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. 

Israel Social Justice

Could You Hear Us Over The Sea?

Last year, during the High Holidays, my Heshbon nefesh brought me to question whether I am doing enough to share and protest regarding my unhappiness with the Netanyahu government.  I felt that there was much more that I could do.

I thought about the meeting I had with Muslim, Christian, Druze and Jewish religious women… a place of true meeting, and thought to myself, “Everyone enjoys Arab hospitality, what about if we turn this on its head and invite our neighbors from Arab towns and villages to our Jewish homes? ”

We invited 40 women of three religions to be hosted by 40 Jewish women. We met their bus with songs and flower petals. Drinks were served. A representative from each religion offered a prayer. Right there, I felt the Oneness of Rachmana, I understood in basic Arabic, that the Muslim prayer was a like Shema and V’Ahavta.  A love prayer for God. We danced, warmly and closely, we served our lovingly made food. They joked that it wasn’t spicy or sweet enough, but they appreciated the effort. Our cultural differences are real, emphasizing the need for a bridge.

Meanwhile the cataclysmic changes of the government in the USA took place. We joined those of you who marched on Washington and around the States. A sister demonstration was organized in Tel Aviv opposite the American Embassy.  Rabbi Naama Kelman asked if I would address the crowd as an Israeli Rabbi ordained here but brought up in America.  I was thrilled as I was born in 1958, and grew up in the anti-Vietnam protests, cut my teeth on sit-ins to wear pants to school in the 5th grade and was blessed to grow up in the first wave of Jewish feminism. That experience and music are what brought me to Judaism, as my sisters assimilated into American society and disappeared as Jews. Social justice is in my blood and in my soul.

Feeling a strong sense of Oneness with everyone marching in the world against racism, sexism, heterosexism, chauvinism, and anti-religious sentiment- we arrived with our signs. Do you ever wonder if Rachmana arranges Torah portions to fit a given situation?

I spoke these words as I spoke to the crowd in Tel Aviv:

Israeli women unite with women of the world! We are the midwives of a new era of activism and hope, we are Shifra and Puah, who refused the edict of the newly appointed leader and chose life for all!

We are the Daughter of Pharoah, whose simple but profound action changed the course of history.  She had her eyes open to see a troubled situation, she empowered other women to help, and she opened up the basket to get to the root of the problem. She heard the pain and cries of the child. She paid women what they were worth! She adopted another as her own. She teaches us all that we have to know as to how to bring godliness to this world. We join the chain of women who redeemed others.

We are seeking our name and our voice, like God, “We will be what we will be.” We will be our best selves and dedicate ourselves to be change and hope in this world.

The promenade by the sea filled up with hundreds of women, men, and children, some of American origin, some Israeli born.  My husband is who is British, was there as a feminist and a seeker of justice, and as the steadfast partner to a Rabbi.  It was so liberating to remind ourselves that action, praying with our feet, making an effort to go to the big city, to call friends is what it truly important.  Today we appeared in Haaretz and other press, including the Hebrew press.

There are so many ways to explore the meaning of “Shema Yisrael.” To make our voices heard. To make our voices count. To listen to the “other.” I was delighted to hear at this rally, “Black lives matter!” “Queer lives matter!”  To be humbled by the “other.” By our togetherness, by our Oneness.  We are all one.

Rabbi Judith Edelman-Green serves as Pastoral Care Giver at Tel HaShomer hospital and at Beth Protea with the elderly, those with dementia, and those in nursing care.  She also leads creative musical services in Kfar Sava.  For the High Holidays, Rabbi Edelman-Green has served Rodef Shalom in Mumbai, India since 2010. 

Prayer shabbat Social Justice

A Blessing for Inauguration Shabbat

As we enter this Shabbat and are on the cusp of new political leadership we pray for a unifying vision based on the Declaration of Independence.

Mi she’berach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – May the One who blessed our founding fathers and mothers bless us as well, with comfort and inspiration as we begin this new year.

We believe that some truths are self-evident, all people, in our many glorious manifestations, are created equal. We are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The burden upon our shoulders to remember the wisdom and courage of those who came before us, who dared to dream of a better future. Yet, to remember is not enough. In each generation we are called to take action, to preserve and protect the fragile dreams upon which our nation was founded.

In seasons of turbulence, we pray for a steady hand to guide our ship.
As storms of anger rage, we pray for sanctuary.
As fists clench, we pray for open hearts.
When sharp words slash like swords, we pray to transform them into plowshares to sow seeds of understanding and respect.

Now is not the time to avert our gaze from what troubles our hearts.

