Social Justice

A Narrow Bridge

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav[i] taught: “All the world is a very narrow bridge; the key is not to be paralyzed by fear.”

I have been on a narrow bridge. The Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada is only wide enough for single file, spanning its 230 feet, hanging 460 feet above a river gorge. Not afraid of heights, I wasn’t scared when I crossed, enjoying magnificent scenery. Trusting that engineering had permitted millions to cross before me, I never considered the possibility of not arriving safely on the other side.

Our world, though, is full of less secure, narrower bridges.

When a devastating hurricane drops four feet of rain or threatens deadly winds, a person’s world can suddenly become a frighteningly narrow bridge – from security to survival, from a roof over one’s head to the peril of homelessness.

When armed white supremacists march in the thousands, people of color rightly fear for their lives. Is America a safe home?

When we hear the phrase, “Muslim ban,” America may quickly become precarious foreign land, even for a citizen.

When thousands, perhaps millions, cheer a border wall, we may ask: Why is America narrowing its bridge to the world?

When Charlottesville marchers shout, “Jews will not replace it,” American Jews wonder: “Will we have to get on a narrow bridge again, hoping to arrive safely at our next land of refuge?”

When young immigrants – who know America as their only home; and who have lived honest, productive lives in this land of opportunity – nevertheless face the prospect of deportation, they need look no further than their parents to see the narrow bridge that life in this country can be.

When a Black-majority school board is replaced by one white man, sixty years after the hard-fought but minimal desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, we may be frightened by the answer to the question: What temporal power is keeping this bridge from collapsing?

When LGBTQ Americans in many states can legally lose their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the supports on the bridge of LGBTQ life in this country, which seemed to be strengthening, may become wobblier yet again.

When the white working class sees industry change along with culture, they wonder if the sturdy highway of their lives has become a rickety bridge.

When millions upon millions of Americans, and billions around the globe, do not have access to adequate quantities of nutritious food or to excellent medical care, living paycheck to paycheck, if there’s a paycheck at all, then the slightest unexpected misfortune can destroy the bridge of life beneath one’s feet.

When climate change is denied, even as historically devastating storms rage, Rabbi Nachman’s words seem particularly prescient: The whole world is on a very narrow bridge, between a healthy environment and global self-destruction.

We who are on this bridge – and make no mistake, we are all on it – live in fear, and not because we are afraid of heights. We know about people who have crossed these bridges in the past. Too many did fall to their deaths. We cannot be secure about the engineering of the bridge we must walk to traverse oppression.

Tonight, we have come together to push the bridges’ boundaries, to make each one less narrow, and to shore up the infrastructure.

If an undocumented immigrant links arms with a Muslim, then the Muslim is not alone when her people are maligned, and the immigrant may imagine refuge rather than deportation.

If a cisgender woman of color brings a transgender woman with her into the restroom, then the transgender woman may feel more secure in her place of vulnerability, and the person of color will know she’s not the only target of white supremacists’ slogans.

If a white working class American and a descendant of slaves share their anxieties about our nation’s future, each may build a better future with the other.

If the wealthy nations of the world, beginning with our own, will take responsibility for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint, then we may all take responsibility for defeating the climate injustice whose victims are disproportionately the poorest people on Earth.

If the person of faith and the unbeliever share the diverse sources of their comfort, perhaps we can hearten one another.

We do not know what the months and the years ahead may require of us. Perhaps churches will need to transform parish halls into sanctuaries from deportation. Perhaps a synagogue will need to shelter threatened Muslims. Every single one of us will have to decide: Am I going to collaborate with oppression? Am I going to remain silent, imagining there’s nothing I can do? Or am I going to use my body and soul, my voice and any power I have, to stand in the way of injustice?

We do know this: All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the only way to conquer fear is to emulate the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, “joining hands, marching together,” to a Land of Promise.

We do know this: In order to fight injustice, we must be disturbed by it. If we are not personally suffering, then we are obligated to summon empathy for those who are. We must know the heart of the stranger, for all of us have been strangers in one Egypt or another.

