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To See Through the Darkness

As our Torah portion begins, there have been eight plagues upon Egypt. And now we read: Then the LORD said to Moses: “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days, no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings (Exodus 10.21-23).

Sages of previous generations have pondered the question of why the Egyptians did not simply light a candle to banish the darkness. In response, the medieval commentators Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides explained that the darkness was a dense fog-like condition that extinguished all flames.

In April of 1981, when I was in Israel, I witnessed a khamsin—a southern wind that blows across Egypt from the Sahara Desert, and travels throughout the Middle East. It is infused with dust and sand. It often blows in around the time of the spring equinox, just the time at which I witnessed it. It brings on an eerie sort of darkness that accompanies the discomfort that hangs in the air.

Was the darkness that enveloped Egypt merely a desert khamsin? Perhaps. Since it immediately preceded the death of the first-born of Egypt—the final, most devastating of the ten plagues—the spring equinox, just before Pesach, would fit the time frame perfectly. But other commentators explain that the darkness wasspiritual darkness. No one felt any responsibility or compassion toward anyone else. Midrash Exodus Rabba posits that this internal darkness paralyzed the Egyptians so thoroughly that they would not dare leave their homes in fear that their own fellow Egyptian neighbors would attack them. Miraculously, “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” The midrash explains that the innate fellowship between one Israelite and another was not destroyed by the plagues or by the Egyptians’ attempt to dehumanize them.

It would seem at this moment in our history that America is enveloped in spiritual darkness. Our leadership is unable to see the humanity in other people. The “dreamers” of DACA—for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans—are being used as pawns in a political chess game that, at its core, is vicious and heartless. Earlier this week, on the day honoring the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, a Michigan man, Jorge Garcia, was mercilessly deported to Mexico, as he was torn away from his wife and his teenage children. Jorge Garcia was brought to this country 30 years ago by his parents, when he was 10. He has worked as a landscaper and paid taxes. He has spent more than $125,000 trying to gain citizenship, as his wife and children have. He has never even incurred so much as a traffic ticket. We watched the agonizing video taken at the Detroit Metro Airport on Monday, as his wife and children cried bitter tears, carefully watched by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard. Jorge Garcia was not being sent home. He was being exiled to a foreign country and ripped from the loving embrace of his family and friends. Can any of us even imagine being forcibly separated from the ones we love the most in this world, and sent to live without them in a country we do not know?

Is this the America that all our ancestors worked so hard to build for us, and for future generations? Is this the country they saw as they first gazed upon the Statue of Liberty’s torch of freedom? No, my fellow Americans, it is not. It is a country that has been plunged into darkness by the closed-mindedness and hard-heartedness of our president and his followers.

The founder of a Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger (1799-1866), offered the following interpretation of the plague of darkness. He understood the verse (Exodus 10:23) that states that during the darkness, “no man could see his brother,” to be a metaphoric description of blindness induced by a lack of empathy and compassion. “When one cannot sense his brother’s pain,” said the Gerrer Rebbe, “that is true darkness.”

There is a midrashic observation that I have quoted to you before. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l, referenced it often as he opined about the imperatives of sincere negotiation and the pursuit of peace. As so many midrashim do, it pictures a rabbi in the academy with his students. The midrash talks about darkness and light.

The question was presented: “How do we know when the night ends and the day begins?”

One student said, “When you can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, and the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, and the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, and the day has begun.'”

Voices in the Wilderness: The Courage of the Clergy in Georgia

This weekend is devoted to commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, z”l. The inspiring, poetic style of his soaring oratory became the voice for so many African Americans whose voices were never heard before, after centuries of the brutality and racism that marked racial segregation and discrimination in virtually every area of American life. We remember Dr. King on this weekend, and on Monday when his birthday is celebrated, we will join Americans all over our country in our Day of Service.

In this spirit, I would like to bring you the voice of another member of the clergy, this one closer to home for our family. In 2016 a book was published Rabbi P. Allen Krause, who unfortunately died soon after the publication. The book is entitled To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and The Civil Rights Movement.* It brings to light the stories of twelve courageous Reform rabbis throughout the Deep South, who stood up and raised their voices in the Prophetic tradition of Reform Judaism against the evils of racism and segregation in their communities. The stories are based on interviews that Rabbi Krause conducted with these rabbis in 1966, as the basis of his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College. One of the interviewees was Rabbi Alfred L. Goodman, z”lmy husband Stephen’s fatherwho served as Rabbi of Temple Israel of Columbus, GA from 1950-1983. These are but a few brief excerpts of a much more extensive interview. I commend Rabbi Krause’s book to all of you. Lest any of us forget, it reminds us of our long and deep commitment to social justice, and our profound historical and social connection with our African American sisters and brothers. (An additional note, brought to my attention by our congregant Ralph Julius, who grew up in Columbus. Rabbi Beth Schwartz, who currently serves as Rabbi of Temple Israel, will be reading some excerpts of the chapter with the congregation on this Shabbat.)

