Categories
Books Torah

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — A Love Story

It began as many new relationships do:  I was curious but tentative.  How would this new entity fit into my life?  Did I really need it?  Could I make room for it in my over-stuffed brain and on my increasingly crowded bookshelves?

I received The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary as a gift during my fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR.  My professor, Dr. Andrea Weiss, was one of its editors.  Dr. Weiss was thrilled to share this project—into which so much love, care, and scholarship had been poured—with me and my fellow classmates.  Although I accepted the gift with gratitude, I wondered how much I would actually use yet another Torah commentary.  And what about this commentary’s emphasis on women?  I had read—and felt uncomfortable with—ways of approaching the Bible that sought to project the author’s agenda onto the sacred text.

The goal of the Commentary, I learned, was to share “the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present”[1] that would help its users enter the cross-generational conversation that is Torah study.  Its editors wanted to create a commentary that “would help women reclaim Torah by gathering together the scholarship and insights of women across the Jewish spectrum and around the world.”[2]  The Board of Directors of Women of Reform Judaism, which sponsored the project, wanted the commentary to “provide a way into Torah study for women who had previously felt excluded or marginalized.”[3] The Commentary encompassed recent discoveries about the richness and complexity of life in the Ancient Near East.  Its authors and contributors included scholars such as Dr. Ellen Umansky, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Dr. Carol Meyers, Dr. Judith Hauptman, Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Blu Greenberg.  This was my kind of agenda!WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

I began to use The Torah: A Women’s Commentary in my studies at HUC-JIR, at my student pulpit, and in my work after ordination.  The way in which the commentary combines traditional rabbinic sources and contemporary scholarship dovetails with my own approach to Torah study.  Each parashah begins with an introduction and outline, which provides an overview of the Torah portion and its themes.  The central commentary, a running exegesis, is patterned after the way commentary is presented in Mikraot G’dolot.  Short essays by contemporary biblical scholars elaborate on or challenge the central commentary’s point of view.  Each parashah includes teachings from rabbinic literature and other commentaries, presented by a scholar of rabbinic literature—sources that I could explore in greater detail on my own if I desired.  I liked each parashah’s contemporary reflection, an essay by a current Jewish scholar, about what meaning the text has for us today.  I was often moved by the voices section, which offers creative interpretations—mostly poetry—of the parashah’s themes.

My relationship with The Torah: A Women’s Commentary entered a new phase when I became one of the writers for its Study Guides. Conceived as part of the original project, the Study Guides are designed to be used in conjunction with the Commentary.  Writing the study guides allowed me to immerse myself in all aspects of the Commentary.  As I prepared each guide, I focused on the overarching themes in each parashah, and sought to understand—with the help of the central commentary—the p’shat of the text.  I thought about the questions I had about the text, and about how I could help those studying the Torah portion to answer these and other questions, using the resources in the Commentary.  With the guidance of Dr. Weiss and Dr. Lisa Grant, editors of the Study Guide project and master teachers of Torah, I learned to ask questions that would help students delve more deeply into the text.  I wrote questions arising from other sections of the Commentary that I hoped would lead to a greater understanding of the biblical text and to how our rabbinic ancestors, contemporary scholars, and poets saw each parashah.  I asked questions that I hoped would allow students using the study guide to think about relationships between the biblical text and their own lives.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is the commentary to which I turn first—for my own study, when I am preparing a D’var Torah, or when I am getting ready to teach.  It is the Torah commentary that I recommend most frequently to students.

I often use poems from the voices section in my sermons.  Although it is difficult to choose a favorite, this poem by Barbara D. Holender [4] expresses eloquently the joys of immersing ourselves—aided by this wonderful Commentary—in the sacred song that is Torah:

Torah

 

Even when you hold it in your arms,
you have not grasped it.
Wrapped and turned it upon itself
the scroll says, Not yet.

 

Even when you take them into your eyes,
you have not seen them: elegant
in their crowns the letter stand aloof.

 

Even when you taste them in your mouth
and roll them on the tongue
or bite the sharp unyielding strokes
they say, Not yet.

 

And when the sounds pour from your throat
and reach deep into your lungs for breath,
even the words say, Not quite.

 

But when your heart knows its own hunger
and your mind is seized and shaken,
and in the narrow space between the lines
your soul builds its nest,

 

Now, says Torah, now
you begin to understand.

