Every day this month, prior to the Jewish High Holy Days, Jews will sound the Shofar, the rams horn, to herald the coming of the Days of Judgement and Atonement. One of the reasons given for the call of the shofar is to remind us of the eternal voiceless cry of the soul.
This thirteenth anniversary of September 11th and the symbolism of the shofar are expressed by this soulful prayer for our time of remembrance this Thursday:
*May the cry of the shofar remind us of the 2,973 lives that were taken that day. May the shofar’s sound echo like the sirens of the firefighters. police officers and first responders whose heroic sacrifices were extraordinary on that day.
*May the shofar’s plaintiff call remind us how fleeting and fragile this life is.
*May the voice of the shofar serve to comfort all who were wounded in body and spirit; those who lost loved ones and friends, and all whose hearts were broken by witnessing the pain of others.
*On this 13th anniversary, may the blast of the shofar drown out the shouts of cruel extremists who threaten us and who would destroy our lives and our freedom.
*On this 13th anniversary, and every day yet to come, may we find hope and strength in a world that is broken and needs healing. And let us pray that all caring and compassionate human beings will not surrender to evil and will summon the courage to repair our fractured world.
And let the shofar be like a siren that alerts us to danger and summons us to act.
May there come a day when we, and our children, and our children’s children, will live unafraid in a more tolerant, just, and peaceful world.
Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe has lived a courageous life of involvement and dedication. He led a Unity March against the Ku Klux Klan, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and was a member of the Clergy Delegation who visited the American Hostages in Iran. His participation in the New York City Marathon earned him the nickname, “The Running Rabbi.”
Yestel Velasquez is a deeply-rooted member of the New Orleans community who has literally helped rebuild the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yestel is a community leader fighting against civil rights abuses and racial profiling in New Orleans. He is also an undocumented immigrant who has lived and worked in America for nearly a decade.
On May 13, 2014, Yestel was caught up in a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while getting his car fixed at an autoshop frequented by Latino clients. Detained by ICE, Yestel filed a complaint with Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and was soon after granted a three months stay of his deportation. He was not, however, released from detention.
On Monday, August 4th, Yestel was informed by ICE that his stay would be revoked and he would be deported by the end of the week.
How do I know about Yestel Velasquez? Because over a year ago, as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we pledged as Reform rabbis to work for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We rejoiced when bipartisan immigration legislation passed the Senate, but did not stop our work once the House of Representatives refused to act.
Instead, led by our intrepid Lead Organizer, Joy Friedman of Just Congregations, we worked to find out how we could make a difference in the lives of undocumented Americans. At our Chicago CCAR convention, we learned about the movement to prevent deportations that would not occur were the bill passed by the Senate to become the law of the land. By the spring meetings of our Commission on Social Action (CSA) in May, we decided the Reform Movement would engage in immigration reform, one human being at a time, by protecting immigrant families from being torn apart through deportations.
It is a long and instructive (but not appropriate for this piece) story about how we worked closely with the CSA to find national partners who would ask us to help in the defense of potential deportees.
Last Tuesday, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) heard of Yestel’s plight and asked us to act quickly. The CSA leadership thoughtfully and quickly vetted the case, and by Wednesday, the 20 rabbi ROR advisory team was authorized to act. We had our phone scripts and were armed with information and the moral high ground. Alongside partners across the country, we were ready to help save Yestel and his family. In just a few hours, ROR made eleven phone calls to ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale, and another eleven to Director David Rivera of the New Orleans ICE office.
We all called to share our concern with the deportation of Mr. Yestel Velazquez. Sometimes we had no choice but to leave voicemail messages; other times we were able to engage in conversation. I made our first phone call to Deputy Director Ragsdale’s office and he didn’t understand why a rabbi from Chicago was calling. By our last call of the day, we had made an impression – “And where are you calling from, Rabbi?” he asked.
By Thursday, we heard great news from our partners at NDLON: ICE released Yestel from detention and granted him a new one-year stay of removal! More importantly, ICE guaranteed Yestel protection from retaliatory deportation.
I do not know if we saved a single life. But I am glad to have been part of the team that is working, one person at a time, to save the entire world.
Next time the chance comes, do you want to join the team?
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, in Chicago, IL.
The president of the congregation met me at the airport. It was late summer, 2000, my first visit to Hebrew Union Congregation, my new biweekly student pulpit in Greenville, Mississippi. No sooner had we pulled away from the tiny terminal, past the defunct air force base, onto the access road, than we were pulling off again, into a cotton field in full bloom. I had never seen anything like it. Next thing I knew, I stood waist-deep among gently bobbing plants, an undulating field of white stretching to the horizon, the green leaves beneath like a sea obscured by bright foam.
“Have you ever picked cotton?” he asked.