In his introduction to the interview, Rabbi Krause, along with co-author Mark K. Bauman, provides a bit of background about Columbus:

In the early 1900s it had the reputation as the lynching mecca of the South. Indeed, like many Deep South cities, the mayor and police chief endorsed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and the community took violence for granted… The celebrated author Carson McCullers, who grew up in Columbus during the 1930s and ’40s, later called the city “an intolerable place to live,” a comment reflective of the prevalent racism.

Ezra Johnston, who called himself “Parson Jack,” acted as a key force of bigotry in Georgia. He founded the Baptist Tabernacle in Columbus in 1931, broadcasted a weekly radio show, and published two statewide newspapers, one of which had more subscribers than either Columbus daily. Johnston used these media and pulpit to relentlessly attack unions and “race mixing,” and was very influential in the local Klan Klavern. Johnston and the KKK often marched in full regalia down the streets of the main business district.

The US Army base at Fort Benning is located in Columbus, and Steve’s dad served as unofficial chaplain there for much of the time that he was at Temple Israel. About this base, Krause and Bauman write:

Even the black soldiers based at Fort Benning were routinely subjected to embarrassment and acts of intimidation. Colin Powell, who later served as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, recounts in his autobiography how, just prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he went into a local hamburger joint and was admonished by the waitress: “You’re a Negro. You’ll have to go to the back door.” Four other soldiers, two white and two black, were on a shopping trip in civilian clothes when police accosted and handcuffed them, then drove them in a paddy wagon to court. The presiding judge used a form of logic then common to the South when he proclaimed: “You’re two white guys and two black guys walking together. That’s disturbing the peace. Guilty.” In 1941, a black soldier was found hanged in a wooded area at the fort.

One section of this background stands out for me particularly because it concerns a Presbyterian minister named Robert McNeill, with whom my father-in-law worked closely. Just this past December, when we were down in Columbus visiting Steve’s mom Rayna, we passed by the church where Pastor McNeill had served, and which unceremoniously dismissed him in 1959 because of his activities to dismantle segregation in Columbus, and to combat racism. Rayna told us about that night, and the days that followed the firing. In the trauma of these events, Pastor McNeill, who was relatively young at the time, suffered a heart attack, and his young children came over to sleep at the Goodmans’ home so that they could comfort them, and so that his wife could be at the hospital with him.

P. Allen Krause (PAK): Did the non-Jewish community react violently in any way to the changes that were taking place, and… what was their reaction?

Alfred Louis Goodman (ALG): There was no real violence. There were some tempers that flared, and when our human relations council became active, and when I and this Presbyterian minister became active in the human relations council, for instance, a telephone threat was made to a member of the board of trustees of my congregation saying that if I continued my activity in the human relations council that what had happened to the Presbyterian minister, who by that time was already gone from the community, would be peanuts. However, this matter was taken up with our board of trustees, because they were concerned for me, not because they objected to my activities, but because they were concerned, and I had made it quite clear to them at that time that what I did in this area I did as a matter of conscience, and that it was not a board concern.

PAK: Did you make such arrangements in advance of taking a position with this congregation?

ALG: Oh no, no this had nothing to do with the temple board of trustees. This was, I was acting in my role as a rabbi.

PAK: Did you come to an understanding with these people before you took the job that you would be able to have some sort of freedom of the pulpit or something like this …?

ALG: With which people? With my own congregation? There has never been any question of the freedom of the pulpit—never.

While I can’t reprint the entire interview within the limitations of this short Davar, I would offer the summation to you as representative, not only of Rabbi Goodman’s approach to this endeavor, but of his eleven colleagues throughout the South whom then Student Rabbi Krause interviewed for his thesis:

PAK: What would you say—in more or less summation—would be the role that the rabbis played in your state, or, if that is too broad, in specific areas in your state, and then overall in the South in general, in the area of civil rights activity?