Now is the time to build friendships, not walls.
Now is the time to fiercely protect the earth that sustains us.
Now is the time to honor with our words, and with our actions, the spark of holiness that resides in every human being.

And by so doing, we honor our country, our children and our Creator.


Rabbi Mona Alfi serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California. She is also a member of the Reform Movement’s Commission on Social Action. Rabbi Nancy Wechsler serves Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, California

Reform Judaism Social Justice

Standing as Witness and Capable Ally in Voter Protection

Today is Election Day. Along with my wife, colleagues at The Temple Rabbis Peter Berg, Loren Filson Lapidus, Lydia Medwin, an inspiringly large number of our congregants, Reform rabbis and other Jewish leaders from across North America, including CCAR’s own Rabbi Steve Fox, I am in Macon, Georgia, to partner with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to provide non-partisan election protection. We will be in the field to monitor polls to ensure that those who desire to vote are able to cast their ballots for their candidate of choice, freely exercising their Constitutional right to vote. Our work is part of the Religious Action Center’s Nitzavim campaign, a national voter rights initiative of our movement’s Racial Justice Campaign.

What I say about all of this work is simply an incredulous, “Really?!” In 2016, is the freedom to vote still an issue? Why yes, my dear, sheltered, Northern California boy, the unfettered right to vote is still in peril and a cloud of voter suppression tactics with racist overtones hangs above Macon.

Here in Atlanta at The Temple, we have been working within our own version of the RAC’s Reflect/Relate/Reform model. Responding to our congregation’s call to honor our legacy of the Civil Rights Movement by getting current on racial inequality and working harder and smarter to create a just society for all, we spent the better part of the past summer and into the fall doing difficult and sometimes painful reflective work. It has not been easy to own up to our own implicit biases, racism, and our failures to stand as witness and inabilities to act as capable allies and I suspect we have a ways to go. I know I do. Truth be told, six months ago I do not believe we would been able to see or have been able to respond to race-based threats of voter disenfranchisement. But the threats are real.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder no longer requires certain jurisdictions to demonstrate to either the Attorney General or a federal court in Washington, D.C., that any proposed voting change is not discriminatory before that change can be implemented, we are now living in a society in which a core measure of the Voting Rights Act has been undone. We now can see better what we could not have seen before we undertook this work. Much of today’s racism flourishes because for too long we acted like the Civil Rights Movement was a singular and eternal victory for righteousness and that the problems, inequalities, and injustices of today were not based on racist, discriminatory, and under the guise of modern colorblindness, legal practices.

We have a long road ahead of us to fulfill the vision of the Beloved Community, but we are walking together in partnership with each other and with churches and organizations representing and led by people of color. I could not be more proud of the Reform Movement’s awakening to racial inequality and as we head to Macon to fulfill our commitment, I know with every ounce of my being that our work will be on the right side of history.

Rabbi David Spinrad serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Reform Judaism Social Justice

Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation

As we approach the Presidential election this Tuesday, I think we are all experiencing a bit of fatigue.  The stakes certainly seem high to all of us in Ohio.  Whereas election news is garnering a lot of air time and thought time everywhere, in Ohio, the election has become an entity unto itself.  When I moved back to Cincinnati 12 years ago from Massachusetts, I realized the kind of weight and responsibility of living and leading in a “swing state.”  In Massachusetts, we never saw commercials or billboards for the Presidential election.  In Ohio, one is inundated with political ads.  It is exhausting.  At times, it is disheartening.  But, we might also look at this election as a time to lift up voices and to listen.  To speak and to hope.

Through our congregation’s involvement with our movement’s Nitzavim campaign to Stand Up for Voter Participation and Protection, we have come to understand that this election can be a time to try to understand our neighbors, to open up dialogue with those who might be different than us.  We are looking at this election as a springboard to build relationships across denominations, religions, race and class so that we might uplift every voice. We are building opportunities and coalitions as we get out the vote and volunteer to monitor polls.

For those of us who have been concerned about racial injustice in our country, this election will be a touchstone.  I will vote in Cincinnati, which has been identified as an area most at risk for voter suppression.  This election is our opportunity to face some of our own biases and our neighbors’ and to stand up for the right to vote as well as exercising our own obligation to be part of the political process.  As Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a).  Our democracy will be measured by access to the polls in the inner cities and by the desire to make a difference.

Our tradition challenges us to embrace pluralism, even when it is difficult; even in a “purple” state.  Tosefta Sotah 7:7 teaches, “Make for yourself a heart of many rooms.”  On November 9th, this will be the real goal for all of us.  We should be like Hillel, who always respected and uplifted Shammai’s voice despite their disagreements.  The Talmud teaches that the halacha followed Hillel because “Beit Hillel were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs” (Bablylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b).