He urged me to pull one soft boll for myself. I asked if this was his field. He laughed, knowing from a lifetime of Mississippi autumns that soon, during the harvest, the roads would be paved in white, stray cotton blowing along the lane markers, fields still generously tipped with snowy fibers, as if awaiting gleaners.
“It’s okay to pick one,” he assured me. I hoped he at least knew the field’s owner, and followed his instruction.
How do you make a good first impression? Or a powerful one? I’ll never forget my introduction to the Deep South, to the Jews of the south. I got the message loud and clear that cotton was—historically, and still in large part to that day—the lifeblood of the region (and if our “field” trip weren’t enough, my congregational president, a history major in college, had plenty of tales of times past to finish the job). The blood wasn’t pumping as strongly as it once had, and the town was in decline. The synagogue had just said goodbye to their last full-time rabbi. I was their first student rabbi. Nevertheless, in the hearts of many in the Mississippi Delta, cotton was . . . if no longer king, at least a true royal.
We continued on to the synagogue, a gorgeous domed 1906 structure with enormous stained-glass windows and a full-sized pipe organ. The congregation had once claimed the largest synagogue membership in the state, and the sanctuary seated hundreds of worshipers. The synagogue building had all the amenities you might expect: assembly hall, kitchen, classrooms, board room, and a sizable library. The library had recently seen the installation of an impressive historical exhibit, curated by two congregants.
The president led me to a glass-sided display case, filled with some of the more physically vulnerable artifacts: old snapshots and siddurim, yellowing posters, manuscripts. He opened the case, and pulled out two items.
The second was a letter, dated November 1963, from the president of Greenville’s Hebrew Union Congregation to the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, protesting the arrangements for the banquet speaker at the upcoming Biennial Convention. The letter did not report the details, already well-known by the parties involved, and my guide filled them in for me: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been invited to speak at the gathering later that month in Detroit. The record shows that he spoke, Greenville’s protest notwithstanding. The letter, however, received a thoughtful, two-page reply from Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, also on display in the library; and the congregational board secretary, a Detroit native, in defiance of her board colleagues, attended.
“Why are you showing me this?” I ventured, hesitantly. The current president did not strike me as the sort who would be proud of this chapter in his congregation’s history. But I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Can you believe this?” he chortled. “Some folks in the North think this is still who we are. But we’ve changed. It’s pretty amazing how much the South has changed.”
It’s pretty amazing, I thought, that this near-total stranger trusted me to see through the stereotype that the documents present, to perceive whatever reality I might encounter in my own experience here, just now beginning. It reminded me of how we’ve preserved the shame of the golden calf in the Torah, for all to see, like an inoculation, a warning or reminder of what we’ve been, against what we might, but mustn’t, become.
I’m reminded of this now, as we prepare to observe the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, when hundreds of young people, disproportionately Jewish, traveled south to register African-American voters. I’m back in Mississippi, where I have lived full-time for seven of the last fourteen years. The cotton still flourishes in the Delta, and the South is still changing.
Rabbi Kassoff serves Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Mississippi, as rabbi, and Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi as Director of Youth Education.
Here’s a hint that the intersection of Judaism and sexuality is a complex, multi-faceted, and endlessly fascinating topic: the new CCAR anthology,The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality is 810 pages, with over fifty contributions from clergy and thought-leaders from the Reform movement and beyond.
Clearly, there is a lot to say – and I’m both encouraged and excited by the depth and breadth of perspectives put forward by the book’s editor, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, and the many authors included in this book. No one takes the easy way out, as each essayist tackles a wide range of issues head-on, employing new, creative approaches for textual analysis, ritual creation, and contemporary policy debates. From same-sex marriage, to infertility, to creating sacred space in cyberspace, these of-the-moment topics address age-old questions with refreshing honesty and intellectual rigor.
We enrich and sanctify these conversations when we convene them within Jewish communities, and this anthology provides us with an incredible tool to do so.
So – where to start? We have synthesized the incredible material included in this volume into a study guide, providing both topic-based tracks and chapter-by-chapter discussion questions.
The tracks, which include Marriage, Social Justice, Sexual Ethics, and more, are appropriate for a variety of adult and young adult education sessions. Each track includes relevant sub-topics and chapters. You could opt to teach the entire track as a longer, multi-part course, or select a particular sub-topic and its associated chapters in the book for a one-time discussion.
We also created tracks that include topics of particular interest for a WRJ/Sisterhood group, MRJ/Brotherhood group, synagogue teen group, or youth workers to discuss together. Synagogue boards may wish to study together using the tracks that include Reform Movement policy perspectives or improving LGBTQ Inclusion. The tracks also serve as a useful topical index – if you’re looking to recommend one chapter for a couple in pre-marital counseling to read, the Marriage track distills sub-topics from sexual intimacy to ritual and legal innovation.