 

 

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein serves Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, as well as teaches the Introduction to Judaism program for URJ in the DC area. She also was one of the writers of the Study Guides for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  Purchase the The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary.

[1] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Women and Interpretation of the Torah,” p. xl

[2] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Forward,” p. xxv

[3] Ibid

[4] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Torah,” p. 1234

Categories
Books Torah

Leading Torah Study: Framing the Message

What does it mean to lead a Torah study?  When we sit with congregants, friends, are guests in different communities, what is it we are doing when we are given the honor to lead a Torah study?  There is something quite amazing that we are doing – we are framing the message for this group. For that short moment in time that we are asked to lead, we are transmitting a concept, idea, ideal or moral teaching that we believe the group needs to hear.  It is a truly powerful moment and the texts, commentaries, works that we bring to the table also convey the message of what our values are or what sources contribute to our very own understanding of the week’s parashah.  For the Torah studies that I lead, I am indebted to a rabbi and teacher who taught me the important lens of gender to bring forth powerful lessons, messages and teachings.

In the Fall of 2011, I found myself sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss.  Within the first ten minutes of her class, I quickly discovered that all I thought that I had learned, all that I thought that I knew about Torah, it was as if I was viewing only half a painting.  I was studying and teaching about an incomplete picture.  From that point on, Dr. Weiss challenged us to try to step back and expand the lenses through which we viewed Torah.  That is, to also use the lens of a woman’s view when studying and teaching Torah.

It is not an easy thing to find one’s understanding of Torah to be so challenged.  Or more simply put, to be told that I had been missing so much in my studies up until that moment.  But in that challenge, I found that it freed me to be willing to engage with our sacred texts in a way that I never had – to appreciate Torah for all of its voices and to see the beauty in the rainbow of Torah interpretation.  And where do we turn to begin this discussion?  For me, it has been and continues to be the WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

In the early pages of this work, Drs. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrew Weiss write “In reproducing the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present, we envision our readers joining the centuries-old dialogue through their own personal and communal study.  We hope that The Torah: A Women’s Commentary will inspire and invigorate a lifelong exploration that will go beyond these pages and will shape women and men in our communities well into the future.  In this way, all of us will rightly pay tribute, at last, to the Torah of our mothers and fathers.”

I believe these words to be an important and perhaps even sacred charge for the Torah that I teach and the message that I pass on week to week.  What does this charge practically look like?  For me, it means beginning my Torah studies with the outline that can be found before every parashah in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  And what happens when I begin the sacred conversation with this outline? Often times, I’ll find a comment or two during, but especially after the formal teaching, where someone will share how they’ve never thought of looking at Torah in this way.  Other times, someone will tell me how the study helped them come to the realization that they’ve never looked at how the generations of commentaries before the last few decades almost all are devoid of a woman’s voice!

womens commentaryTo study Torah in this way slowly began to permeate the other ways in which I have come to understand Judaism and its rituals.  Because of this eye-opening experience, I have been spurred to begin exploring other parts of our tradition for the voices of not only women, but those other silenced minority voices.  I believe that in that class nearly five years ago, Dr. Weiss gave me a gift whose reward benefits not only me, but all who I am grateful to study Torah with during my rabbinate.  The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a work that causes us to ask difficult questions, to look at our Torah in new and exciting ways, and continues the important work of giving voice to all within klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sholom and is a current Pines School of Graduate Studies Doctor of Hebrew Letters student.  Check out Rabbi Weisblatt’s video about The Torah: A Women’s Commentary

Categories
Reform Judaism Technology Torah

Na’Aseh V’Nishma: Podcasting the Aural Torah

In an age of video and universal sensory stimulation, podcasts are a strange niche. They require us to only listen, and as the success of so many of them has shown, there is an audience that wants to only listen. One of the greatest images of the Golden Age of America is the family gathering around the radio to listen – to the news, to the Lone Ranger, maybe even to a surprisingly realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, with which Orson Welles displayed the true power of the spoken word, sending the population who was unaware of the fiction of the radioplay into a frantic tizzy at the news that aliens had invaded. Listening, as everyone with even the slightest understanding of Judaism knows, is one of the key components of our tradition. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  “We will do, and we will listen,” said the Israelites in acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 27:4, effectively founding Judaism.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many people most renowned for their podcasts are Jews: Sarah Koenig of Serial, Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, and the seemingly omnipresent Ira Glass of This American Life, just to name a few. This connection was not lost on us when we set out to make what has become Nü Rabbi, but it certainly added to our confusion as to why (at the time) there were no Progressive Jewish podcasts with similar structure. So, we set out to make one.