Nearly two millennia ago, the rabbis of the Talmud made a decree about those who live in a community beset by suffering, a world like our own, on a very narrow bridge. Hear now the rabbis’ teaching: “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul. . . Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. . . And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.”[ii]

A task lies before us. Let me suggest that each of us seek to sit down for a meal with a person different from ourselves, a person we may not know well, a person who may be afflicted during these difficult days in ways that we are not. May we enjoy one another’s company, but let us also hear each other’s pain. Let the bread we break together also be our bread of shared affliction. Then, may we build a bridge – a strong, broad bridge – and may we be consoled, together.


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Unverifiable attribution.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a. Gratitude to Rabbi Paul Jacobson for pointing out the text.

Social Justice

DACA and Your Congregation: Ascend the Ladder

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught:  People were on a ship.  One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him.  The others said to him, “What are you sitting and doing!”  He replied, “What do you care? Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?”  They said to him, “But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” (Vayikrah Rabbah 4:6)

Some of us see the Dreamers as sharing our ship.  They may be our children’s classmates or we may meet them in the community.  We are moved by how hard these youth have worked to achieve success in school, work, or the military.  We hear echoes from Biblical texts and our own history that compel us to help.

Yet other congregants dissociate themselves from the issue of DACA.  They worry about their own economic security — whether their own vessels are seaworthy — failing to recognize that we are all in the same boat.

If 788,000 Dreamers are forced back into the shadows, or worse yet, are deported to countries they don’t remember, we will all be affected — seeing our country act without humanity, coping with the economic repercussions from lost talent, and fearing who will be the next victims of xenophobia.

How do we speak out as Jewish institutions, recognizing that the polarizing political views in America today are represented within our congregational membership?   How do we respond as rabbis when our conscience calls us to act?  And if we find traction to move forward, how do we guide our congregations to respond to DACA so that our actions make a difference?

Over the past three years, we, Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, have been researching how synagogues work for social justice in local communities, states, and our nation.  We have seen multiple ways in which synagogues effectively respond to the critical issues of our day — the rungs on what we call the “Ladder of Civic Engagement.”

In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreamed about angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven.  Just as the angels were said to have dwelt on earth, congregations eager to support Dreamers would be wise to start from the more accessible lower rungs — volunteering, educating, and donating — and then some congregants may continue the climb with our institutional support.

In responding to the President’s phased termination of the DACA program, many synagogues are finding that their volunteer efforts have enabled them to hear and understand the struggles of the immigrant community. This rung leads us to build relationships with those most affected.

Another non-controversial rung is education. Create programs with professors, lawyers, experts, and Dreamers themselves to understand the issues and build support for further action.  Your congregants will be inspired by the successes and aspirations of the Dreamers.

Philanthropy can also support social change.  Some Jewish communities are considering raising funds to help DACA youth submit renewal requests by the October 5 deadline by paying the $495 filing fee — a steep financial barrier for any young person with four weeks’ notice.  Others are working to fund lawyers so that these young people have legal advice and representation.

Ascending the upper three rungs becomes more challenging to many congregations. Advocacy is about using our voices to create changes in policies and laws. Examples include raising the issue at social events, posting responsibly on social media, and calling representatives.

Organizing entails joining with others as you strategize ways in which to protect our undocumented youth. Collaborating with other synagogues, other houses of worship, and immigrant rights organizations will guide and amplify your efforts.

Joining a movement is the fuel that helps us cross the finish line. The RAC — the voice of our movement — is supporting the most recent bipartisan Dream Act, sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a bill that will pave the way to legal status for these youth.

We feel called to act — by our consciences, by our faith, by our history, by the Dreamers themselves.  We will be most effective if we work with our lay leaders and boards to find the rungs they are willing to ascend, and then perhaps inspire them to climb one more.

Rabbi Tarfon urges us forward:  The day is short, the work is much…it is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from working on it (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16).

Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen are the co-authors of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America – now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. Rabbi Judith Schindler is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. Judy Seldin-Cohen is a community advocate and author. She has spent the last ten years collaborating on social justice issues with Rabbi Judith Schindler, her then synagogue rabbi and now co-author.

Social Justice

Minister March for Justice

Yesterday I had the privilege of addressing the Ministers March For Justice. It was a day filled with inspiring moments. In these difficult months, marching with people of faith, seeing clergy decked out in their religious garb take the streets of Washington, gave me a renewed sense of hope. When we rounded the corner onto Pennsylvania avenue and the capitol dome came into view, there was new meaning to the words spoken by one of yesterday’s many inspiring speakers, “they have the position, but we have the power.” Yesterday was about harnessing the power of faith leaders of communities all around the country, and I left with an even greater sense of urgency to rally our congregations to do this work. 

I am Rabbi Hannah Goldstein, I am a rabbi at Temple Sinai, in Washington D.C. and my congregation is like many of your congregations. We will not stand idly by.

This is a sacred season for Jews. We are in the month of Elul, when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish Year. At the very end of this period of soul searching and introspection, late in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, in the final hours of our fast, we sing words from Psalm 118. We conclude our worship on the holiest day of the year by crying out to God: Pitchu li sharei tzedek, open the gates of righteousness.

We are here, to open the gates- to open the gates of righteousness, to open the gates of justice.

We are here because it certainly doesn’t look like that’s what our justice department is trying to do. Lately, it seems like our justice department is working overtime to close those gates, and to barricade them shut.

To lock the gates to the voting booths, to lock the gates of the private prisons, after filling them to capacity. They want to lock the gates to this country, to lock the gates to our hospitals and our clinics.

Yesterday, I stand with my brothers and sisters, people of faith, to say that when our justice department closes the gates, together, we will push them back open.

Open the gates.

If they punish sanctuary cities, then we will open wide the doors of our sanctuaries to welcome in those who are vulnerable and afraid.

Open the gates.

If they ban courageous transgender Americans from defending the values of this country, then we will defend our values by standing with them in solidarity.

Open the gates.

If they’re going to send tweets about the devastating hurricane in Houston, we’re going to send food, and diapers, and people to help rebuild.

Open the gates.

If they want to build walls, well then we’re just going to have to lift each other up higher.   “Open the gates”

If they want to teach hate, then we are going to have to love harder.

Open the gates.

Because, of this, we are certain. They are not truly the gatekeepers. They are not the ultimate gatekeeper. They can try to barricade those gates closed, but we will walk tall and unafraid. And we will keep marching right up to those gates, and we will push on those gates with our bodies, with our voices, with our words, with our songs, with our prayers, and we will open the gates.

Arm in arm, we will open the gates, and we will walk through those gates into a land of righteousness, into a land of justice, and into a land of love. Together, we will open the gates of justice.

Rabbi Hannah L. Goldstein serves Temple Sinai, in Washington D.C. 

shabbat Social Justice

Shabbat and Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13.

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

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


Social Justice

Religion and Relationships on the Road: A Deep South Pilgrimage

Racial justice is preoccupying many religious leaders.  As in too many other cities across the country, protests erupted in Charlotte last fall following the fatal police shooting of an African-American man.  As clergy we are called to help our congregations who want to deepen their understanding of systemic issues of racism.  Some of this education can occur inside our sanctuaries and social halls, and some requires building relationships across racial and religious differences outside our synagogue walls.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel learned that lesson well. They first met on January 14, 1963 at a Conference on Race and Religion in Chicago where they both were speaking and coincidentally quoted the exact same text from Amos (5:24) calling for “…justice [to] roll down like waters.”  That moment sparked a friendship that would move them to stand together in countless other cities and settings and would inspire generations of advocates for justice to embark on a similar path of civic engagement.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

This model of building relationships across racial and religious differences led me last week to participate in a Deep South pilgrimage with two churches (even though I had just visited Alabama for a Civil Rights trip with a group of women from the Jewish Federation three months before). I traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis with Charlotte’s Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church which is a predominantly African-American church and Myers Park Baptist Church, a liberal largely white church. The clergy who lead both these congregations are my partners in social justice work of our city. When I first spoke of joining them, my colleagues immediately acknowledged the legacy of Rabbi Heschel and the historic place of Jews in the fight.

