the saw the simple way the King family lived.  I was fascinated, as were my colleagues by the small study packed floor to ceiling with books and a writing desk.  She showed us the lovely dining room table where Dr. King would sit with his family for dinner and eat with guests, the simple and the high and mighty.

But the real sacred space in that home was the kitchen.  Dr. Cherry told us of Dr. King’s long, sleepless night after the bombing, when he was receiving 30-40 calls with hate and death threats each day.  He went into the kitchen, heated up some coffee and paced the floor to think of what to do.  He sat down and had his epiphany.  His enemies had hatred, guns and bombs.  He had faith, but felt despair. 

Dr. King pleaded with God, saying, “I think the cause we are fighting for is right, but I’m losing my courage…”  And he heard his inner voice call him by name and say, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice, stand up for righteousness, and lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  And all of the fears left him, Dr. Cherry said.  He went on standing for justice and righteousness until the moment he was struck down by the assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Into Dr. King’s kitchen chair Dr. Cherry had placed Rabbi Jonah Pesner.  I don’t think she knew that he is the extraordinary, inspirational head of our Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, which has placed fighting racism at the top of Reform Judaism’s agenda.  As she described the divine experience of Dr. King during his long, lonely night of the soul, Rabbi Pesner, sitting in that simple chair, wept freely, as did many of us with him.

She led us out to the Peace Garden behind the house where we gathered for the final time.  Dr. Cherry repeated what she he had declared to us over and over again that morning.  She said with all of her passion and inner fire that, “love is the ultimate security in the time of ultimate vulnerability.”  She concluded by saying that there are things in this world that will break your heart, but you must not let them break your spirit.”

These three days have wrenched my soul.  I have been touched by colleagues, scholars and heroes I had never known.  I have re-learned the lesson of our age, that radical hatred must be met head on with radical love.  Violence may win for a moment but faith and love and justice will prevail in the end, even if that is only be achieved beyond my lifespan.  This I believe with every fiber of my being.  By this ideal I will live the rest of my life.  For this I commit my head, hand and heart.  

This is the prayer of my life.  All from three days in Alabama’s furious past and thorny present.  Just three days to kindle within a spirit of fire, the fire of memory and justice.


Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

Montgomery, Alabama is a clean, glistening city.  Sunlight dances off the white, marble dome of the Capitol building.  There are posters for an African-American candidate for Mayor this year.  You might think that its terrifying past of racial terror is in the rearview mirror.

But then you talk to Pastor Ed Nettles, lifelong resident of Montgomery.  After sharing his memories of terrifying Ku Klux Klan marches he admits that his white neighbor living next to him turns his back on him every time they are near each other.  After recalling the childhood abuse he suffered from a white man stepping on his hand so he wouldn’t pick up a Mardi Gras necklace, he shakes his head slowly when we ask if things really are better.

He says that it will take several generations of young people who won’t tolerate with the legacy of hate, who will then finally throw off the yoke of this city’s racist legacy.  This is a legacy which still honors Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, which fought defend white peoples’ right to own other human beings, specifically because of their color.

That racist legacy is brilliantly brought to life by the Equal Justice Initiative, the work of Bryan Stevenson, the author of the best-seller, Just Mercy.  The initiative is publicly shared in two parts.

First, there is a museum chronicling the history of slavery and degradation of people of color over the centuries in America.  We walk the exhibits in silent awe and shame. 

But the museum is filled with more the eye-catching pictures and powerful video re-enactments and timelines. In one room there are hundreds of large jars, 24 inches tall and 6 inches wide, filled with dirt.  These soil samples are from where each of thousands of African-American women, children and men were lynched, murdered on the merest pretext, often in front of enthusiastic, blood-thirsty crowds.  Shelf after shelf neatly stacked with row after row of jar after jar – each one containing the DNA remains of a lynching victim listed by name.  We walk by the jars and read the names of the dead in silent awe and shame.

From there we take a shuttle from the Museum to the Memorial.  The memorial is composed of large, 10 foot slabs of metal with the name of more than 800 counties in the US in which lynching took place for the better part of 90 years.  Each slab has the names of the victims listed.   They are suspended from the ceiling of the outdoor exhibit.  We enter and walk the grounds in silent awe and shame.

There is a plaque on the grounds that reads as follows:

For the hanged and beaten.
for the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tormented, tortured and terrorized,
For those abandoned by the rule of law
We will remember.