Initially, we thought we’d interview the rabbinic luminaries of our Reform world about hard-hitting topics. And then we tried to book those interviews. Needless to say it didn’t work out so well. But while trying to practice our interview and microphone skills on our classmates, we discovered something all the more precious: The voices and opinions of the up-and-coming rabbinical and cantorial students at our school. And thus was born Nü Rabbi – a play on “New Rabbi” and the oft-heard phrase “Nu, Rebbe?” when a particularly insistent question is asked of a Rabbi. In effect, what we have ended up creating is the beginning of a Mishna for our day and age. The Tannaim are ourselves and our classmates – discussing, windingly and in many different manners, some of the most pressing issues of our day. Our first issue was, just like in the Mishna, prayer.

Mahu t’filah?”– what is prayer– we asked ourselves and our colleagues, and the beautiful Torah spilled forth. But this was only the beginning of our journey. We then had to learn the editing software, to commission music and art, to figure out how to make it all flow together into something imminently listenable. As of now, we think we did a pretty good job. Four of our classmates (Stephanie Crawley, Dan Slipakoff, Harriet Dunkerley, and Samantha Frank) and a recent ordinee of JTS (Rabbi Jessica Minnen) all contributed the Torah of their hearts, and the combined product, the stitching together of all of them with the help of the connecting thread of Quincy Ledbetter’s wonderful music, is a rich aural page of mishna. Listen for yourself, and let us know what you think!

 

Andy Kahn and Josh Mikutis are both rabbinical students (’18) at HUC-JIR in New York, and are both three-time recipients of the Be Wise Grant in Jewish Entrepreneurship. This coming year, Andy will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple, and Josh will be working at the 92nd Street Y.

Categories
Shavuot Torah

Shavuot and Closure—An Acknowledgement of the Past Before Offering First Fruits and Welcoming Revelation

This year Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the end of the fiscal year, and, for our family, the end of living in the home that we have occupied for the past seven years.  Past are the trials and triumphs of acquiring new knowledge and navigating challenging social situations in the previous school year; present are the last appeals for gifts before July 1; and the future is unknown for how it will feel to walk away from the home that has witnessed so many firsts in our family: the first time our sons met each other after our second son was born, the first Havdalah when the sons commenced the ritual of adding tasting to the smelling of the spices, the first family movie night when everyone actually agreed on the same movie.  Even in the excitement of the firsts of the coming year, letting go of the place that held the firsts of yesteryear is difficult.

In some ways, the biblical custom of offering the first fruits on Shavuot seems to acknowledge this.   The ritual as described in Deuteronomy 26 includes a storytelling mechanism that allows the person offering the fruits to share the challenges and feats of the past.  And while in this case it is the sharing of a collective past of the Israelites—starting with their ancestor who was a wandering Aramean—by the time that the person gets to the end of the ritual, instead of speaking in the collective voice, the offerer speaks individually:  “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, Adonai, have given to me.”

Assessing our own individual past, acknowledging it and coming to terms with it, seems a healthy way to move forward as we ready ourselves to accept the gifts of our future.  Judaism gives our communities collective ways to reflect on personal life experiences and our responses to them.  This year, during the time of Counting the Omer—amidst the packing, the schlepping, and the stress—I have taken time out to reflect not only on the past year, but the past seven.  This process helps my find a bit of closure as I look to the future that I hope will be filled with new adventures, sacred moments, and revelation.

Our cherished and wise colleague, Rabbi Cindy Enger, gave me a great tool by which to do this in her brilliant teaching when I heard her speak some weeks ago.  She shared with her community a teaching by Rabbi Nancy Flam who drew from the pioneering work of a Jewish educator named Rachel Kessler (z”l).

Nancy suggested four areas to reflect on when coming to closure—in preparation for a new beginning.

