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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

In Every Generation …

B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim.  “In every generation, a person must view herself/himself as if s/he had gone out of Egypt” (Pesachim 116b). Our sages teach this text to emphasize the need to praise God for the Exodus each and every Passover.  At the Seder, we celebrate as if we were actually there and the stories we recount actually happened to us. In a broader sense, we view this text as a call to compassion and action.  In each generation, we must think of ourselves as if we had known personally the bitterness of slavery and then the joy of freedom.  Knowing the pain of oppression, we are compelled to work for justice, b’chol dor vador, in every generation.

The text took on a deeper layer of meaning for me as I marched with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice this summer in Aiken County, South Carolina.  When I got off the bus at the staging area, holding the Torah scroll we would carry, I was approached by an older African American woman named Linda.  “Rabbi,” she said, “Thank you for being with us on this march.”  Making conversation, I asked her if this was her first day marching, meaning, had she participated the day before?  “Oh Rabbi,” Linda laughed, “I was marching back in the ‘60s!”  B’chol dor vador, in every generation we must work for racial justice.

My marching partner for one stretch of the journey was Eugene, an African American man about my age.  He was wearing a button that said, “I Am Marching For Civil Rights.”  Around the outside of the button, it said, “Washington, D.C. 1963.”  His grandfather had been there in DC in 1963 and worn that pin.  He had later given the button to Eugene when Eugene was 5 years old.  And Eugene wore it that day as we marched again for racial justice.  B’chol dor vador.

We were housed overnight at Paine College, a historically black liberal arts college in Augusta, GA.  Students were just beginning to arrive back on campus.  Nevertheless, one of the college’s theatre troupes heard that the marchers were staying there and, on short notice, prepared a performance for us.  They did a dramatic reading of pieces from Langston Hughes, Dr. King, and others, including a haunting 90 second rendition of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”  At the end of the performance, one of the college actors explained why they felt compelled to perform:  “We know why you’re marching.  You’re marching for us.”  B’chol dor vador.

Before I left to march, I talked with my young children about why I was going: people are being treated unfairly and unjustly due only to the color of their skin, and we hoped the march would make people pay attention to these things that weren’t right and do something about them.  My daughter, age 7, made the connection and said, “Like in Dr. King’s time, right?’  “Yes,” I answered.  Then this quizzical look came over her face.  “But why didn’t they fix that back then?” she asked.  “Why is this still happening now?”  She was incredulous that we hadn’t gotten it right yet, that racial justice still needed to be worked on.  And that, I told her, was why I was marching.  The struggle for racial justice from the past is, unfortunately, still incomplete.  That struggle belongs to us now in our day and age:

And so we march with Linda, who had to march once again, this time with the next generation. We march with Eugene, marching in the path trod by his grandfather.  We march with the Paine College students marching for their future.  The effort of old is our responsibility now.  B’chol dor vador, in every generation, we will continue to work for racial justice.

Rabbi David S. Widzer is the rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, NJ.  He  currently serves as one of the CCAR’s representatives on the Commission on Social Action.

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

 

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Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

True Strength at America’s Journey for Justice

I know what strength is. Reflecting on marching in the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice, I witnessed true strength. Now back home in New Jersey returning from LaGrange, Georgia, my husband and I had joined the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ delegation of over 150 rabbis who are also representing the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center. We are taking turns supporting this 40-day march to Washington, DC. I sit here nursing sore muscles, while marveling that we actually walked 15 miles, all in one day, in August, in the South. And we also carried a 20-pound Torah, recalling the iconic photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he held a Torah scroll and marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Yes, I feel strong for the physical feat, as I feel strong for engaging in action after I have felt so powerless watching tragic injustice after tragic injustice. I felt strong when I walked by Confederate flags, a pro-Confederate flag billboard, a Confederate monument, and scowling faces uttering rude comments. Yet, I felt proud that the majority of spectators, representing all races, were supportive or nicely inquisitive. They honked, waved, and leaned out of cars to ask about our unexpected parade, protected by the local police and state troopers. I smiled as mothers brought out their young African-American sons to see us walk by. Our leaders shouted that we were walking for them, so that they could get an education, stay out of jail, and have hope for justice.1mary