ALG: Well I think I can speak for the state of Georgia, and pretty well for the whole South, because we have a Southeastern Association of Rabbis, so I am acquainted with what is going on in at least five states of the southeast region. I think the first responsibility, of course, of a rabbi in the civil rights area is in his immediate community. He has to sensitize people to the moral imperatives of Judaism, and this means beginning, of course, with his own congregation. They have to be made aware of what Judaism demands of them as human beings in their relations to other human beings. If he fails in this, of course, then his congregation is going to respond obviously with the same kind of prejudice that has been inbred in the southern community for a number of generations. Then he has to extend his activities beyond his immediate community to the larger local community in which he resides; he has to participate in as many kinds of civil rights activities as he feels can legitimately and purposefully accomplish the goals which he has set for himself.

When Steve and I were first engaged in January of 1980, I went down to Columbus with him to meet his family. He took me to see the newly-built convention center in the historic downtown area. There was a Confederate flag flying outside. But that is not the case anymore. Far from it. As a result of the work of Rabbi Goodman, Pastor McNeill, and a number of their colleagues in the ministerial alliance that Rabbi Goodman was instrumental in putting together, once the order to desegregate the schools, the lunch counters, and the city in general came down, Columbus was desegregated in peace. While it took several years, the process did indeed take place. Today, Columbus has a flourishing downtown historic area, a vibrant cultural life, and an active civic association. Because of these brave men, the city once characterized as “the lynching mecca of the South” is a very different place now.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat opens with the cries of the Children of Israel:

God spoke to Moses and said to him…“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6.2,5). The Children of Israel had been enslaved for some 400 years. But they were so beaten down that they did not feel enough strength to raise their voices in anguish or in protest. And so, they remained enslaved. But the text of the Passover Haggadah infers from these verses of our sidra, that when the Israelites finally began to raise their voices, God took notice, and set in motion the miraculous Redemption that was at the heart of God’s prophecy to Abraham, and the Covenant that was sealed between the two of them on that day. Once the Children of Israel raised their own voices, they began their emergence from bondage to freedom, from degradation to glory.

As Reform Jews, time and again we have raised our voices for justice in the wilderness of racism and intolerance. While there are those, like Dr. King, Rabbi Goodman, and Pastor McNeill, whose voices have been particularly resonant, it isall our voices that must continue to rise in the Prophetic tradition that has sustained us from the beginning.

*To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement
by P. Allen Krause, edited by Mark K. Bauman and Stephen Krause
introduction by P. Allen Krause and Mark K. Bauman

University of Alabama Press, 2016

Jerusalem, the City of Peace

Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 37:1)

So begins our Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev. There is no doubt that our people have lived in what ultimately became known as the Land of Israel for well over 3,000 years. Historically, we always have identified Jerusalem as our people’s capital city. Nevertheless, I must voice my agreement with the leaders of the Reform Movement this week, as I denounce President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and begin plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While we maintain our attachment to, and identification of Jerusalem as our spiritual center, in the practicality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, this was a poke in the eye of the Palestinians, and in my view, creates an even greater obstacle to achieving the hope of some sort of equitable agreement between our two peoples. There is no greater dream than for Jerusalem to realize its own self-definition as “the city of peace.”

I would offer for your consideration statements by two of my rabbinic colleagues. The first was issued earlier this week by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and endorsed by the entire Reform Movement, represented in the list of organizations at the end. The second is from Rabbi Jill Jacobs (no relation), Director of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Boston, MA; December 5, 2017:

“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the      Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process. Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The President has said that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “the ultimate deal.” Just this weekend, his advisor Jared Kushner noted the importance of such an agreement to regional stability overall. While the President took the right step in announcing that he would sign the waiver, as have his Republican and Democratic predecessors, the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.

We urge the President to do everything in his power to move forward with efforts to bring true peace to the region and take no unilateral steps that will make that dream more distant. We welcome the opportunity to work with the White House to realize the day when Jerusalem truly becomes a beacon of peace.”

American Conference of Cantors
Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Association of Reform Zionists of America
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Men of Reform Judaism
National Association for Temple Administration
North American Federation of Temple Youth
Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism
Women’s Rabbinic Network
World Union for Progressive Judaism

Rabbi Jill Jacobs:

“Jerusalem has been the spiritual and political center for the Jewish people since King David established his throne there thousands of years ago. Even after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the city, Jews have continued to pray three times a day for a return to Jerusalem. In our prayers, Jerusalem embodies the peace and wholeness suggested by its name. As Jews, we do not need a political declaration by any head of state to affirm our connection to this sacred place. And we also affirm its sanctity for Christians and Muslims.