In Ohio, we pray that we argue and vote for the sake of heaven.  But we challenge ourselves to move past this election with humility, kindness and respect.  And we dream of hearts of many rooms, moving together to lift all voices.  That is the true obligation and responsibility of this Election Day and the days to follow.

Rabbi Sigma F. Coran serves Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Social Justice

Why I Do Not Mourn on Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, is a Jewish day of mourning associated with the Babylonian Destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in the year 586 BCE. It is also the day when the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. And, it is said, the Jewish expulsion from Spain took place on the 9th of Av, 1492.

I do not observe Tisha B’Av; I do not fast or mourn on that day. Events associated with Tisha B’Av may be considered disasters for some, but, to me, those events all demonstrate the remarkable resiliency of the Jewish people and the historic opportunities that might never have been realized without exile.

This year, I happened to be in Berlin the week of Tisha B’Av, and I found myself visiting the Pergamon Museum — specifically the Gates of Ishtar, the monumental gates to the ancient city of Babylon.

I stood at the Ishtar Gates in the Pergamon Museum. I imagined my ancestors in 586 BCE led into captivity from the modest backwater of Jerusalem, marching their way in the barren desert from the Jordan River to the Euphrates. Suddenly in the distance they saw in the intense sunlight, a brilliant blue, massive structure shimmering and rising out of the sands. They were led along that triumphal processional boulevard lined with walls decorated in brilliantly colored bas relief of mythical wild animals.

These gates were the first things the exiles of Jerusalem 586 BCE must have seen as they entered the great Capitol city of Babylon. Surely they were mourning their fate and doubting their future and the future of their people and faith. They had worshipped the Hebrew God in the Temple of Jerusalem. God “resided,” if you will, in the Holy of Holies built upon the Temple Mount. But all that was destroyed. To the conquered defeated captives it must have seemed that Judaism had come to an end at the hands of the mighty Babylonian army. But Judaism didn’t die. Instead, it was re-born.

Though they were in Exile from Jerusalem, it would be in Babylon that Judaism would undergo one of its earliest creative transformations. They discovered that the personal, tribal God of Judea could be encountered anywhere. God was universal, not limited to one earthly location.

Babylon was where they also developed major concepts of Jewish religion. There, Judaism began the slow transformation from Temple sacrifice to Torah, study, and synagogue. Rabbis and teachers would eventually replace a dynastic system of priests.

I was struck by the idea that here I was, 2,700 years later, standing at the reconstructed ruins of a mighty civilization, the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BCE, one could stand at the mighty Gates of Ishtar and imagine Babylon lasting forever. A Judean exile from destroyed Jerusalem would have been justified to put on sack cloth and ashes and assume that Judaism had come to a dead end. Yet here I was, a rabbi of Judaism, 2,700 years later, representing a vibrant culture and civilization. History allows for irony.

Many destructions and exiles would follow. Tisha B’Av marked the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the exile from Spain in 1492, but in every case, Judaism adapted and responded with creativity and innovation. Eventually the experience of exile brought much of the Jewish world to the shores of America.

The story of American Jewish life is truly remarkable.  There has never been in all history a more vibrant, dynamic, creative Jewish community than this one. This is not just the most prosperous and successful Jewish community, but America itself has achieved much of its own success due to our contributions—and the contributions of all its immigrants over these 600 some years. We have fully adopted the words of Jeremiah: “Seek the well-being of the city of exile. If it prospers, so too will you prosper.”

Exile has brought us to America. With its many flaws, this country has truly been a place of blessing, and, like Abraham, the Jewish people have blessed America with talent, energy, loyalty, and creativity. That is why I do not mourn on Tisha B’Av.

Let me now return to Berlin and the second week in August. I had a specific purpose for being in Germany this summer. A group of fifteen Reform rabbis went on a very short study mission organized by IsraAID, a remarkable organization focusing on disaster relief throughout the world. In Berlin, they are engaged in continuing aid and support for the refugee community and for those who serve them. This is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.

It was a privilege to get to know the people from IsraAID. They were uniformly young, most under 30. They were Israeli Jews, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Druze Israelis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We met American college kids spending their gap year as volunteers working with IsraAID on programs for the refugees as well as for German children learning about the stories of the exiles. There were some Jews of Berlin and Israelis living in Germany. There was one 85 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor who spends one day a week at a community center teaching German to Syrian children.

IsraAID workers are training others, teaching German, computer skills, helping with job searches, and childcare, offering much needed psychological support for those who have experienced the trauma of war and terrifying escape. We visited a community support center for LGBTQ refugees.