However, the true strength I witnessed was in the elders who led our march and carried the American flag. These men, beaten and brutalized so many decades ago, had marched with Dr. King during the original Freedom Marches. At their age and health condition, they deserve to sit or try some gentle exercise classes. Yet, they are dedicated to walking much of 18-22 miles a day for 40 days! Every night they will wrap blistered feet, sleep on uncomfortable cots and rise at 5 a.m. to walk with dignity. They are finding the physical strength to match their passion for justice. I also saw strength in a group of five women who joined the march, representing their local NAACP chapter. These five African-American grandmas showed up looking like they were ready to visit the shopping mall. Some did not even have sneakers or proper walking shoes. Instead, they wore their summer jewelry and sandals! They walked and sang uplifting church hymns in beautiful harmony. When our leaders announced that the last stretch would be walked at a pace double our normal stride, just as the heat index hit its peak at 120, these ladies dug in for the last miles with determination. Additionally, I witnessed strength in the young people, the next generation of NAACP professionals and volunteers, who have dedicated themselves to fighting injustice. Finally, I marveled at the strength of the woman, an African American community activist and organizer, who showed me the well-known photograph of herself at age 18 in 1996 throwing herself on a stranger suspected of being a white supremacist as an angry mob sought to attack him. She continues to have the strength to smile every day as she dedicates her life to bettering our nation.

During the walk, our shift of rabbis sang “Ozi v’zimrat yah, vay’hi li liy’shua. God is my strength and might; God will be my salvation. (Exodus 15:2)” I know I am blessed to have witnessed God’s strength working through so many amazing people. May the marchers continue to be endowed with strength to see the justice journey home.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethics.

This blog was originally posted on Huffington Post Religion. 

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Taking Torah on the Road

Do you remember holding a Torah scroll? Its sudden weight in your arms and soul, the joy of connecting through the generations to Sinai in an instant. When was that moment? Was it being called to the Torah for the first time as Bat or Bar Mitzvah, accepting a Shabbat or High Holy Day honor, or passing the scroll to a child or grandchild? In almost all of these memories, likely that the place of that moment is in the sanctuary.

The contrast between holding a Torah in synagogue and holding a Torah anywhere else but a synagogue is what struck me the most when I held the Torah scroll on Friday, August 7. Along with twenty others, I was on Route US-29 walking for nineteen miles with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice from Opelika, Alabama to West Point, Georgia, flanked by six Alabama State Police. The Torah had come down the mountain. I held the Torah tight, embracing its teachings, its symbolic presence, my personal memories of holding Torah when I was ordained a rabbi and when I handed the scroll to my son and then daughter as they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and my vision of the iconic photo in Arlington National Cemetery of the Torah in the arms of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Torah in my arms came from Chicago Sinai Congregation because of the leadership of Rabbi Seth Limmer, who invited his congregation to lend a Torah scroll to make the entire 860 mile journey over forty days from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C. A waterproof backpack with Torah messages written on it and a banner from the Religious Action Center was at the ready if there was any threat of rain. Over 150 rabbis have volunteered escort the scroll, taking daily shifts during the entire journey.

Mirroring the forty days Moses stood on Sinai receiving the message of Torah, we will march about forty days bringing the values, teachings and relevance of Torah to the streets of America. On Friday, August 7, I was joined by Rabbi Peter Stein, from Rochester, NY. Several other fellow marchers enjoyed taking the scroll for a mile or so. Many were not Jewish but felt – as they called it – the inspiration of carrying God’s word.

For those watching us march, on their porches, in stopped cars, once in a while lining the roads, there were only two visible symbols: the American flag and the Torah scroll. That was all: six police cars, about 20 marchers, and two symbols. What could they be thinking? News reports prepared the remote townships about the march. We would sing our songs and shout our chants for justice. Still our march took many by surprise. I am sure that this was the first Torah scroll many had ever seen. I wanted to stop to explain, but we had our marching orders. We did not stop from 8 am to 4 pm that day; the Torah did not rest; our message was on the move. For those who knew even a little, the symbol of the Torah demanded a response: we have Jewish values that are synonymous with Christian values and Muslim values and many other peoples’ values and most importantly with American values: we cannot stand idly by when our neighbors are in need.

W.E.B. Du Bois said, “The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.” Over those many miles, my feet though weary felt lightened by the embrace of Torah. Etz Chayim Hi – The Torah truly is a Tree of Life, and all who hold it tight will find happiness (Prov. 3:18). I will never hold the Torah scroll the same way.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has served Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota for eighteen years.  