What was it like to go on a Deep South pilgrimage with a black and a white Church?

It was a journey of connection and building relationships. Each morning on the bus we sang freedom songs and pondered questions with a new person sitting next to us: “When was the first time you learned about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What calls you to be here today: scripture, story or relationship?”

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of understanding another’s memories of pain. As we drove through Lowndes County, Alabama, through which the Selma-to-Montgomery March passed, Dr. Peter Wherry, Pastor of Mayfield, asked us to reflect on the fact that every tree could have been the execution place of an African-American soul, every stream could be where someone fled in fear seeking to clear the scent so that they would not be found by the police and their dogs chasing them, and every field could have been that of a sharecropper or a tenant farmer working for no wages.  When we visited the museum capturing the tent cities where these sharecroppers lived after they had been kicked out of their homes and off their fields for registering to vote, the items on display there were not history but our African-American travel partners’ memories.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of coming to understand each other’s vision for justice. Together as African-Americans and whites we crowded into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage where Coretta Scott King and her husband lived and their first two babies were born.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, the phone calls of hate multiplied– sometimes thirty a day.  We saw the remains of where a bomb hit their porch. We stood in the study attached to King’s master bedroom where he wrote. We crowded into the kitchen where Dr. King had a midnight moment of his fear leaving him knowing that whatever his fate would be, his mission of working for equal rights was his calling.  Standing together, we recognized that the journey to justice was long and hard then and remains so today. It requires faith.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

In some Civil Rights museums, the presence of Jews who partnered in the pursuit of Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was present, and in other museums their images and voices were painfully absent – written out of history. I shared stories of Jewish freedom riders, the role of our Religious Action Center where critical Civil Rights legislation was written, the thousands of Rosenwald schools established by the Jewish philanthropist in partnership with African-American Southern communities, and the work of Jewish refugee professors at historically black colleges, opening the minds of some of the travelers to history they never knew.

Racial justice is high up on the agenda of many liberal religious denominations in our country.  Yet our vision for equality and equity cannot be actualized in isolation – collaboration is required. Social justice and religion happen on the road — in relationships on the streets, in city halls of the community, even in courtrooms where cases are tried. The ladder of congregational civic engagement is rooted in relationships. The rungs expand to include social action, education, philanthropy, advocacy, organizing and being part of a larger movement. Each rung offers our congregants a Judaism that is expressed not only through uttering prayers in the pews but that is lived in the world.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, and is co-author with Judy Seldin-Cohen of an upcoming book from CCAR Press, Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America.

Passover Pesach Social Justice

Each Person Must See Themselves As If They Went Out of Egypt

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

This is my favorite line in the Haggadah.

In the Moss Haggadah, an illuminated text created by the artist David Moss, the page with this text depicts Jews from many different generations and places—Jews from ancient Middle Eastern countries, medieval European countries, colonial America, and so on. And in between each picture is a small mirror, so that when you look at the page, you see yourself along with all those Jews of different generations.

This year, when I look a the Moss Haggadah, I will see the faces of my maternal great-grandparents who came to the United States fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia in the 1890’s, and my paternal grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I’ll see my mother’s parents looking like folks straight out of a Sholom Aleichem play; I’ll see my dad’s father, age 7, in his lederhosen. I will add their faces that page of the Haggadah in my mind’s eye.

They told desperate stories to their families of their harrowing escapes, the laws they bent and broke to get out from under the tyranny of their native lands, and stories of the pride they felt in making it to America as refugees, as asylees. I will see I will see my maternal grandparents as they struggled to adapt to life in the United States, to learn English, to learn a new culture. I’ll see in the Moss Haggadah an image of my father’s parents as they spoke with tears in their eyes of all the family they left behind.