Who were these Syrian refugees? Our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes were often wrong. Many of them are middle class and educated. Many spoke English or German. Nearly all of them hoped to stay in Germany or Europe. While the Germans hoped the war would end and the Syrians could eventually return back home to the Middle East, most of these exiles wanted to begin a new life. Their greatest desire was to escape the terror and war.

Why do we care? Why would a bunch of young Israelis – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze – care about Syrian refugees? Why did a group of American Reform rabbis, from throughout the US, care about the refugees? It is our narrative, our story, our memory, our teaching. How do we remember our own past? Why do we remember our past? We were exiles. We were strangers in a strange land. We were outcasts in the Land of Egypt, and in countless lands since then. We remember the plight of exiles, dispossessed, and refugees. We are commanded to fight for the rights of the stranger, to protect the outcast, to provide for the homeless, the landless. We knew Egypt and Babylon, Rome and Spain.

And we must also remember our own experience in America. We know the results of fear and xenophobia which shut the gates to America after WW I and in the early 1920’s, and we are profoundly aware of the tragic consequence when America was not a shelter for the Jews of Europe about to be sent to their death. The arguments that were made then might seem familiar to us today. The echoes resonate in today’s headlines. There were those then who claimed that there might be dangerous spies or terrorists among the refugees from Europe. In the early years they pointed to Emma Goldman among the Jews, or Sacco and Vanzetti for Italians. The anti-immigration forces raised fears of organized crime or Irish terrorists. They said: Lock the gates. Turn inward. America First. In the late 1930’s, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin claimed that German spies might be hidden among the Jewish refugees attempting to escape Hitler and the Nazi death machine. They claimed that Jewish refugees were a danger to American security.

We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We trace our roots back to Babylon and Ur and Nahor, Aram Naharaim –the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah. Nahor is today a place where South Eastern Turkey meets Northern Syria. It is the region that today is Aleppo. It is now a place facing destruction, genocide, and death.

We too were wandering Arameans, outcasts and strangers. Let us never forget who we were and what we have been called to do and become…in order to remain partners with God in repairing the brokenness of this world, freeing the captive, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger. Abraham was commanded: “Lech lecha.” Leave Nahor, your land, your birthplace, the land of your fathers, and go to a new land. There I will bless you, and you shall, in turn, be a blessing. Today’s refugees from Nahor, Aleppo, and elsewhere must be rescued, welcomed, and resettled. May they too become a blessing.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon serves Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

Social Justice

T’shuvah in an Age of Mass-Incarceration: The Radical Possibility of True Return

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.

In an age of mass incarceration, in which a definable group of people, many of whom are the descendants of former slaves, live in a state of non-freedom, our belief that people can change, strive for blessing, and engage in t’shuvah is not just counter-cultural, but downright radical. When we deny someone, especially a young person, the opportunity to grow and perform t’shuvah, we not only deny that person a future, but deny our country limitless amounts of potential as well.

Throughout the year, but especially now, individually and collectively, we are pushed to take stock of our souls, to account for our sins. We are counseled to both ask for and give forgiveness, to turn back and right ourselves on a path of justice and embrace those who have returned to walk with us.

In his work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines the process of t’shuvah as one of repentance, confession, and return. When an individual engages in the work of t’shuvah, Maimonides writes, he or she not only recognizes and seeks forgiveness for wrongdoing, but also examines, interrogates, and erases the very impulses from which the wrongdoing emerged. When confronted with the same situation again, therefore, the sin no longer arises, and the path of return is set.

Where could we, as a society, apply Maimonides concept of t’shuvah? What would notions of guilt and punishment look like in a criminal justice system founded on the possibility of return? The Rabbis of the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin address these questions through imagining a world in which t’shuvah rewrites and informs biblical notions of justice in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son.

Outlined in chapter 21 of Deuteronomy, the case of the ben sorer u’moreh features a swift and exacting punishment for a son who refuses to listen to his parents. In just four verses, this young man is condemned to death by stoning, and executed before the entire community.

Hundreds of years later, the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin take on the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, questioning both the logic and outcome of the biblical narrative. Noting the age of the boy, the lack of any judicial process, the role of the parents in the case, and the exact nature of the crime, the Rabbis determine that this case never actually happened – no one could be condemned to death in just four verses. Why, then, the text asks, do we read about this boy?

The objections raised by the Rabbis in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh have much to teach us on the topic of t’shuvah. One of these objections, in particular, caught my eye. One Rabbi offers the possibility that he was executed at such a tender age to prevent future wrongdoing, so that he could die an innocent man. This explanation, too, however, is rejected – we cannot judge a person based on his future deeds, there exists always the possibility for t’shuvah.