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

 

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Tora(h) is Her Nickname

I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led marchers to that city from Selma, sixty years after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus there, and two days after America’s Journey for Justice began. As I explained to my congregation before I left, after too many needless deaths of African-Americans over the past year, participating in the march felt like the most powerful way I could stand up for the Jewish teaching that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).  So I set out for Montgomery, together with two members of my congregation, to march and most proudly, to carry the Torah along the route.

My connecting flight to Montgomery was on a small plane, the kind only big enough for one flight attendant.  The flight attendant was a young African-American woman.  “Welcome aboard,” she greeted us before take-off, “my name is Torah.”

Coincidence? That’s one way of describing it.

I had to know more about her name, so after the plane had landed, I told her a little bit about the Jewish meaning of Torah, and why I was coming to Alabama. She corrected me on the spelling – it’s actually Tora – and she told me it was her nickname.

Standing face to face with her, I thought of a legend about the early Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, who used to tell his students: Don’t just talk about the Torah. Be Torah.

And here she was.

It was a good reminder that the most sacred aspect of my journey would be listening to other people’s Torah.  Fundamentally, it’s not about issues, politics or policy; it’s about people. I came to the march, first and foremost, because I have plenty to learn about other people’s experiences with injustice in our society.  Just as importantly, I have plenty to learn from other people’s insights into how we can overcome it together.  The march seemed like an incredible opportunity to learn from other people who are busy being Torah.

So who was the Torah I learned while marching? I met Alabama churchgoers, New York union workers, college student activists, people who lived through the civil rights struggles of fifty years ago, and their grandchildren in tow, many wearing t-shirts with pictures of Dr. King.

I listened as one young organizer addressed the room, taking for granted the fact that everybody there knew someone who had been killed by a police officer, and most people nodded in agreement.

I chatted with one of the Alabama State Troopers who protected our group all day, in poignant contrast to the march of 1965, and who told me it was an honor that he held the Torah scroll for a few moments.

I commiserated about the heat with a woman who told me she had been searching for a job for so long, so long.

I sat on the bus with a retired minister and firefighter who had been beaten walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King, who described his childhood dread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the promotions he knew he had been passed over for at the firehouse because of his race, who explained to me why he felt so uplifted organizing this march, and why he was so confident about the power of the next generation to fight for a better world.

Rabbi Leib ben Sarah elaborates on the principle associated with the Maggid:  “A person should see to it that all her actions are a Torah, and that she herself becomes so entirely a Torah that one can learn from her actions and her motions and her motionless clinging to God.”*

I don’t know too many people who can claim to live up to that challenge all the time, but marching in Montgomery seemed like an important step in trying to meet it a little more fully. Like the other 150 Reform rabbis who signed up to participate in the march, I feel honored to have been able to participate in such a historic and sacred event, and privileged to have had the chance to jump on a plane to practice what I preach.

By carrying the Torah, I learned so much Torah; by learning so much Torah, I have seen again just how much this world needs us to be Torah.

*Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim. I adjusted the language for gender in honor of Tora.

Rabbi Beth Kalisch lives in Philadelphia and serves as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.  

A version of this blog originally appeared on Rabbi Kalisch’s blog and the RAC’s blog.

 

 

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Why We’re Marching in America’s Journey for Justice

We are participating in the N.A.A.C.P.’s “America’s Journey for Justice” is, individually and as part of the collective of 140+ Reform rabbis, a giant step for Justice. This 40 day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., with 5 final days in DC, focused on racial and structural inequality under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter,” is more than a Journey of many rabbis over 860 miles. With at least one rabbi marching every day of the American Journey for Justice, a sacred scroll of the Torah will experience the entire length of this journey. Our sefer Torah that teaches of our 40 year journey through the wilderness will accompany us on this 40-day journey for the justice our Torah demands.

Why are we working for racial justice at this time? Why are we marching?

We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality and freedom.

We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth, and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness.

Thank you for joining us.

Sincerely,

Joel Abraham, David Adelson, Erica Asch, Peter Berg, Shoshanah Conover, Wendi Geffen, Sam Gordon, Asher Knight Esther Lederman, Seth Limmer, John Linder, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, Joel Mosbacher, Mark Miller, Jason Rosenberg, Adam Spilker

On behalf of the ROR Leadership Team

This blog was originally posted on the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s blog

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Social Justice

A Lamentation and a Journey

עַל אֵלֶּה | אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי | עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב: פֵּרְשָׂה צִיּוֹן בְּיָדֶיהָ אֵין מְנַחֵם לָהּ

For these things, I cry out.  My eye, my eye pours down water, because the comfort that would restore my soul is far from me. My children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed. Zion spreads open hands, but she has no comfort.         Lamentations 1:16-17a

Churches are burning again in the United States, and I am swept back two decades.

