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The Sin of Xenophobia

Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler

Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler

Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . (Deuteronomy 27.19)

In our sidra this week, among the litany of laws and statutes that Moses rehearses for the Israelites as they stand at the Jordan River is the admonition concerning fair treatment of the ger – the stranger. No fewer than 36 times in our Torah are we similarly admonished. You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23.9). When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you and your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19.33-34)

Dr. Fritz Bamberger, z”l, comments on this verse from Leviticus in the Plaut Commentary (p.803): “The ger, foreigner, who is resident in the land of Israel, must not only be protected against molestation but be shown positive love. . . Nowhere in ancient literature is there the deep concern with the feelings of the stranger that the Torah imposes on the entire community . . . .”

It is not my intent within the confines of this short davar to present a comprehensive commentary on the immigration quagmire that we can’t seem to solve in the United States. It is merely a brief expression of disappointment and dejection over the tenor of political rhetoric in our country as it has developed in recent weeks, particular with respect (or disrespect, as it were) to those people in our country who were not born within our borders. It is inflammatory, small minded, and mean spirited.

Just a recollection, if I may share it, now that we are approaching the Days of Awe. One of the sins listed in the litany as it is written in Gates of Repentance is xenophobia – fear of anything foreign. I remember that our High Holy Day guest rabbi at Union Temple for many years, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z”l, never wanted to read this passage. Though his English was highly sophisticated, as we remember, somehow his German background kicked in with this particular word, xenophobia, and he claimed it was too hard for him to pronounce. So I read that passage. And I have to admit that it was always a source of some amusement for me, especially given the extraordinary intellect of the man. I won’t read anything more into Rabbi Schindler’s aversion to reading that passage, especially since he’s not here for me to ask him. Nevertheless, we do remember that he came to this country at the age of 12 from his native Munich, Germany, seeking refuge from the Nazi regime. During World War II, he joined the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division in the Alpine Ski Patrol in Europe, and later served in an artillery unit. He was severely wounded while fighting in Italy. But he recovered, and ultimately was awarded three combat ribbons for bravery, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star. All his subsequent rabbinic accomplishments notwithstanding, here was someone who could have been viewed as nothing more than a “foreigner” in the United States, yet was willing to sacrifice his very life for his new country, and almost did.

Please allow me this brief statement of the obvious. Our country is a country of immigrants: people who have come here from countries far and wide seeking refuge from political and economic oppression, religious and racial discrimination and persecution, and simply aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families. We are their descendants. Every one of the public figures now speaking about immigrants in such degrading and hostile ways is a descendant of immigrants – foreigners. Ultimately it is up to us, I would assume, to let them know that their speech is disgraceful and unacceptable in the America that our ancestors, and even some of us, have worked so hard to build.

Women’s Rights A Bargaining Chip?

Suffragettes Marching

Suffragettes Marching

The photo to the right was taken on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Though the signs look blank from the camera angle, they actually contain the signatures of over a million Americans. The women carrying them are Suffragettes. On August 19, 1920, 95 years ago, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. While the Women’s Suffrage Movement was officially initiated in 1848, the battle for women’s voting rights had been waged for over a century in this country before that August day in 1920.

During these weeks in the Book of Deuteronomy we see the effort to construct a society within Ancient Israel that was concerned with fair treatment of the people within that society, based on the rule of law. Obviously many of the specifics of that time and place would be considered outmoded and inappropriate in our own time and place. The powerlessness of women is one of the most glaring of these. Nevertheless, American women have had to fight for virtually every civil right, including the right to vote.

women-learn-to-vote-1935-kheel-center-cornell

Women Learn to Vote. Kheel Center Cornell. CC

We have secured property ownership rights. But we’re still working on equal pay for equal work. We’re still working on employment non-discrimination, and parity in elected office and CEO positions. We’re still working on harassment prevention. We’re still working on anti-trafficking laws. We’re still working on paid pregnancy and maternity leave as a universal right. We’re still working on unimpeded access to health care and family planning. Despite decades of demonstrating, petitioning, and sustained pressure, there is still no Equal Rights Amendment within our Constitution. 95 years – fully an entire century – after being guaranteed the right to vote for the people who will decide our fate in state houses and the halls of Congress, and we are still fighting for basic civil rights. The battle over funding of Planned Parenthood continues to escalate, particularly as presidential politics continue to heat up. But women’s health care and family planning are not bargaining chips in presidential politics. They are the most fundamental rights that every woman ought to expect to take for granted.

While American women do indeed live in far better circumstances than many others in the world, there are still glaring insufficiencies in our legal system regarding women’s rights and protections. Within various non-white communities, the disparities are more glaring still. As the election season moves into high gear, women’s equality should be one of the top priorities in anyone’s platform. Anything less is unacceptable.