In many ways, there is no possibility for movement, personal-growth, blessing, repentance, and return in our criminal justice system – as a society, we execute the ben sorer u’moreh: we sentence the child to death before giving him a chance to repent and return. For the past few months, I have been teaching a course at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, to ten men who are incarcerated at one of the facilities on the island. Together, we have been learning about the criminal justice system, and reading the book, The New Jim Crow. These men, my partners in learning, have opened my eyes to the many ways in which true repentance and return for them is almost impossible. How can we welcome back those in need of healing and return? How can we, like the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin, recognize the potential of the ben sorer u’moreh.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the system of mass incarceration thriving in our country today works to create an under-caste in our society; a group of people largely composed of men of color who are subject to, “a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn, and exclusion. In this hidden world,” she writes, “discrimination is perfectly legal” (142).  Even for a first-time, non-violent offender, someone who may not even spend time in prison, the result of a conviction could mean the loss of, “federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal education assistance…if he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or posses a firearm, or obtain federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not, he becomes immediately deportable” (143).

When we, as a Jewish people, engage in t’shuvah and believe in our ability to remap the impulses imprinted at the very core of our beings, we open up the possibility for others to do the same. We are a people who take our souls into account, who grow and forgive, fall off the path and welcome those who have returned with us. But is this enough?  What if every congregation in America committed to hiring someone who had been incarcerated for a non-violent crime?

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.


Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis and is teaching at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.



Social Justice

We Stand Here This Day: This is Our Time, This is Our Vote

I am a rabbi, I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a faithful friend, and a human being. These are blessed gifts in my life in relationship to others. Celebrating another New Year in the Hebrew calendar, I am cognizant of our fleeting days, and the gross unfaithfulness and ungracefulness with which human beings squander relationships in this gift of life, and the malice that marks much of human relations.

I am a leader in interfaith relationships in my community, I am a social justice advocate, and I am a member of the NC NAACP, in faithful partnership with my congregation Temple Beth Or, and with Judaism’s Reform Movement: issue by issue, march by march, hand in hand. During the precipice of the New Year, as Jews are turning in introspection, examining our lives, realigning our values with our faith, these Days of Awe call for highly personal reflection of our own lives in relationship with the discord of our times, and specifically with the racial injustice that pervades American culture.

My heart aches at the anguish of police shootings of Black men, from Tulsa to Charlotte, from California, to Baltimore. My heart aches from the abject prejudice that confronts Americans of color and affronts their freedom as citizens of the United States.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I know what it is like to have my synagogue, and even my own life threatened. I have lived through weeks where my children were followed by police at their public schools because of the threats to my family. But in reality, I know nothing of the heartache of people of color. When the threats to my family subsided, in a short time, my children were back to their care free life.  A flash in the pan compared to those who have to worry daily: will one of my own be the next Keith Scott, or Michael Brown?

I ask for forgiveness during this Jewish season of repentance: on my behalf, on behalf of my community, and on behalf of the United States. No matter how many marches we have marched together, Jews and Blacks, together for justice, I have not been there to march the Black children of my community to school each day, where the police arrest as many young Black children, as they guard against harm, like they did my children.

In Jewish tradition, true repentance requires that one asks forgiveness, and then turns to a new path that will not lead one back to those sins of yesterday. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur called Nitzavim incorporates that idea by laying out the new path and committing the entire community to walk toward a better world.

In Deuteronomy the inclusive words speak so poignantly for the Israelites of old and for us today: Atem nitzavim hayom, kol chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You are standing here today, all of you before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Deut 29:9-11)

What do we make of the detail of this Hebrew scripture, notoriously known for being terse? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say: “All of you are standing here before God?” But, the text names everyone from the leaders, to the children, to the stranger, and then specifically the woodchopper and the water drawer. It is an all-inclusive teaching straight from the Bible. If you might think that it is up to the clergy to keep the covenant and do the hard work, you are mistaken. The parallelism in the text starting with the leaders and ending with the woodchopper and water drawer shouts out that there is no division or classism in God’s society. Everyone is responsible. Everyone is accountable.

And lest we think this is an ancient teaching for ancient days listen to what Deuteronomy instructs a couple of verses later: “It is not with you alone who I make this covenant, it is for those standing here this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut 29:14) This idea, the very basis of democratic society for all peoples and all backgrounds, is given for all time. It is not only for those who heard those words that day. It is for every successive generation of humanity. We all stand as equals before God, and we all stand as equals in the covenant to honor God’s world.

The classism, the racism, the ethnocentric partitions, those are the false classifications that oppressive cultures create because they do not understand these words from the scripture. “We are standing here this day:” “This is our time, this is our vote.”  Nitzavim instructs us to claim democracy, equal rights for every citizen, undaunted by the road blocks that others construct along the way.