It was June of 1996 and I had just arrived back on the East Coast and was trying to integrate into my community at Hebrew Union College in New York.  I received a note from Rabbi Nancy Wiener, one of the faculty at HUC, who invited anyone who was interested to travel with her and some other student volunteers to Boligee, Alabama.  There, working out of a Quaker Workcamp, we would volunteer for a week to help re-build some of the churches burned in a wave of hate-filled arson that had swept through black churches in the South.

The experience was transformative.  Travelling with cantorial and rabbinic students, I felt proud that this could be my job – to travel with my congregants to place ourselves and our hands in service of others in need. The hospitality was humbling. The church women refused to let us bring our own food the jobsite – they insisted on cooking for us, every day.  They said it was the least that they could do.

I felt good about the spackling and sanding that I was doing, but I did not quite understand until Tisha b’Av.  Named after the date at which we are told that the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the Romans burned the second Temple in 70 CE, it is the only other full day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish tradition, besides Yom Kippur.  As a Reform Jew, the holiday had been of historical interest to me, but I failed to grasp the visceral impact of losing one’s house of worship – until our group decided to hold our Tisha b’Av commemoration at the former site of the church we had come to rebuild.

These churches were small – hardly more than a central room for worship, an office, and a kitchen.  We stood on the blackened ground of the sanctuary and, as the sun set, were surrounded by the grave markers of at least a century of parishioners.  These local churches were small in population as well – only a few families, who had been members for generations, whose families were buried surrounding their worship home.  The law did not allow this community to build in what had become a cemetery, and so their new house of worship – although strong and clean, would stand alone several miles down the road, without the presence of loved ones.

For me, that was when it hit home.  I thought about how I had felt when I lost the synagogue that I grew up in – the loss of a place to come home to at the High Holy Days; the place that I had known I would see the same faces (a little older), in the same seats.  But, that Temple still exists, I was just no longer a member.  How much more the loss by our ancestors, with no place to travel to at each pilgrimage holiday, no direction to turn when praying, no high hill to stand on and look out over the capital, the graves of ancestors, the history of generations, the promise of a people.

Three years later, in my first year at my present congregation, we learned of a fire set at a friend’s congregation.  That Tisha B’Av, I asked each congregant to find a place in our building where they had a special memory.  We travelled from room to room, picking up people and hearing their stories, building a mental map of our Temple.  Finally, we each made a fabric square, illustrating and completing the phrase, “A Temple is a House of….” which were sewn together into a quilt which we sent to Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

We see Tisha b’Av as a grand historical moment – the transition from animal sacrifice to prayer and rabbinic Judaism.  Our Reform forebears saw it as a moment to be celebrated – the beginning of our mission into the greater world, to be a light among the nations, not apart.  And yet, there is the personal sense of loss that we have forgotten: the pew no longer present; the yahrzeit plaque melted into slag; the prayerbooks scattered and burned.

In reaching out to others, I rediscovered the loss of my people.  In feeling that loss, I was able to see not only what they had lost, but what it meant to them for us to be there, just to show with our physical presence that they were not alone, not abandoned, that not everyone wanted to wipe their home of worship from the earth.

On Tisha b’Av, we read from what is called in English, Lamentations, in Hebrew, Eicha.  Eicha is a barely articulate cry – “How?”  How can this have happened?  How can I deal with this loss?  How can I face a new reality, when my rock has been shattered?  We may have no answers to this plea, but we have actions to share the burden.  We will walk from Selma to Washington, DC with the NAACP’s Journey for Justice and we will say: Tell us of your pain.  We may not be able to fully understand it, but we can listen; we can try to carry some of that weight.  We can say, we will not let someone do this to you again, without putting ourselves in their way.

Eicha – how?  How can we do anything else?

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, NJ. 