Tribute to a Hero and a Poem for Elul

Photo of Journey for Justice March from reformjudaism.org

Photo of Journey for Justice March from reformjudaism.org

Our family is spending a few days this week visiting Steve’s mom at her home in Columbus, GA. Rayna is anticipating her 95th birthday in mid-September. A great simcha, of course, but since it will be in the middle of the Holidays, we are here now to celebrate with her a bit in advance. As you may remember, Steve’s dad, Rabbi Alfred L. Goodman, z”l, served as Rabbi of Temple Israel of Columbus for some 33 years, during the 1950’s, ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and early ’80’s. Very deep into the Deep South, Columbus, like the rest of the region, certainly had its problems as the Civil Rights Movement progressed. A small coterie of rabbis throughout the South, Alfred among them, stepped up and became outspoken leaders alongside their Christian colleagues, on the front lines of the struggle.

As I mentioned in last week’s blast, during this entire month, the NAACP is leading the “Journey for Justice,” from Selma to Washington, DC. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is partnering with the NAACP, as Reform rabbis from all over the country are carrying a Torah scroll from station to station along this route. The “Journey for Justice” will culminate in a giant rally and lobby day in Washington the day after Rosh Hashanah.

But most heavily on our hearts this week is the death of Former Georgia State Senator Julian Bond, one of the shining lights of the Civil Rights Movement. From my earliest consciousness of the movement, Julian Bond’s name was one of those that became synonymous with the struggle for civil rights.

The following is a portion of the bio that appears on the website for the NAACP.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Bond’s family moved to Pennsylvania when he was five years old when his father, Horace Mann Bond, became the first African American President of Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), his alma mater. Bond attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and won a varsity letter for swimming. He also founded a literary magazine called The Pegasus and served as an intern at Time magazine.

In 1960, Bond was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as communications director from 1961 to 1966. From 1960 to 1963, he led student protests against segregation in public facilities in Georgia.

Bond graduated from Morehouse and helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). He was the organization’s president from 1971 to 1979.

Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965. White members of the House refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the House had denied Bond his freedom of speech and had to seat him.

From 1965 to 1975, he served in the Georgia House and served six terms in the Georgia Senate from 1975-86.

In 1968, Bond led a challenge delegation from Georgia to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and was the first African-American nominated as Vice President of the United States. He withdrew his name from the ballot because he was too young to serve.

Bond ran for the United States House of Representatives, but lost to civil rights leader John Lewis. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Bond taught at several universities, including American, Drexel, Williams, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard universities and the University of Virginia.

Julian Bond died on Saturday at the age of 75. He will be remembered by all those dedicated to humanitarianism and the cause of equal opportunity and civil rights for all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

This is a poem for Rosh Chodesh Elul which I read at last Shabbat Evening’s Service. One of our congregants was particularly touched and asked me to send it along in this blast.

Return: A Prayer for Elul
Shared by Trisha Arlin | Poem

Return to Elul.
The sky was dark, and the month began.
A special time of starting over;
A month of kindness and clarity;
Of consciousness and knowledge;
Of bravery and strength.
It is said that the truly evil are already condemned
And the truly good are already blessed.
So for the rest of us
There is Elul.

Return to ourselves.
In Genesis the moon is called, “the lesser light.”
And that’s how I feel tonight,
Less than what I should be.
What was I thinking?
I was afraid, I was hurt, I was anxious…
No excuses, I know what I did,
Maybe it wasn’t so bad
But maybe it was.
How can I make it better?
There is Elul.

Return to the people we wronged.
Use the ritual,
Create a context.
It makes it easier to speak:
I am so sorry.
I was wrong.
I lacked compassion in the moment
But I see things clearly now.
You don’t have to accept my apology,
We can do teshuvah together
If you want.
There is Elul.

Return to each other.
In community we pray
For the kindness to comfort and care;
And the clarity to see what must be done;
For the consciousness to accept the truth;
And the knowledge to get help if needed;
For the bravery to ask for forgiveness;
And the strength to forgive.
Most of all, we pray for all who are in pain or who cause pain.
All this and more because
There is Elul.

Bless the God of Justice, of Mercy and of Redemption that we may return every year,
As old as the darkness, as new as the moon.

Amen.

Journey for Justice

Kivie Kaplan NAACP National President and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kivie Kaplan NAACP National President and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This has been a difficult week for our country, as we marked the one-year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Baltimore, Staten Island, South Carolina and elsewhere, have experienced similar police confrontations with African Americans, and tensions with police have risen. The “Black Lives Matter” movement that emerged this past year is now justifiably asserting itself in the Presidential primary process. As New Yorkers, we not only suffered the horror of watching Eric Garner’s life snuffed out, we have suffered as well the targeted killing of two police officers as they sat in their patrol car last December. All this, as we mark the anniversary, also this very week, of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, 50 years ago.

On the other hand, a remarkable movement has been in full swing this month, in a partnership between the NAACP and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the “RAC”), in addition to a number of other organizations dedicated to social justice. [Read more about this history.]  In an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington during August and mid-September, the “Journey for Justice” is promoting a focused advocacy agenda including: fairness in our criminal justice system; unfettered access to the ballot box; sustainable jobs and a living wage; access to a solid public education. Over 100 Reform rabbis are carrying a Torah scroll from Selma up to Washington, DC, to culminate in a huge rally and lobby day on the day after Rosh Hashanah in September. Reform rabbis from all over the country have been traveling to points along the route, and marching for a short time along with partners from the NAACP.