We know those road blocks all too well. We know them from history, and we know them from the story of the North Carolina legislature and governor who enacted the most comprehensive voter suppression laws in the country just days after the Supreme Court stripped parts of the Voter Rights Act saying that the provisions for preclearance need to be updated by the Federal government. While the Federal government has not taken one step to reauthorize the Voters Rights Act, North Carolina has led the way in eradicating the protections the Voter Rights Act used to provide.

Even so, even with preclearance gone, even without the Voter Rights Act protections, the racist, voter suppression laws of North Carolina, have been struck down again and again in court. Nevertheless, North Carolina’s governor and legislators still don’t understand that democracy means every citizen has the right to unfettered access to the polls. We have fewer and fewer polling places, in every county in North Carolina, because one political party chair instructed the partisan voting commissioners in each county to specifically limit access for African Americans. He says this is not racist policy, it is only because African Americans don’t vote for his party. These words are a contradiction in terms. Someone tweet Webster’s and tell them North Carolina has the ultimate example of the definition of racism to add to their dictionary. Instructions like these go to the heart of voter suppression. They divide citizens out on the basis of oppressive, class-based, society; rather than expansively opening our democracy to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Lest we still not understand the teaching the scripture reiterates: “Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day in not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you say, “Who shall cross the sea and get it for us and impart it to us…. No the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” (Deut 30: 11-13).

Is not that the very principal that undergirds American democracy, that all of us are responsible for the leadership of our country?! Each one of us has a voice and a vote. And each one of us has a responsibility to uphold our democracy. It is not enough to decry the oppression of the other and say I cannot do anything about it, because they have all the control. No citizen should be bullied into believing that voting is beyond their reach.

The politics of fear that pervades our country today cannot define us or sway our standards. Bullying and fear are powerful motivators. In Maslow’s theory of human needs, if one cannot get beyond fears for basic security, there is no hope for relationship and meaning in life. That fear is hijacking the core values of humanity and democracy.

We cannot give in to it. For, there is a force greater than fear. There is a force that fuels relationships rather than foments mistrust. There is a force that unites, even in the face of the weightiest of dangers.

That force is what gets us out of bed each day. It is how we put one foot in front of another, and how we summons the courage to move forward even in the face of grave evil. That force is faith, faith in God, and faith in the image of God planted in every human being.

We can, every one of us, assure voting rights for every American. We can update our own and members of our community’s voter registration to match changes of address, names, or other pertinent information. We can register new voters, who have been discouraged from registering and participating in our democracy. We can help voters get absentee ballots and turn them in. We can assist with transportation to the polls. We can educate the community and teach them that this thing “is not in the heavens or across the sea, it is in their mouth and their heart to observe it.”

We cannot sit by and wait for the courts to throw out more laws while the election is right before us. To do nothing, to remain indifferent is not an option. We have an obligation to act to transform our democracy and define once and for all that voting rights are for everyone: from the leaders, the stock brokers, and the executives; to those breaking their back for an inadequate minimum wage, to the infirmed, to those buried in college debt, the elderly, and the homeless, to people of color, to Muslims, to new citizens and old. Voter rights are for Blacks and Latinos, from young adults to seniors, the disabled, to the multi-millionaire. We cannot and will not accept the classism and racism that divides and oppresses Americans and pits us against one another.

How do we bring about the reforms our government needs to replace racism and classism with a government of the people, by the people and for the people?

Register voters.

How do we enact the laws needed for reform and transparency in police departments across the US?

Register voters.

How do we work for a livable minimum wage in every job?

Register voters.

And, that’s not all. When they are registered, our work will have just begun. Then we have to get them to the polls.

So, how are we going to replace the most racist voter suppression laws in America?

Get them to the polls.

How are we going to eradicate the racism in our judicial system, that incarcerates African Americans at six times the rate of whites.  (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. Retrieved 2014-04-08.)

Get them to the polls.

How do we provide equal educational opportunity for all youth, rich and poor, black, and white?

Get them to the polls.

How do we get the government out of our bathrooms and repeal HB 2, and anti-LGBT laws across the land?

Get them to the polls.

Centuries ago Rav Nachum of Bratzlav taught in a time fraught with its own fear and destruction:  Kol ha olam kulo geshser tzar meod, v’haikar lo l’faked ba.

“The whole world is one narrow bridge, and the key, the important thing is not to be afraid.”