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice,
With courage because peace requires bravery,
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle,
With faith because we shall overcome

Yizkor – We will remember.  It feels like visiting Yad Vashem, but with no end of this story. We walk from the grounds in silent awe and shame.

I pound my head with my hand, trying to comprehend – Fellow Americans did these atrocities.  And past has been prologue – Fellow Americans still perpetrate violence against people of color because they are deemed to be of less value than white people.  The past was slavery and lynching.  The present is mass incarceration and violence, even death at the hands of the police and other white people.

At the end of the evening, back at the hotel, I walk slowly back to my lovely hotel room.  In silence and in shame.  And this is just day one.


Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Sunday Night’s Mass Meeting

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

As a mother of a young daughter, I cannot imagine being separated from her. I look at her and cannot fathom a situation in which she’s left alone, without any supervision – not one to watch her, to help her, to keep her safe, to love her. And yet, thousands of children are in that very situation. Not in some far away land but here, on our soil. Seeking refuge from the horrors of evil, families have been driven away from their homes, churches and communities and have come to America for refuge. As Jews we are taught to welcome the stranger, and to remember that we were once the refugee looking for safety and a home.

When Reverend Barber II put out the call to clergy of all faiths to join Repairers of the Breech in El Paso for Moral Monday, in order to protest this administration’s “policy” of separating families, of parents from their children, I felt compelled to attend.

Upon arrival, I entered a modest, old church and was met with hundreds of activists, clergy from all faiths and even media. There was an energy emenating from the pews, as people joined in singing songs about justice and faith. Each of the representatives from the faith communities shared brief words, one more powerful than the next. Rabbi Rick Jacobs was our representative who gave words of Torah to us all.

Of course, Reverend Barber II gave his homily, in which he passionately described the wretched conditions the families seeking refuge are currently enduring within the walls of detention centers. Little food, no showers, no running water! People drinking from toilets! Living in cages! Young children separated from their mothers! Private companies that own the Centers are actually making money off the backs of children. Where is the humanity!? I was and remain outraged that the American government is dehumanizing people, much like what was done to our People just a few decades ago.

Together as one community, we stood united in reflective prayer and inspirational song. We listened to Fernando, the Executive Director of the Border Network for Human Rights as he spoke about their work advocating for migrants at the border. He introduced us to two young men who had spent time in a Detention Center – they shared their stories of starvation, of thirst, of not being able to take a shower for weeks, and of wearing the same clothing for the duration of their stay. We then listened to a family whose patriarch was taken from them; his granddaughter at age nine asked why he was being treated like a criminal. Even she knew that this was unjust. It was difficult to listen to the stories shared, but important to hear.

As rabbis, we know that in the Torah scroll we are able to distill the word Ayd or Witness from the Shema. Indeed, during my experience in El Paso, I and others heard the call to serve as moral witnesses. When I returned home to Connecticut, I held my three year old and watched her sleep. She looked so peaceful, and so cared for. My heart continues to ache for the children who have no bed to lie in, have no mommy to care for them and feel anything but peaceful.


Rabbi Joui Hessel serves as the Associate Director for the Eastern Region for Recruitment and Admissions at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Sunday Morning: The Shelter

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

Often, at the beginning of the summer, I am invited to bless the boats alongside a priest as families (some from my congregation) make their seasonal maiden voyage on their private boats from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, out to the Jamaica Bay or Atlantic Ocean. The priest makes his prayer as each boat passes in front of us. I offer the Priestly Blessing (sometimes in Hebrew for the Jewish boaters) and a Nisiyah tova or Tzetchem l’shalom as they go by.

That Sunday morning over a week ago in El Paso, families of a different sort “sailed” in front of me and my colleagues, as they passed by through the doors of a hidden shelter for asylum-seekers, following their release from a local detention center.

Thanks to Rabbi Sarah Reines’ preparation for our time in El Paso, we learned that we could volunteer at this temporary shelter for the “lucky” families, who possessed a phone number or a sponsor. They arrive at these “hidden” shelters for a few hours, perhaps even overnight, until they would get on a bus, or into a car, or on a plane, headed to somewhere in the US. A week later, a white supremacist gunned down 22 people in a nearby Walmart. Now I understand why the location of this shelter is secret.

I learned later, that the shelter is staffed entirely by volunteers and that the rent was $60K per month. The shelter had a large room of cots, a children’s playroom, a dining area, an office, rooms to interview families and to make the phone call, a Hygiene Room, and a clothing “store.”