And then I will see– there on the pages of the story of our exodus from Egypt, the story of the miracles it took to free us—I’ll see those mirrors on the page. I will see myself—not as a refugee, but as a witness.

And I will see, if I squint hard enough, the faces of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I will hear a question in their eyes. I will hear them asking, “What did you do in your generation to live out the Torah’s admonition, ‘In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt?’ What did you do, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, in your time, when people were facing persecution, fleeing the only homes they’d ever known, seeking asylum? What did you do?”

And what will I say? Will I say, “well, my children, there was nothing I could do”? Or will I say, “well, my children, it was a different time, because it wasn’t Jews who were fleeing”? Or will I say something else? Will I perhaps tell a story of which I am proud, of a time when the Jewish people, when the majority of people of conscience in my home country stood up for the rights of those whose lives were under threat in their native lands?

That is what I will reflect on this Passover as I look in those mirrors, as I see faces of future generations staring back at me. The mirrors are a little blurry. This story is not yet written. We still have a choice. I pray that I will write—that we as a nation will write—a story we can proudly tell our children. I pray that when they open this page of the Haggadah and see us, that they will smile with pride, and be agitated to be matir asurim, those who free captives, in their own time.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 

Passover Pesach

Our Real Security Tonight is Being Here, All Together

All rabbis have humbling moments when the words that spontaneously emerge from our mouths wind up being far more impactful than those sermons over which we slave through ceaseless drafts.  Such a moment happened to me just this past week.

The setting?  Our annual Interfaith Seder.  The timing? Right after a full Paschal meal and before we got to an ecumenical Barech, our grace after meals.  The impetus?  I was doing what all rabbis must do… thanking everyone who helped.  Given the fact that we host over 150 people from 12 different faith institutions, feature two different choirs, include 14 clergy partners, and engage 30 temple volunteers, there was a long list of people to whom I owed gratitude for sharing such an event.  Equal–if not above–them all, are all the members of the staff team at Sinai.  I came around to thanking Bill, who is part of our security team.  Right after I thanked Billy, these words just came out of my mouth, my mind:

Our real security tonight is being here, all together.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat” can be taken in many different ways.  Some of us, cleaning our houses of chametz, make donations to local food pantries to make sure those who literally hunger can find sustenance this festival season.  Others of us host communal sedarim so that no one has to be alone on Passover.  At Chicago Sinai Congregation, a different kind of hunger brought together a community across lines of race, class and color.  I just didn’t realize it until the Haggadot had closed and Adir Hu was but an echo in our ears.

I inherited a remarkable ritual when I joined this synagogue: every year, about two weeks before Passover, we host an Interfaith Seder for our non-Jewish neighbors.  The event was explained to me as an opportunity to share the best of what Judaism has to offer: we stage a model Seder through which we can teach our Jewish practices, traditions, and most deeply-held values.  With the tools of our Haggadah, our favorite songs, and some explanations along the way, we manage to create a lovely evening, and express the importance of our core narrative of liberation with the unique impact of Pesach.

When we gathered for last year’s Interfaith Seder, I did what many of do at Seder: I added a supplemental reading to help us focus on contemporary issues of oppression.  The Reform Movement was launching its Racial Justice campaign; I barely need spill any ink expressing why that is relevant here in Chicago.  And so one year ago, just before we blessed the matzah and made our Hillel sandwiches, I gathered the clergy who were in attendance, and we read the Racial Justice supplement created by Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  We simply stood at the front of the social hall and read from photocopied pieces of paper.  A last-minute idea turned out to be last year’s most powerful moment of the night.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went searching for something new to supplement the Seder, a different piece for the participating clergy to read.  After a it of poking around, I decided to excerpt part of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “No Religion is an Island,” originally published in 1966.*  Amidst the rush of preparing for multiple Sedarim, a few shabbat sermons, and a CCAR convention, it seemed like it would fit the bill just fine.