Tisha b’Av (July 25-26) is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is the day when we mourn  our various destructions and exiles, and in many communities is marked by fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations, and the rituals of mourning. For the last several years, Reform CA has used this holiday as an opportunity to gather to reflect on the brokenness and alienation still present in society and recommit ourselves to the sacred call to repair.  Wherever you find yourself this Tisha B’Av– alone or in congregation, at camp or at home– we hope this resource, about the urgent need for racial justice helps you refocus and rededicate yourself, firmly rooted in our Jewish tradition.  This was created by Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner of Reform CA and Rabbi Joel Simonds of RAC-West.

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America’s Continuing Journey for Justice

Thirty summers ago, my family packed into the station wagon for a cross-country road trip.  One of the highlights of our entire experience was a visit to the old Universal Studios. My favorite part of the back lot tour, was this trick you could play, back in the day when Universal was a fun-filled studio tour and not a massive amusement park.  After driving through Amity Island and having Jaws attack your boat, after parting through the waters of the miraculously parted Red Sea, there was a random van sitting in an otherwise empty parking lot. This was just a standard seventies junk-mobile: no crazy Cadillac or even quirky VW Minibus. Still, this van was special: it was made out of Styrofoam. Therefore, quite easily, you could lift up the entire “vehicle” with just one hand and hold the rear bumper high over your head. A properly taken photo made it look like you were Superman: saving the day, rescuing whatever family member had the tawdry task of lying down on the ground so you could “rescue” them.  Somewhere there’s a picture of my dad rescuing me from such a crash; I remember thinking how cool it was, and how much I wanted to grow up and be Superman, rescuing the day, just like my dad.

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Fifty years ago, two other phenomenal photos were taken that continue to inspire me, too. This one’s more famous. It was taken on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Captured in the center is Martin Luther King, undaunted, returning to cross that bridge peaceably no matter whet Sherriff Jim Clark had waiting for him on the other side. In the crowd of leaders walking with King stands out a bearded face: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who later famously described the moment crossing the bridge as “praying with his feet.” The second photo, taken three days later in Montgomery—when the voting rights march had reached its destination—featured not only Dr. King with Rabbi Heschel on his right.  Standing immediately to the left of Dr. King was Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of the Reform Movement of Judaism. In his arms, Eisendrath holds a sacred scroll of our Torah.  Judaism standing for justice: these photos are the reason I became a rabbi.  

Three weeks ago, I participated in a conference call for the National Conference on Civil Rights.  Because too little has changed in 50 years, most of the call discussed strategy and tactics for a key Voting Rights rally in Roanoake, VA. Yet, towards the end of the call, NAACP President Cornell Brooks asked for “fifteen more minutes of our time” to share with us some important news.  By the time that quarter hour had concluded, I was inspired: the NAACP was undertaking a 40 day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., calling it “America’s Journey for Justice.” The remarkably appropriate headline of the trek was, “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our school matter.” Every night of the 860-mile journey, travelers would come together in prayer, and study together in teach-in sessions on the compelling civil rights issues of our day.  A massive rally would celebrate the Journey’s reaching our nation’s capitol, and a large-scale advocacy day for civil rights would follow.

I was “in.” My mind immediately made associations: 40 days of walking towards the promise of a better America were so perfectly parallel with my people’s saga of walking 40 years towards our own Land of Promise.  The two pictures from 50 years ago entered my mind: I knew the Jewish community needed to be on this march, from beginning to end.  Inspired by the image of King and Heschel on the bridge, I wanted to find a way to make sure a Rabbi—most likely a succession of 40 different ones—shared the entire distance of this journey.  Compelled by the picture of Eisendrath, I thought it would be powerful if our Torah scroll didn’t just appear in DC for the final rally, but accompanied us the entire 860-mile journey. I knew I could no longer be inspired by pictures of the past if I wasn’t willing to walk the walk in the present.

This week, our Reform Movement went public with our support for and participation in “America’s Journey for Justice.” Coordinated by our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., there will be countless opportunities for participation. Our Rabbis, through the work of our Central Conference of American Rabbis, and our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis campaign, will coordinate no fewer than 40 rabbis walking the distance of the journey, carrying the sacred scroll of our Torah (a scroll from my own Chicago Sinai Congregation, bearing the most appropriate cover “All its ways are Peace”).  The Congregations will come together not just to walk, but to be vocal participants in the many “rally days” to be held in multiple State Capitols along the way.  Learning resources and advocacy materials about voting rights, structural economic injustice, mass incarceration, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement will be brought to the institutions of Reform Judaism throughout America. Those who can walk will form relationships on the ground made through the experience of shared travel; the many who cannot attend will likewise be able to learn about the depths of racial injustice in America, and work to solve them. I cannot wait to see how I, how we, are changed by the experience. And how this shared experience of a Journey for Justice can change America.