  1. First articulate the gain: What are the gifts that you’ve received by being part of this past experience?
  1. Second, acknowledge the loss: Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing the gifts of having participated in this experience, it is important to acknowledge the sadness that may come with closure.
  1. Next, establish personal power: Where else in my life do I have or can I create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this past experience?
  1. Finally, establish realistic continuity: While not denying that we are coming to a true ending, is it possible that there will be places of continuity with people and practices established as part of this experience?

This season of anticipation—of receiving our ultimate guide for taking new steps in our lives—seems especially apt for my family and me.  Yet, for so many of us, as we enter the summer, we each have the opportunity to reflect on the past year, appreciate special experiences within it, and move forward with both excitement and gratitude.  So if you, like me, will be awake through the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, you just may have the opportunity to reflect on an experience from the past that would help you embrace the promise of an enlightened tomorrow by following these prompts:

  • What I’ve received from this experience that I will always take with me is…
  • What I will miss about this experience is…
  • Other places where I have or can create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this experience include…
  • I hope to establish realistic points of continuity by…

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

 

Categories
Inclusion

Each of Us is a Letter

Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.

Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.

However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.

When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.HeadshotwZach

How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.

Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.

May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.

Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA 

Categories
Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Marching toward a World of Justice

Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.”

What is the work we are called to do?  Along with nearly two hundred of my colleagues, I was honored to participate in America’s Journey for Justice.  Along with Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Minnesota, I walked the last leg in Alabama, ending the day by crossing over into Georgia.

That particular day, moving from state to state, gave us the opportunity to reflect on the significance and meaning of what the name “United States of America” stands for. Is there equal opportunity throughout our country?  Are we united in ending racism and discrimination?  In particular, I was moved by talking to the men in the group who, like me, are fathers.  What are the realities for their children, when they go to school and when they drive down the road, when they go to the ballot box and when they seek employment?  It was an exciting moment to reach the end of the long day’s walk and cross over from state to state.  The moment of celebration was tempered, however, by what I see as a central aspect of this walk: the desire to create equality and justice all throughout our land.

That particular day was also a Friday, which meant we ended the day by welcoming Shabbat.  We sang Shalom Aleichem and imagined the angels that would accompany us on the journey towards peace.  We made Kiddush together, and celebrated its message that God brought us forth from bondage: and now that we were taking these actions to move our country from oppression to opportunity.  We tore open the rich white braids of the challah and taught our new friends that Judaism’s sacred teachings command us to journey for justice.

In Deuteronomy Rabbah, we read, “R. Joshua ben Levi said: When a man walks on the highway, a company of angels goes before him announcing: ‘Make way for the image of the Holy One, blessed be He.’”

This journey from Selma to Washington is sacred, and God is present in every step down those country highways.  We answered hateful cries with songs of peace.  We met ignorance and bigotry with love and dignity.  We shared stories of vulnerability and fear and we shared hopes and dreams.

And we did it all carrying a Torah scroll, proudly, alongside the American flag.  Torah, which begins with the story of creation, because we are all responsible for one another.

During the weeks of this journey, the scroll will be in places where it has never been seen before.  May its wisdom and beauty and its clarion call to pursue justice inspire all those on the journey.  We may not complete the work, but when the Journey reaches its destination, may we be ever closer to a world of Justice.

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.

 

Categories
Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Keep on Walking, Keep on Talking, Marching up to Freedom’s Land

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around

We’re gonna keep on a walkin, keep on a talkin,

Marchin up to Freedom’s Land

As we marched in the hot humid sun, a group of truly courageous and gusty Georgian women began singing this Freedom Song in beautiful harmony.  Their singing gave me strength and served as a connection to the past.  They reminded me of why I was there: to walk, to talk, and to march for justice and freedom for all.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for this journey.  Yes, I knew I would help carry the Torah during the day’s 18 mile journey, but it was the walking and the talking that truly inspired me and it was the extraordinary people that I met on my trip that will stay with me long after my feet stop aching.

Over breakfast, I sat with Royal who shared his anger that he could not join the numerous fishing and hunting clubs in town because of his skin color.  He worried about his five year old son whose best friend is white.  “What will happen when my son’s friend has a birthday party at the Fishing Club?” he asked me.  “Will the boy include my son in the birthday party or not?  Will the father turn his son into a racist or will the boy recognize the ignorance of his father’s way?”