My morning began in the Children’s Room where I stayed for a few minutes. The language barrier was a problem and well, I’m not a “natural” with small children. Since Cantor Jen Rueben had it down to an art, I moved to a room to sort used clothing into different sizes where I didn’t need to speak to anyone. The donated clothing was ratty, nonetheless, it was a change of clothes, something each family member needed. However, when a new busload of asylum-seekers arrived, I was transferred to the Hygiene Room, to disburse toiletries.

It wasn’t really a Hygiene Room, but rather, a Hygiene Closet, an un-air conditioned, two-doored closet. While there, in between families who passed through, my daughter happened to call me on my cell phone. I complained to her about the lack of air-conditioning in the “room.”  She asked me to repeat my complaint word for word back to her. Oh, right, I hadn’t left my town or homeland and walked 500 miles or exorbitantly paid someone to drive me to escape a dangerous situation. Rather, I was kvetching about the lack of air conditioning. Humility is one of the greatest gifts a child can bestow upon parents.

Three years of High School Spanish was for naught. A poster on the door with translations and our charade-game body movements helped Rabbi Kim Geringer and I manage the disbursement of toiletries. But like the story of Balaam and Balaak, every time I opened my mouth, Hebrew came out. Neither a curse, nor blessing, the brain cells dedicated to language had, sadly at that moment, been usurped by Hebrew. Again, another lesson in humility.

After an asylum-seeking family would complete a phone call with a Spanish translator to their sponsor or family member, to arrange for transportation to a home where they would await a hearing, they were sent to the Hygiene Room. Prior to entering the room, there was a box of stuffed animals. With delight, children picked out one stuffed animal and put it into a recyclable grocery bag, that contained the entirety of a family’s earthly possessions. Upon entering the Hygiene Room, where they would receive a large Ziplock worth of goods: diapers in all sizes (they were allotted four diapers), and if needed, a Ziplock bags of infant formula. They received one comb, toothbrushes, one razor, a tube of shaving cream, a bar of soap, one barrette, one hair tie and one headband. One small “travel-size” roll-on deodorant, one hair brush, a small tube of toothpaste, a few tampons or sanitary napkins, one lip balm, and one towel and one washcloth per family member. I invited the girls to select hair ties and barrettes. Alas, there was only one “Elsa” lip balm, which I gave to the first girl who entered the room with her mother. Who knows whether this young girl had even seen the film “Frozen.” Children I know have seen it multiple times.

But I was not there to learn about humility or gratitude. A secondary gain perhaps, but the point was to make this horrific, traumatic trek from Central America a little easier. I was there to volunteer. They did not arrive with suitcases. They arrived with a bag. We didn’t know their stories. We didn’t know their fears. Who knows whom they left behind, or what they left behind, or even where they were going? Which child who came through the “Hygiene Room” perhaps, had to drink water from a toilet? Were these reunited families or separated families? Were they wearing ankle “bracelets” that knew their every move? I do not know the answer to these questions.

We only saw the “lucky ones” who had been released from detention centers.

Nisia Tova and Tzetchem l’shalom, I wanted to say. It was on the tip of my tongue.


Rabbi Marjorie Slome serves the West End Temple in Neponsit, New York.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Is Seeing Believing or Believing Seeing?

Recently, I read a report from the Rand Corporation entitled, “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing role of Facts and analysis in American Public Life” written by Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael D. Rich in which the researchers rediscovered that, “…national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by “Truth Decay,” defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.”  While this should surprise no one, it lead to wonder how much decay was really going on with me as it relates to the most pressing issues of our day.  How much do I “know” and how much do I “believe” or want to believe about what is happening all around me.

This concern has surfaced most acutely as it relates to the immigration and asylum seeker policies unfolding in our country and prominently felt in my current home state of Texas. I saw the reports of families separated; I watched in pain and horror of overcrowded detention centers, children sleeping on floors, frantic parents, crying children.  I listened to analyses trying to explain away what I saw, and trying to emphasize what I saw, sometimes in the same news program.  I absorbed the politician’s spin ono both sides of the aisle.  I talked to immigration attorneys and asylum seeker support service providers.  I spoke with a close friend who works for the Department of Homeland Security who works on the border who told me flat out, “don’t believe what you see or hear because it’s all wrong.”  Apart from the irony of insisting I believe him over everything else, part of me knew what he was really saying was, “you gotta see this yourself.”