I was lucky enough to visit Selma eight years ago. In its lovely Civil Rights Museum, visitors are greeted by a wall covered with post-it notes with the words “I was there” printed across the top.  The remainder of every note contained personal reminiscences of those who stood on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. It is a wall of powerful testimony.

I ask myself, “What do I want to put on the post-it note that will be read by the next generation?” That I watched the Journey on TV? That I read about it in the paper? No. I want to write, “I WAS THERE.”

This new generation can no longer look at pictures of the past to draw inspiration. We need a new generation of Reform Jewish leaders to step forward and to say, “We were there.” We need to be there today. There might be some who think the task is too big, be it the coordination of multitudes to march 860 miles, or making serious changes to the structural injustices so deeply ingrained in American society. However, if we really want to make our nation a true land of promise for all, we need to take a page out of the old playbook from Universal Studios: we need to think we are Superman, and we need to imagine accomplishing the impossible, we need to believe we can do all that is required to bring justice to our United States of America. And lest we think that is too long a road to travel, we need to remember every journey worth taking begins with a simple step.

I look forward to taking my simple steps on August 1, in Selma, Alabama.


Rabbi Limmer currently serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR. 

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Rabbis Reform Judaism

Renewing Our Spiritual Infrastructure

In May 1999, about 15 ½ years ago, the Conference passed its Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Principles, by an overwhelming majority.  Two years ago, the Reform Leadership Council endorsed a “Vision Statement” which, while more concise, reiterates the same ideas.  What place have these documents in our life now?  Where is our Movement headed today?

Following the Principles’ categories of God, Torah and Israel, most of us would agree that we are much more comfortable speaking about God’s role in our lives than we used to be, and when difficult individuals challenge us, we are more and more prone to remember that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  We have joined in the struggle to preserve and protect God’s creation, lifting our voice for a faith-based environmentalism in a society that still too often sees that as a contradiction in terms.  We are not as advanced as we might be in “encountering God’s presence in acts of justice and compassion,” still too prone to give in to wary congregants’ characterization of acts and statements of justice as “political” rather than “spiritual”.  We have, I believe, work to do in that area.

Do we pray as often we know we should?  Do we study as much, as regularly?  The Principles can serve us as a goad in these realms.  The CCAR, particularly under Debbie Prinz’s guidance, has helped us in both these areas—but we need to help each other as well.  “What are you studying these days?” we can ask our friends.  “Could I talk with you about some issues I’ve been having with prayer lately?”  Perhaps the Conference might conduct a periodic call-in session to talk about our spiritual lives.  With the collapse of the regional councils of the URJ years ago, perhaps the Conference might convene such gatherings in its regions, around regional kallot.  The College-Institute would, I am sure, be glad to host such conversations for colleagues in the vicinity of our campuses.

The section on “Torah” in the Principles commits us to the “ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”. Have we looked at a list of them recently?  Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, particularly in the Moznayim edition, is an excellent place to start.  Which of them calls to me?  Which ones used to call to me that I no longer fulfill—do I still agree with that decision?  Are there mitzvot that I have been considering for a long time—is now the time to respond to them?  Are there mitzvot not in Maimonides’ list that call to me?”

The Torah section concludes with a catalog of ways to bring Torah into the world.  It’s a good idea to review that catalog periodically.  What are we doing to “narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor”? To “act against discrimination and oppression”?  “To pursue peace”—in our own homes, our communities, in Israel?  “To welcome the stranger”?  “To protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources”?  Are we giving as much tzedakah—of our earnings and our time—as we might?

The Israel section invites us to ask similar questions: are we acting on “a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors”?  The news of the past several months reminds us how much the Reform Movement is needed to help stem the dangerous nationalistic tide that seems to be engulfing the Israeli government. How do we respond to the chaos in the Middle East?  I believe that a state for Palestinians must be created alongside the State of Israel.  You may not agree, but the Principles suggest that, whatever course we affirm, we need to work for its fulfillment.

And if we respond to all these prompts, “I am so stressed, I feel so pursued by difficult congregants or troubled students—I have no cheshech to ask such questions!” Attention to such mitzvot is a way to lessen stress, to remind ourselves, at a time when we feel that others are controlling our lives, of how much of our lives we can control, how much we can contribute to being partners with God, spreading Torah in the world, and realizing our ancient visions of the people and the nation of Israel.