In the morning, I walked alongside Shelly who was concerned about the next generation.  She shared that those without an education often find work as a restaurant server – making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – barely enough to make a living.  Shelly inspired me by accepting a new job tutoring high school seniors, enabling these students to move forward with their education and their dreams.

In the afternoon, I stood by Keisha’s side.  It was a transformative moment in Keisha’s youth that led her to become an advocate for change.  She told me that she believes it is a smile, a wave of the hand, a kind word that will truly change the course of our country.  Her heart pushed her to create a new non-profit that will support future business owners and help get people back to work.

Later that day, I was honored to chant from the Torah and read these words: “If there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin” (Deuteronomy 15:7).  Rabbi Jill Perlman shared a beautiful teaching that in order to break open a hardened heart we must first unclench our hands and reach out to each other.  Over the course of my journey, I recognized the power of not only my hands, but also my feet.  By holding on to the marchers next to me and by walking by their side, I was able to open my heart to their worries, their challenges and the injustice that pervades our society.  By being present and sharing my entire body and soul, my heart was opened to their experience.

I only marched for one day in the steamy 100 degree Georgian heat, but Royal, Shelly and Keshia are marching the entire length of the journey.  They’ve come so far already, but it’s still a long way to the Promised Land.  May the beautiful singing inspire them and continue to push us all to open our hearts and our hands, for we must keep on walking, keep on talking, and marching up to Freedom’s Land.

Rabbi Andy Gordon serves on the clergy team of Temple Sinai of Roslyn. 

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.

 

Categories
Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Acknowledging and Transforming our Legacies

As I got off the plane in Atlanta to march in America’s Journey for Justice, I was reminded of the last time I was there. It was earlier this year. I was there with my wife and our two kids, ages 6 and 8, and my in-laws. My wife’s parents live in Boston, but my father-in-law grew up outside of Atlanta. In fact, he grew up as a Baptist, and descends from people who had lived in Georgia since before the American Revolution. His ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Members of his family owned a plantation and owned slaves.

My father-in-law hated much of that world and ultimately ended up a Jewish college professor in the Boston suburbs. But my wife grew up visiting her grandparents and extended family in Georgia. Now, we wanted to take the kids to Georgia while my parents-in-law were still able to do so. The only problem, of course, is that we also had to explain the history of racism in America to them as well. Granddaddy’s family weren’t bad people, were they?

The trip was great, including visits to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, in addition to family cemeteries, churches and homes. But the question we had to answer for our kids we also had to answer for ourselves. And, I believe, so do all white people and also all Jews (white and otherwise): what is my part in the structural inequality in this country, and what am I going to do about it?

That’s why I was so happy to join this march, as an individual and as a rabbi. Like so many of us, I am sure, I desperately want to do something. And so, going and marching, meeting people and hearing their stories, was so powerful. Sitting in a church in LaGrange, Georgia, and hearing from state leaders in the fight to protect voting rights was just different than it ever could have been from my home in New York City. And feeling like an ally of the people I met, from all over the country, could not have happened at home either. Most of what I will do in the future is to continue organizing here in New York with communities across race, class and neighborhood for better access to good education and housing. But I am more motivated to do that work because of what I felt marching through the ancestral home of my children’s granddaddy.

On our second night in LaGrange, after learning at the teach-in about barriers to voting access in Georgia, one of the marchers got into conversation with the state trooper who was sitting in the back (the march has been accompanied by copious law enforcement). She asked him what he thought about what he had just heard. We had learned that one way people can be kept from voting is by demanding they produce documents they don’t have. Many poor, and often African-American, people in the South were born outside of hospitals and as a result don’t have birth certificates. “My father doesn’t have a birth certificate either,” this white state trooper reported. He now saw the issue in a new way.

Because of our fathers’ stories, our fathers’-in-law, and our own, we are all in this together. Our privilege, or our oppression, is entwined with the experience of every other person in our country. And we will all need to be a part of the solution.

David Adelson serves East End Temple in Manhattan. 

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.

Categories
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Treading the Waters of Injustice

My head is swimming.

Not just with the heat of an 18 mile march on a cloudless summer day; not just with the bottles of water and Gatorade, although it is swimming for those reasons.