Despite the rhetoric about the ‘eternal, undivided capital of Israel,’ Jerusalem remains a deeply divided city. Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six Day War, the international community has not recognized this annexation. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom are not citizens of Israel, do not have the same access to building permits or municipal services as residents of West Jerusalem do. Palestinian East Jerusalem residents are subject to curfews and raids similar to those that take place in the West Bank. The separation barrier cuts off part of East Jerusalem from the rest. The current parameters of Jerusalem, as understood by the Israeli government, include a far greater swath of land than that which David declared as his capital.

T’ruah supports the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. In order to be acceptable to both parties, this resolution will necessarily include a capital for each state in Jerusalem. But today, we find ourselves very far from this resolution.

President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel constitutes a symbolic gesture that serves no useful purpose, moves us no closer to a peace agreement, indicates his lack of understanding of the complexities of the region, and will likely lead to unrest and even violence.

This unilateral move sends a strong signal to the world that the United States is relinquishing its position as a peacekeeper and choosing instead to appease those on the far Right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace.

Jerusalem is among the most complicated of cities. An ancient midrash declares,“There are ten measures of beauty in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. There are ten measures of suffering in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of wisdom in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of flattery in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 48). Rather than exacerbate the suffering of Jerusalem, the United States should support both Israelis and Palestinians in bringing their collective wisdom to bear on creating a lasting peace.”

Welcome the Stranger

And so, we are here again. A horrifying week. Senseless loss of innocent life. Pain, fear, trauma. Such a sad week for us as Americans, and particularly as New Yorkers. In the very shadow of Freedom Tower—our tribute to the World Trade Center, and our will to go on in the face of terrorism—we endured yet another act of terrorism, and depraved, wanton murder. But, as a city and as a people, though we were shocked and traumatized, we did not, and will not, allow terrorism to shut us down. Our mayor, our governor, the police commissioner, and representatives of the incredible police force and anti-terrorism units that we have built up in this city, spoke strongly and informatively to all of us, and also with profound sympathy to those who lost loved ones. They did this because they are leaders; and that is what we need from them at such a time, and have every right to expect.

While I am not particularly fond of Mr. Trump (just in case any of you might have been in doubt), I actually do wish that, at the very least, he had some ability to understand and fulfill this role of leadership as President of the United States. That is my wish for sake of the well-being of our people, and the safety of our country. Unfortunately, our president is utterly incapable; both of understanding, and fulfilling. On the contrary. Mr. Trump immediately used this tragedy to jump onto his Twitter feed and accuse our own Senator Chuck Schumer of having caused this horrific act, because of a particular immigration policy that in fact was a bi-partisan effort, enacted during the first Bush administration in 1990, and which Schumer then participated in reversing in 2013, again in a bi-partisan effort. But on Trump’s part, this was just one more chapter in the fear mongering that he has fomented since he invented the “birther” nonsense, all of which has been directed against immigrants, and home-born Americans whom he deems to be “different,” and thus “not one of us.” Trump is obsessed; consumed by xenophobia; driven by his own hatred of anyone he considers to be “the other.” And the circle seems to be widening by the day.

Our Torah portion opens as Abraham sits by his tent in the heat of the day. Three men approach, and he welcomes them with open arms. Immediately, he invites them to sit down and share a meal with him. This episode becomes our paradigm for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming the stranger. Beginning with Abraham’s journey that we read about last week, continuing on through the Book of Genesis, on through our entire Torah narrative, and indeed, throughout our history as a people, we have become all too well acquainted with the plight of the stranger, because it has been our plight. We have been strangers in strange lands throughout the millennia of our existence as a people. And here in our sidra, we also learn to welcome and care for others who are in that same position.

Our government officials and counter-terrorism intelligence experts will have to work overtime, in these dangerous times, to ferret out the type of “home-grown radicalization,” as it has been characterized, that drove this terrorist to act this past Tuesday. But the knee-jerk impulse on the part of the president to shut down immigration is wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That is not what we have been about as a nation, or as a people. Losing our cherished freedom is a dangerously high price that looms before us. Losing our heart is an even higher one. We cannot let that happen.

DACA and the Torah

During the past few weeks, as we have been reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we have rehearsed a number of times one of the core values of Jewish tradition: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. In this very week’s sidra as well we read, Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27.19). No fewer than 36 times does this admonition appear throughout our Torah. Again, and again, and yet again, we are taught never to forget what it was like for us; in Egypt, yes, but also in virtually every generation of our people’s life until and including this very moment. Could there be any doubt that we of all people must remember the plight of the stranger?