The financial crises which have beset the arms of the Movement over the years have weakened some of our infrastructure.  We—our institutions and our colleagues—cannot let it weaken our spiritual infrastructure, our resolve to continue energetically to serve God and Torah.  We need to be strong in this time, colleagues; we need to strengthen each other.

I hope you will respond to these thoughts on RavBlog, and I will respond to you.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

Categories
Ethics Healing Rabbis Reform Judaism

The Red Tent: Oddly Compelling, Despite it All

I was slightly too young to swoon over the iconic mini-series “The Thorn Birds” in the early 1980’s (though my babysitters weren’t).  So imagine my excitement, tinged with an eye roll or five, when I saw that “The Red Tent,” based on Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel, would be broadcast over two nights (two nights!) in December.  In spite of more inaccuracies than the rabbi in me could count, Lifetime Television for Women (coincidence?  methinks not!) did manage to present the movie around the time the Torah portion containing Dinah’s story is read.  “The Bible Gave Her One Line” the trailer intoned dramatically.  Fine.  They had me at one line.  With a December 2nd article from the Forward titled “159 Thoughts We Had While Watching ‘The Red Tent’ (We Watched It So You Don’t Have To) beside me, and my husband happily watching the Packers game in the other room, I settled on the couch and prepared for Part One, also known as “A Blissful Two Hours Of Mockery.”

And I found I couldn’t look away.

So embarrassing!

To assuage said embarrassment, and mostly thwarted mockery, I’m playing with a few theories as to why.

Good production values.  I want to say that the Torah is just as visually arresting, and sometimes it is.  But sometimes sweeping desert vistas, ominous drum beats, what sounds like the almost constant accompaniment of the sitar, and veils softly billowing in the wind help things along.

Even better hair.  Whether growing up under the watchful eyes and shaped by the hyper-articulate wisdom of her mothers, lighting up a darkened palace with her first sexual awakening, losing more than anyone has a right to, suffering terribly, then flourishing in ways she never predicted, Dinah’s curls were unfailingly gorgeous.

Genuinely moving theological soundbites.  I still can’t put my finger on what lifted reflections like “God’s will doesn’t come through words – it’s in what we become,” and “To mourn is respectful; to remember is holy” out of the realm of florid nonsense.  Could it be that when you peel away the mannered accents on the actors’ part, and the tendency towards sarcasm on mine, these insights are more or less true?  The lump in my throat said yes.

To round out all the possibilities, at a pre-Chanukah gathering last night, I asked a member of our congregation’s Sisterhood what had moved her about “The Red Tent.”  She told me it had to do with Dinah’s ability to take what the women in her life had taught her and to use it to survive what the rest of her life brought.  Well… right, I thought.  If we’re very lucky, that’s something we all do with the memories of those who matter to us most.

I read The Red Tent in 1999, just months after my mother died, during my first year at HUC in Jerusalem.  It was neither my favorite nor my least favorite piece of literature.  But this congregant’s words struck a chord.  I realized that this story – however hyperbolic — is bound up with a specific loss in my life and with the person, and the rabbi, I have since become.  That’s what our best stories do.  They give our worlds back to us.  We bind ourselves to them.  And they point us towards something new.

By the way, the Packers won.  And against all odds, “The Red Tent” as a mini-series did too.  I’m filing it under “oddly compelling.”  And then I’ll be putting the word out to see if anyone has a used, double VHS tape of “The Thorn Birds.”

Rebecca Gutterman is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, CA.

Categories
CCAR Convention

Health and Healing, Wholeness and Holiness

In the Torah portion this week, the priests of ancient Israel find that their religious responsibilities include a role as a public health official.  With ritual and commandment, they help individuals confront a particular disease.  Physical health is an important component of spiritual well-being, and the priest has an important role to play in both.  Their goal is to help bring into the world health and healing, wholeness and holiness.

I am not a priest of ancient Israel.  I am not a doctor or a medical researcher.  I can’t cure cancer or heal an ailing child.  But I can raise awareness of pediatric cancer and raise money for research into its cures.  And I will shave my head tonight, along with so many of my rabbinic colleagues, in order to do so.  We stand together in the proud tradition of those seek the spiritual and physical well-being of others.  And our goals are the same as our priestly forbearers:  to bring into the world health and healing, wholeness and holiness.