So when the invitation came from Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s organization, to join with Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  my friend and colleague Imam Omar Suleiman and others to bear witness to this issue in El Paso last Sunday and Monday, I knew I had no choice but to go and see for myself and this was the time to be a part of the testimony of this great stain on the soul of our country; that there is, in the words of Kohelet, “…a time for tearing and a time for sewing; a time for silence and a time for speaking…” and that time is now.

Upon arriving in El Paso and connecting with URJ and RAC staff, clergy, and congregants from our movement from as far away as New York and Boston, it became clear that this was not just a press conference and an opportunity to march in the Texas heat, but to add a moral voice to a policy problem that will become a defining moment in American history.  We gathered to learn about non-violent direct action – a euphemism for civil disobedience that might result in arrest.  This dominated the conversation for the next couple of hours; will you get arrested?  What does your arrest mean in light of this issue?  Does it matter?  Is being arrested more about you or about the moment and movement?  After the training were honored to hear from a number of powerful and important people.  Dr. Barber Spoke.  Imam Suleiman spoke.  Rabbi Jacobs spoke, as did a few other of our leaders.  But the most powerful witnessing that first night came from people directly affected by the immigration and asylum problems.  There were asylum seekers from Guatemala sharing their ridiculously dangerous and lengthy journey; asylum seekers sent back to Mexico to wait; people who were separated from their parents and children.  It was heartbreaking to hear their firsthand accounts.  It was liberating to hear their words without commentary, derision or spin.  It was maddening to know this is happening in our country, in my state, right in front of me.

The next day was the day we would make our way through the heat to the detention center.  We learned that non-violent direct action and getting arrested would make the work of the local support systems for immigrants and seekers more difficult.  Instead the hundreds assembled would march to the entrance of the detention center and as clergy gathered toward the front, make numerous demands; to pastor to those detained, the end of inhumane conditions at the detention centers, end of family separations, end to the wait in Mexico asylum process.  Of course we were not let in, but as Dr. Barber said, “We condemn and call evil and unjust the caging of people, the making people drink from toilets, the refusal to even give them a toothbrush. You’re holding angels in this place. But you will not hold them forever. We join them now, and not only do we bring condemnation, but we bring hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. America, turn around. America, repent. America, stop. America, change your ways.”

Seeing is believing and indeed I do believe I saw.


Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley serves Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Silence is Not an Option

“Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore…”

Songs of protest such as this permeated the two days in El Paso this week when faith leaders and people of conscience, including several rabbinic colleagues and cantors, came together in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. Hundreds from across the country answered the call from Reverend William Barber II, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Imam Omar Suleiman and other leading clergy to come witness and peacefully protest the inhumane, immoral, and unjust detention and caging of individuals seeking asylum and refuge in our country, adults and children, countless of whom are still separated from parents (the practice tragically persists according to news outlets on 7/31).

A spirited assembly Sunday evening illustrated the incredible diversity of the group who made the journey; participants reflected every religious tradition, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender orientation. The powerful evening was marked by song, impassioned charges from leading clergy and organizers, the testimonies of former refugees now working with the Border Network for Human Rights to support individuals presently detained, among other memorable moments.

When we came together again Monday morning, Reverend Barber delivered a stirring message in which he tenderly described the love and care with which he attends to the needs of his German Shepherd puppies – providing them special food and treats, bathing them, giving them constant affection and attention. Then with a dramatic shift in tone, Barber thundered the painful and tragic reality that in our country at present, we treat our dogs better than we do fellow human beings, individuals seeking refuge in the hopes of a new home and life.  Minutes after departing the church, we reassembled in a large lot in view of the El Paso DHS detention center.  Protest signs in hand, we marched alongside the street en route to the center, the repeated honking of passersby indicating their support, until we reached the closed gates of the detention center.  There, Rick Jacobs and others prayerfully requested that clergy be allowed to enter the grounds to offer spiritual and pastoral support to the detainees. Unsurprisingly, the pleas went unheard by the Border Patrol agents, but with numerous media outlets covering and recording our presence, we still departed the grounds feeling confident about the impact of our collective voices and presence.  We departed the formal protest appreciating fully that for justice to be realized, our ongoing efforts to bring national attention to the crisis of inhumanity at our border must continue.