My head is swimming with pride at being a Reform rabbi in this moment; never have I been prouder. Never have I felt the power of the collective impact we can have in the sacred work of repair than I did on one long day. Our presence there was felt and appreciated; our willingness to accompany, to listen, was so valued, so noticed. We matter, as Reform rabbis, in this space and on this march. What it will mean beyond September is yet to be determined; it is for us to determine it. But in the moment, I cannot underscore how much it meant to me and to our fellow marchers that we engaged in a ministry of presence, teaching Torah with our feet, with our hearts, with our ears, and with an actual Torah!

My head is swimming with the heartbreaking and heart-filling stories I heard along highway 29 in Troup County, GA – the county with the ninth widest gap between rich and poor in the entire United States.

I heard the story of Royal who is, like me, afraid to watch his son pull the car out their driveway; realizing that the reason Royal is worried is because of the real fear that his son could end up dead after a routine traffic stop left my head swimming.

I heard the story of a Georgia State Trooper who was at the forum on voter justice; he was ostensibly there “just” for our safety, but as a colleague spoke to him at the end of the forum, it was clear that his eyes were opened. Having heard about the new and regressive laws coming forward in Georgia regarding voter registration, the trooper said, “Man — my father may not be able to vote; he was born at home and so doesn’t have a birth certificate.”

My head is swimming with the desperation in Jonathan’s eyes when I asked him why he was marching. “Why am I marching?” he nearly yelled. “People are dying! This country is failing to live up to its promise! Why am I marching? Because we have to wake this country up!”

I’m swimming with the optimism of Keshia who quit her job to walk the entire 860 mile journey. At the end, she’s moving to Detroit to start a not-for-profit that will help people start small businesses in their own communities.

My head is swimming with possibilities, inspired by the local political science professor who regularly reads the Georgia constitution with his students, as each proposed change to state voting laws is considered. He regularly calls into the Attorney General’s office in the middle of class to point out the unconstitutionality of a new statute. He and his students regularly are a part of stemming the tide of injustice, and his students learn firsthand that they can make change in the world.

My head is swimming with the shock and awe of having read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, all in the space of two weeks. Each of these texts is a must-read for those who wish to understand something of where we are in this country with regards to racial injustice, for those who wish to understand how got here, for those who believe that this is all about a few “bad apple” police officers or about people who “refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

I’m angry.

I’m angry at myself. Angry at how willfully blind I’ve been.

I’m angry at the system we have created and perpetuated and codified to ensure that there are two different systems of “liberty and justice for all,” at the ways in which Jim Crow is still alive and well and living all over our great country.

Are you angry? Do you want to do something about it? I don’t have answers yet, but my head is swimming– drowning, really. Will you jump into these scary, unfamiliar rip-tide waters with me?

Joel Mosbacher serves Beth Haverim Shir Shalom Synagogue in Mahwah, NJ.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog. 

 

Categories
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Bibilical Echoes

83 year old Hazel Dukes led our community with words that I’m sure are familiar to all who have and will march: “What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW! Her voice was simply a modern echo of Isaiah’s call (51:1) from the Haftarah for parashat Eikev, for us to be Rodfei Tzedek, Pursuers of Justice.

Standing at our rally at the steps of the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, we chanted along. Having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, I found it humbling to gather in this location where over fifty years ago George Wallace and his Alabama State Storm Troopers reigned. Now, historical signs throughout Montgomery are reminders of how far civil rights have advanced. All the State Troopers, not just the black officers, could not have been more helpful, courteous or supportive of our purpose. Yes, there has been progress, but as we know, the work is not complete.

Speaker after speaker and the experts for our teach-in the next night made this abundantly clear. Echoes from this week’s Torah portion linked to the goal of our marching. “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools matter” calls out to us in the spirit of Deuteronomy’s (15:7), “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.” Slavery may have ended after the Civil War, but the slave experience and subsequent manifestations continue to oppress the black community. We can relate, “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:15)

Walking in the hot Alabama sun, we chanted for justice and sang songs of freedom and friendship. (That included Hineh Mah Tov and Psalm 150.) On the one hand I felt as though we were reenacting history, but on the other I understood that there was so much more to be done. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20), found in next week’s parasha, echoed loudly. It reminded me that we joined with the black community seeking justice in the past and that we must continue to seek justice today in order that there be a more meaningful tomorrow.

Rabbi Bob Loewy serves Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.