There will always be forces trying to hold down the Black community, or the Jewish community, or the LGBT community, or Muslims, or atheists, and all of the above plus more. The blessing that we have in our communities of faith is that we do not have to face that narrow bridge alone. When we put our hands in the hands of our brothers and sisters, when we lift our voices together, we cross that narrow bridge. We unite to fulfill the covenant of democracy. We stand together the leaders and the water carriers, crossing that narrow bridge. It is not in the heavens or across the sea. The covenant is right here before us in our mouths and in our hearts. We will conquer xenophobia and the fomenting of fear; and replace it with true democracy, where every person has a voice and a vote.

Let us stand here today, every one of us, standing with and for all humanity. This is our time; this is our vote.

Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Social Justice

The Syrian Refugees and Germany: Not Their Story but Our Story

Each of us had different reasons for taking part in the CCAR Mission to Berlin. Among them were:

  • We cared about the refugee crisis and wanted to learn so that we could share the story, engage our congregants and communities with this issue and be part of an effective response.
  • We wanted to see and support a Germany that once cast refugees out and now was welcoming them in.
  • We saw ourselves in the refugee narrative. We have known too many exiles as a people and, in some cases, as part of our personal families.
  • We wanted to learn more about IsraAID and its efforts to bring people together in responding to global crises. Engaging with an Israeli organization that embodies the values of saving lives, humanitarianism, inclusion and building bridges across faiths and peoples was an experience we wanted to have and share.

The architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin created a fitting metaphor for my personal renewed engagement with this country that stole my father’s childhood and a significant portion of my family tree. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, designed the Jewish Museum of Berlin upon three underground axes reflecting the three life paths German Jews may have taken. One path led to a “Holocaust Tower” — an empty concrete silo where the only light and warmth comes from a small slit above. A second path, the Axis of Emigration, led to “the Garden of Exile” which is a disorienting maze of stone pillars on uneven ground in an outside garden. The third and final path, the Axis of Continuity, intersects with the two other paths taking the visitor through exhibits capturing nearly two millennia of German Jewish history. Our coming to Berlin was a collective commitment to be a part of that third axis: the continuity of German Jewish life.IMG_2291

Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the moral choice to open German’s borders to refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. They poured in by the tens of thousands swelling to more than one million. Germany quickly made makeshift shelters. We visited two shelters – one in an old city hall and another in a tobacco factory. Month by month improvements are being made but still the conditions are stark, cold and harsh.  At the Wilmersdorf Shelter, there are 1200 refugees (half of them children) with 60 toilets and 30 showers. Some stay for five days, some for five months, and some have been there since the day it opened on August 14, 2015.

Patrick Kingsley, in The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis writes that “In a way, the refugee crisis is a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s on
e caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than the refugees themselves.” Had all of the countries of the European Union shared the burden, absorbing the stream of migrants would be manageable. Had a system of resettlement been organized, chaos would have been curbed. Millions of refugees would not be stranded, despairing and overwhelming Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Kingsley notes, “Fear of social meltdown was used to create inertia – fear that became its own self-fulfilling prophecy.”

IMG_2299In Berlin, we connected with refugees. We had meetings and meals with a variety of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We heard of their fears of turning in their passports and not knowing if they’d ever hold them again; of their anxiety of waiting for papers that would grant them refugee status or render decisions that could lead to deportation; of pleading before judges; of weeping that reunification with families (and in some cases children) seems unlikely in the near future; and some were questioning, “Is Germany where I should stay?”

The citizens of Germany are caring – one million Germans volunteer with refugees. The citizens of Germany are worrying – about the economy and about security.  On one hand, the refugees are vulnerable as victims of exploitation or violence and, if integration is unsuccessful, they are vulnerable to radicalization. On the other hand, they can enrich German society as the birthrate is low, there is a labor gap and these refugees are highly educated.

IsraAID is strategizing and working hard. Integration of refugees is a critical concern. Programs are being created to maximize integration at community centers outside the shelters. Israeli Jews, Israeli Druze, and Israeli Palestinians are helping side by side. American summer college interns are building bridges of social support. Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin, in reflecting upon the potential of her congregation’s engagement, notes: “Refugees need to reorient themselves. If, in this moment of reorientation, we can help reorient them to the idea of Jews and even perhaps Israel — that can be transformative.”

And we, as North American rabbis, have an important role, as well. We are players in this global narrative of creating sanctuary and safety for the Syrian and other Middle Eastern victims IMG_2311seeking refuge from war, oppression, murder, and in some cases, genocide. With education, with programs, with engagement, with advocacy, with fundraising, and with welcoming refugees into our communities and country, we can make a difference.

The Syrian refugee story continues to be written day by day and we can have a hand in crafting its positive outcome.