I was not prepared to hear by friend and partner, the Reverend Randall K. Blakey, read these words:

First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common: a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the person-hood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.

This is what our Seder, every Seder, is about: the kinship and solidarity of all human beings.  As the assembled clergy continued to read, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, AME Zion-ists, UCC-ers, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews literally brought life to Heschel’s vision.  And tears to people’s eyes.


We are living in turbulent times.  Political forces threaten to dismantle long-standing inter-religious partnerships and splinter off friends forced to protect their small self-interests.  Cruel and sadistic individuals call or email our institutions and threaten our precious children; we fear these actions won’t culminate merely in threats.  Our nation’s beacon of hope for the world’s tempest-tossed–a most fitting metaphor for our Passover theme–is being dimmed to darkness.  We find few places to feel secure.

This was the hunger people brought with them to this year’s Interfaith Seder: a hunger for human decency, a hunger for a hopeful message,  a hunger for belonging to a larger community united for the common good.  Oh, that all who have such hunger could come and be nourished!

I was hungry, too.  What I realized during our Interfaith Seder, what actually came out of my mouth before it entered my consciousness, is that–for all the needed guards and protocols Jewish institutions require–our greatest security during these turbulent times will be our friends, our community, our partners.  When we build strong relationships with friends of other faiths, when we speak honestly of shared values that arise from different sources, when we live our lack of fear for the other and demonstrate a compassionate curiosity in other human beings, we build an impenetrable fortress of faith.  Not faith in the same God, perhaps, or even any God at all.  But faith in united purpose.  Faith in common destiny.  Faith in each and every human being who hungers.

Let all who are hungry find the sustenance we need in this year’s Passover.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  

Convention Social Justice

A Turning Point in History: The Temple Bombing

We are excited to welcome over 500 colleagues to The Temple during our upcoming CCAR Convention in Atlanta. This year marks the 150th anniversary of our congregation. As part of the festivities, the Alliance Theater has commissioned a theatrical production of Melissa Faye Greene’s book, The Temple Bombing. We are thrilled to be performing the show, at The Temple, as part of the Convention.

On October 12, 1958, a bundle of dynamite blew through the wall of Atlanta’s oldest synagogue. Following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision, Rabbi Rothschild had become a public advocate for the progress of Civil Rights. The explosion and national support for The Temple community bolstered Atlanta city leaders’ resolve to investigate and prosecute the crime, paving the way for dramatic social change. This theatricalization celebrates a city that came together in the face of hatred to live the lessons of the civil rights era, lessons that still resonate 58 years after that fateful day.

Jimmy Maize’s The Temple Bombing transports us to a time in American history of unparalleled moral courage. In 1958, several Southern synagogues were bombed, causing many of the south’s 548,650 Jews to wonder whether they would soon become targets of religious bigotry. Maize paints an honest picture, drawing upon real biographies, of what it must have been like when our congregation and our rabbi were threatened.

Primarily, The Temple Bombing offers the world a unique glimpse into the heart and soul of our Rabbi, Jacob M. Rothschild: it is a portrait of moral courage. Rabbi Rothschild was a strong believer in interfaith dialogue, a champion of racial justice and integration, and one of the most respected religious leaders in the South.

As the play draws to a close, one can’t help but ponder a singular truth: Rabbi Rothschild knew then what we know today – that we must all stand up to bigotry and hatred. It is the height of gullibility to hope that the truly democratic forces, if left to work on their own at their normal pace, will correct the inequities so prevalent in our society.

The Temple Bombing is a wake-up call and an invitation to become an integral part of this turning point in history – to fulfill the promise of Rabbi Rothschild. Each of us has within us the God-given spark of creativity –the ability to transcend, to bring order to chaos, beauty to ugliness. Each of us has the power in our lives to give meaning or to withhold it. This task is, in no small part, the last, greatest hope in our humanity.

Rabbi Peter S. Berg serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.