The second part of the study guide includes discussion questions for every chapter of the book. You might use these questions in an adult education course covering one or more of the track-based topics. You could also employ the questions as a starting point for personal reflection after reading a particular chapter. Many of the questions are geared toward how the ideas in a given chapter could be implemented in your synagogue or local Jewish community.
Finally, The Sacred Encounter is full of beautiful personal reflections related to the broader topics in the anthology. Included in many of the tracks in the study guide, these reflections also provide an accessible entry-point to the book as a whole.
We look forward to hearing how you are teaching and discussing the many perspectives included in The Sacred Encounter. How do you plan to teach on any of these topics? Please let us know which tracks, discussion questions, and chapters spark the most exciting debates for you! This is only the beginning of what we know will be an incredible conversation.
Liz Piper-Goldberg, CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern/HUC-JIR ‘15, wrote the study guide forThe Sacred Encounter
I’m not sure what one calls a large gathering of rabbis. Is it a rabble of rabbis? A den of rabbis? A blessing of rabbis? Whatever the official appellation, there sure were a lot of us at the CCAR convention I just attended in Chicago. In fact there were over 500 rabbonim gathered at the Fairmont Hotel for 4 days of learning, studying, schmoozing, and connecting. As always it is a sweet reunion of old friends, pulling out our iPhones, sharing pictures of our spouses and our kids and now for some of us, our grandchildren. It has also become a chance to meet new colleagues with new ideas about so much of what we senior rabbis have been doing for decades. These encounters can be bracing: the young are so certain about so much… These encounters can also be humbling, because they produce fresh insights into long held views on any number of practices.
We invite young scholars, many of them now teaching at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. And they are so smart! So credentialed from fine universities: Yale, Sorbonne, Hebrew University, and so forth… We learn that there are few eternal verities in Jewish Studies.
We also invite people from the world of business and politics to share their wisdom as it relates to Jewish life and leadership. With them we learn the shifting complexities and expectations of community, whether that be a community of consumers, Congressmen and women, or congregants. It is sobering for all of us to recognize that everyone agrees with the notion that we are living during a transition; we just don’t know to what we’re transitioning. There’s the rub…
Yet with all the stress on the new and evolving, some things do not change, including the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice. This past Wednesday night Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center reminded us that for 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. He spoke with Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist who is best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Together they reminded the rabbis to keep our eyes on the prize.
Congregational life is changing and by definition, so too must the congregational rabbinate. We are less and less called upon to be scholars, experts in Jewish studies. More and more we are called upon to serve our temples through compassionate caring and connection. Adhering to “the way we have always done it” has slowly changed to doing “whatever is new and hip.” We are truly in new digital territory with analog maps. That consensus is shared by the vast majority of rabbis. So many Reform rabbis agreeing about anything en masse is cause to pay attention.
Rabbis are opinionated people with a deep sense of obligation to our congregations. We know that we will be called upon for unimaginably wonderful moments. We also know that we will be called upon to be present, to hold the center in the midst of devastating loss. We are not prophets yet we are often expected to fill that role – as well as the role of priest. Being at a conference of colleagues reminds us all that we are all human. We lack super powers. We are lonely sometimes. We are blessed to be present in the most sacred moments of life. Thirty years after my ordination and a day after the CCAR annual convention, I feel more blessed, luckier every day, to be a congregational rabbi.
Rabbi Keith Stern serves Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA.
Today I attended a fascinating session on Gun Violence, titled “Gun Violence in America: Moving from Helpless to Hopeful,” here at the convention led by Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, 5th year HUC-JIR student Adena Kemper Blum, Diane Boese, and Alec Harris. Two local Chicago people working on this gun violence prevention modeled locally. In short, the approach is to go after the purchasing power of the military and law enforcement who purchase 40% of the guns in this country and with that purchasing power, require that the gun manufacturers utilize rapidly improving technology that promotes gun safety.
Does this seem a little bit unclear? Think of the emissions standards my home state of California passed. In essence, because of these regulations all car manufacturers must produce cars that will pass the strictest emissions standards in the state. This organizing effort is trying to do something similar with gun safety technology.
The presenters shared the experiences of traveling to a European gun show (many of the top gun brands are produced by European companies) to speak with the gun enthusiasts about the safety issues. We also heard how Chicago-based organizing efforts have been effective, as Cook County is in the process of making changes.
The question was so simple. “What drives you to do social justice?” But the answer was so complex and varied. The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation. But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal. After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all. And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.
I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that. It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.
And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group. Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment. In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program. But we didn’t do that. We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful. We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world. It had all the potential to be go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical. But it wasn’t. It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we created sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.
That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community. Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom. But it begins by listening and by sharing.
The question was so very simple. But I am grateful that it was asked. Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.
Rabbi Liz Wood is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, NY.