We recall that in 1961 the RAC was founded, and the building in Washington built, by a Reform Jew named Kivie Kaplan, z”l, who at the time was President of the NAACP. Apparently a few years earlier Kivie and his wife traveled from Massachusetts to Florida on their honeymoon. They took a cab to an exclusive restaurant when they saw a sign outside that read, “No dogs, no Jews.” The cab driver, who was African American, said: “They don’t even bother with us.” At that moment Kivie Kaplan vowed to spend the rest of his life fighting that sign, and his leadership of the NAACP and the RAC were the results.
On this, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we recall that significant portions of this landmark legislation were drafted on the desk in library of the RAC. When the Supreme Court vacated a section of this bill with the Shelby Decision two years ago, it set off a wave of local maneuvering in different states to further chip away at the right to vote, the most fundamental right for all Americans. This should shock and alarm us all.
This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. It is during this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, that our tradition charges us with the responsibility to make Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. This now is our responsibility as Jews, and as Americans. Our entire country needs to be engaging in an accounting of its soul. I am proud of my colleagues who are participating in this march, and I will join with them in the efforts of this journey for justice. In the coming weeks and months, we will discuss the agenda of this march with greater specificity.

A Particularly Tough Weekend

And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul. . . . (Deuteronomy 10.12-13, from this week’s Torah portion.)

Shira Banki

Shira Banki

The news coming out of Israel has been particularly tough over this weekend. It seemed to ignite the moment we stepped onto the plane to leave late Thursday afternoon. I won’t be egomaniacal enough to suggest that one precipitated the other. Nevertheless, I wish I could have been there to participate in the LGBTQ Pride Parade on Thursday in Jerusalem (taking place as we drove to the airport), and then in the massive memorial gathering on Saturday evening in Zion Square – a gathering joined by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has had to evolve and do a great deal of soul searching during the first year of his presidency.

As you know, in the midst of the Pride Parade last Thursday, a lunatic stabbed six people marching in the parade, including 16-year-old Shira Banki, who now has died from her wounds, and her parents have donated her organs. But in fact, we do a disservice to Israeli society as a whole, and to people of good will everywhere, by dismissing this individual as merely a lunatic. In fact he is a particular kind of lunatic – formed and shaped by the ideology of the extremist Haredi community out of which he has emerged. He previously served a ten-year prison sentence for virtually the identical crime at a prior Gay Pride Parade. The fact that he was allowed to get anywhere near this parade on Thursday was a failure of the police. The fact that he is driven to commit murder in the name of extremist ideology is a failure of the Israeli government, and society as a whole.

Similarly, ideological lunacy of a slightly different permutation is what drove the perpetrators of the hellacious attack upon a Palestinian family in Duma Village near Nablus on the West Bank. An 18-month-old baby, Ali Saad Dawabsheh, was burned to death, and his parents and 4-year-old brother were also badly burned, when extremist settlers set fire to the family home. Several hundred members of Tag Meir, an Israeli grass-roots anti-racism group, went to the Dawabsheh home on Saturday night to express their sympathy and solidarity with the family, and their revulsion at this cruel act.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner issued the following statement on behalf of the Israel Army:

“This attack against civilians is nothing short of a barbaric act of terrorism. A comprehensive investigation is under way in order to find the terrorists and bring them to justice. . . The [Israeli army] strongly condemns this deplorable attack and has heightened its efforts in the field to locate those responsible.”

We in the United States have our own history to contend with as we remember the sinister and murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan. They burned crosses on people’s lawns, they firebombed homes, churches and synagogues, they shot people as they walked in the street, and they lynched people – mostly black men – and strung them up on the nearest tree. The Ku Klux Klan did not represent all Americans, nor did it represent the American dream. It was a perversion and brutalization of both, and we are grateful it has all but fallen away into oblivion. But the primary reason it fell into oblivion is that Americans had finally had enough. They demonstrated, protested, and petitioned the courts until the laws of this land were changed.

Now Israel must stand up as well. Israelis must stand up for justice and righteousness; for human reason and the rule of law; for humility and human compassion. Tag Mechir and Lehava are renegade extremist terrorist groups. They are outlaws and racists. They are vandals, arsonists, and murderers. They cannot be allowed to persist in their nefarious activities. It is time for Israelis to stand up and put a stop to this. And it is time for us to stand up as well. While the prospect may seem overwhelming, here is one small thing we can all do immediately. Write a letter and send a contribution to IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They have been fighting against these groups for some time. Now they will redouble their efforts, and increase the pressure on the government and the courts to crack down on these groups once and for all. And, if you wish, sign the letter of condolence that IRAC will take when they pay a shiva call this week to the Banki family.