Rabbi Judith Schindler is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Gun Control News Social Justice

Of Hugs and Vigils: Standing with Orlando

The Orlando International Airport bustles with excited children hugging their favorite characters to their hearts; it’s surrounded by palm trees and a sunny, humid atmosphere. Where were the signs that this city that had just days before experienced the worst mass shooting in U.S. history? As we left the airport we saw them: an American flag and a rainbow flag flying half-mast. Barber shops, law offices, highway billboards, theaters–these places displayed rainbow hearts and #OrlandoStrong signs publicly and proudly.

In the wee hours of June 12, forty-nine lives were taken and fifty-three people injured when a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire inside Pulse, a nightclub serving the Latinx and LGBTQ community. A safe haven was targeted, decimated. Its owners and workers–more a family than a business–mourn and suffer. They have no jobs; they feel–though not at all deserved–guilt and worry.

In New York, we heard the news. We were shocked. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history carried out in a place that had been both a safe haven and a beacon of freedom for so many who are marginalized, dehumanized, ostracized, and targeted with discrimination and violence. We mourned.

And I wasn’t sure what to do next. As a queer woman and as a rabbi–and simply as an empathic person–I felt both called and hesitant. I wanted to jump on that plane to Orlando, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I arrived.

The short version is: the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, where I serve as a rabbi, went to Orlando. We hugged folks. We listened to their stories.

A delegation of two staff members and three students traveled on Wednesday. What we discovered is this: Orlando is a beautiful city that has pulled together to show support, solidarity, and unity. Churches and counseling centers have opened their doors nearly around the clock to offer free trauma counseling in Spanish and in English. Thousands of people attended a vigil on Monday night in front of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center; its lawn has become a memorial, with flowers, messages, cards, mementos, and images of the slain laid out on the ground. People gather, add their condolences, pray, and weep.

A beacon of giving has been the Center, Orlando’s LGBTQ Center. Mountains of water bottles, granola bars, non-perishable food, toiletries, and other much-needed supplies are pouring into this hub of direct service and community support. The moment a volunteer posts to social media that an item is needed, a car pulls up behind the modest building to deliver it. We encountered dozens of volunteers, some of them staff members like Ben who direct the activities, some regular volunteers like Laura who simply take charge when they see a lull, and some first-time volunteers who came with hands ready and hearts open. The outpouring of support was staggering. And, yes, we helped: we sorted supplies, assembled boxes, stood at the ready.

But there was more important work to be done: asking questions, listening, and hugging. Each person we met that day had a story: “My girlfriend and I had our first kiss at Pulse; we could easily have been there that night.” “I don’t feel safe anymore.” “If I slow down and stop, I don’t know what I will do.” “It’s so hard to hold up for our students when the staff are also mourning.” In some ways, what we did that day was nothing: we offered an ear, a shoulder to cry on, a hug. But in other ways, it was everything: we traveled from afar because we cared enough to listen. We told people they are valuable and showed that love conquers hate.

And of course there is more to do, and the Bronfman Center will be keeping in touch with Orlando’s LGBTQ Center to ensure that we provide help when and how we can, and in ways that are most needed. If you are able to travel to Orlando, you will be needed to help form a human chain to protect families of those slain from hateful protesters who plan to attend the funerals happening throughout the coming week. If you can donate money, you can help support families of the murdered and the injured who are living in hotels in Orlando and are in need of meals and supplies. We will keep you informed as best we can.

Our day in Orlando ended at Valencia College, the alma mater of Amanda Alvear, Oscar A. Arancena-Montero, Cory James Connell, Mercedes Marisol Flores, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, and Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo; these seven young people were killed that night at the Pulse. Their college community–four hundred strong, and more watching via closed-circuit television–gathered to honor them and celebrate their lives, to mourn, and to unite against homophobia, transphobia, racism and islamophobia. I was honored to speak some words of (I hope) comfort at the vigil, sharing the stage with student leaders like Krystal Pherai, LGBTQ community leaders, college administrators, and a local imam. Krystal urged us all to remember that acting as an ally is not easy and it requires us to move well beyond our comfort zones: “Talk to those you see as the ‘other.’ Learn from each other. Have difficult, crucial conversations. Speak your truth.” The City of Orlando sits shiva. For forty-nine souls. It already rebuilds its sense of security and unity. It refuses to blame an entire religion for one man’s horrific actions. It acknowledges that homophobia and transphobia come in many forms, and that our individual communities must examine our actions. Do you want to know whether you are ensuring that the LGBTQ folks in your community or family feel safe? Then don’t wait for them to come out to you or reach out for help: Tell them and show them that you value all lives.

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi serves as Manager of Religious Life at the pluralistic Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi DeBlosi’s blog.