Since returning home to Atlanta, a few questions and observations about the time in El Paso have persisted. Among them is one glaring recognition – likely evident in video footage and photos of the gathering – that some of our justice efforts will result in a dais shared with individuals and/or organizations whose virulent views about Israel, for example, are antithetical to everything we believe and hold dear. Though not a new challenge or realization, the situation at the border reminds us yet again that there are times when our abiding need to confront serious and unconscionable injustice necessitates the capacity to set aside deep-seated conflicts regarding one matter in order to marshal energy and efforts for the sake of another cause.

For several participants, the trip to El Paso also raised questions about how to measure the efficacy of such actions. Acknowledging the not-insignificant investment of time and financial resources needed to participate, it begs the question as to whether there might be better or more impactful uses of both. For example, would directing the same dollars to the campaign of a candidate who could potentially help to legislate change be a better use of limited resources? No doubt this question invites debate, but I think it is honestly a bit of a conundrum, with an answers that will likely vary, even for the same individual.  Each of us must determine whether investing financial resources in potential, systemic change or utilizing those same dollars to enable one’s physical and emotional presence in a place of brokenness and pain holds sway. Obviously both can make a profound and lasting difference in people’s lives, bringing into sharp focus yet again why the efforts of the RAC and other agencies that facilitate both expressions of support simultaneously are so critical.

The desperate plight of fellow human beings, adults and children currently held in deplorable detention centers in the name of our country, is urgently calling us to action. The ICE raids evoking terror in cities throughout the south, adding to the trauma of separating parents from children, calls us to action. The current policy mandating that all who are seeking asylum remain in Mexico, in violent communities where their lives are endangered, calls us to action. And the fact that we are part of a faith tradition and sacred spiritual heritage which commands us – more often than any other mitzvah — to care for the stranger…the migrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the immigrant in our midst, calls us to action.  The need for action and justice is undeniable, because “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t – we simply can’t – be silent anymore!”


Rabbi Ron Segal serves Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
LGBT Social Justice

We Just Told the Supreme Court: The CCAR Opposes Employment Discrimination against LGBTQ Individuals

Among its various activities, the CCAR signs on to various briefs filed amicus curiae.  The term means “friend of the court.”  Amicus briefs are designed to inform a court about relevant facts and law that the parties to the case might not have had reason to focus on.  The CCAR signs on to several of these briefs a year, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and in state and lower federal courts.  I serve as the amicus coordinator for the Conference.

In the Supreme Court term that just ended, we signed onto a brief in Commerce Dept. v. New York that opposed the effort of the Administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.  The Court agreed that this effort was illegal.  Of course, not all our briefs convince the courts, but they all get our opinions before them.

The start of the coming Supreme Court term, around Rosh Hashanah, will hear oral arguments on three consolidated cases that deal with employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.  The issue that all of them present is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects these employees because such treatment constitutes prohibited sex discrimination. 

In Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, a skydiving instructor was fired because of his sexual orientation.  In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a funeral director was fired after she informed her employer that she was transgender.  The employer had insisted that she present to the public according to her gender at birth.  In Bostock v. Clayton County, a county child welfare services coordinator was terminated when his employer learned that he was gay.  Two of the federal appellate courts hearing these cases determined that these firings were prohbited by Title VII; the other held that Title VII didn’t bar the termination.  The Supreme Court will resolve this dispute.

I shared the story of each case in order to remind us that court decisions are not just abstract intellectual matters.  How the Supreme Court rules will have a major impact in the lives of real people.

We signed onto a brief arguing that LGBTQ discrimination is indeed illegal under Title VII.  The URJ, WRJ, and MRJ joined us in this.  But this was a very special sort of brief, the kind that an amicus brief should be.  It was written specifically for religious organizations and clergy.  Denise Eger let members of the Conference who are on the Facebook page know about this brief and gave them an opportunity to sign on as individuals.

The brief explains why several religions, including ours, views equal treatment of LGBTQ individuals as a religious imperative.  It refers to actions and positions taken by these religious organizations, including the CCAR and the URJ.  It counters arguments made by other faith groups that their religious beliefs in effect require them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.  It responds that allowing such discrimination in effect favors those religions at the expense of ours and of others who share our views.

We cannot know how the Court will rule.  We can know that we have told it that allowing some to discriminate against LGBTQ people on religious grounds will also constitute discrimination against our way of practicing our religion.


Rabbi Thomas Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.

Read more about the brief on the CCAR’s website.