How bitterly ironic, that of all weeks, we are studying this teaching now, as our most fundamental values as Jews, and as Americans, are under brazen and unconscionable attack.The people of DACA—people who were brought here as children by their families, who went to school and grew up here, and who now are working and many raising families by now—are, for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans. They know and love this country as their own, because in fact, it is their own. And now, Mr. Trump wants to ruin their lives.

My great-grandfather Philip Posner came to New York from Germany in the mid-19th century. He wanted to avoid being forcibly interned into the Kaiser’s army. But in fact, he also simply wanted a better life. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and make a good life for his family. My grandfather Isidore Abrams came to New York as he fled from a Russian pogrom, in the early 20th century. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and look forward to a good life for the family he would build.

I am the beneficiary of the hopes and dreams of both these men, because America had the heart to take them in. All of you as well are the beneficiaries of your ancestors’ dreams, and the America that took them in. And, indeed, every one of us has friends or relatives who themselves came to these shores from elsewhere, some of them, our fellow congregants, looking for a better life in America.

Every one of us—every single one of us—has our own story to tell. Some of those stories involve children, who crossed the seas on those ships, holding tightly to their parents’ hands. Those children, many of them our own ancestors, were just like the people whom Trump is gunning for now. If Trump had his way back then, none of us would be here, and America itself would be immeasurably weakened.

The destruction of DACA is morally reprehensible, and contrary to everything we love and believe about this nation. For the life of me, I can’t imagine who among these people trying to kill DACA believe themselves to be anything other than sons and daughters of immigrants!

Now we must stand up and say, “No! You will not do this with impunity!”

This Tuesday I attended a rally in the lobby of City Hall. Mayor Di Blasio and his wife, Chirlene McCray, spoke with great determination. So did City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, followed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rev. Al Sharpton, with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik at their side. So did a representative from the NYC Police Department. All these people assured New Yorkers that nothing will change here in New York. No one will be asked to produce immigration papers. No one will be deported. No one will be thrown out of school. New York City’s administration is determined to fight and resist this attack on immigrants—particularly the DACA dreamers—and will work with the state government as well, which is also committed to their protection. The speakers on Tuesday were surrounded by teachers, union leaders, clergy, and DACA kids and adults, all of whom have internalized one of the most fundamental precepts of Biblical teaching: You shall love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is a core value for Jews, and a core value for all Americans. That is what we’re about as a nation, and we will not allow it to be taken away.

In the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)

So concludes Parashat Ki Teitzei for this Shabbat. We know this passage not only as the end of this week’s Torah portion, but also as the extra reading for Shabbat Zachor—the Sabbath of Remembrance—immediately preceding the Festival of Purim. The evil Haman, whose name we “blot out” on Purim, is said to be a descendant of Amalek, whose army’s most heinous act as they attacked our ancestors in the Wilderness was to attack from behind, cutting down those in the rear. Of course, who is it that generally ends up at the rear of a large group of people? The stragglers; the weak; the children; the elderly; those with disabilities; those who are most vulnerable. This was the real crime of the Amalakites.
Please allow me a midrashic stretch, if you will. This week we have witnessed an attack upon some of the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow Americans; not by an army, but by Nature herself. Twelve years ago, just this week, we had to confront the same reality. When a hurricane is barreling toward a city, the residents are warned to evacuate. But the reality we confronted in Katrina is the same one we are dealing with now, as the unprecedented horror of Harvey has devastated Houston, Beaumont, and many of the surrounding areas in Texas, and on into Louisiana, Alabama, and now Tennessee. Yes, obviously evacuation is essential, to save life and limb first and foremost. But there are those among us who simply have nowhere to go, and no means to get there. This does not apply to everyone caught in this storm, many of whom were indeed caught by surprise as the flood waters invaded their homes and rose several feet high. But for many, evacuation was just not possible. We have heard and seen the reports of children and elderly people, those in wheelchairs and hospitals, being hoisted into helicopters and pulled onto boats. Many now have run out of medication. Hot food is at a premium. The standing water will soon become a health hazard. While Nature knows no bounds and is unaware of class distinctions, disasters like these remind us that those who are often affected the most seriously are those who are the most vulnerable in the first place.
As it has done time and time again, the Union for Reform Judaism has stepped up to the plate as a clearing house for contributions. We need not remain powerless in the face of destruction. Please access the link to the URJ site and contribute to the efforts of our movement: Donate to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Or, if you prefer, the American Red Cross is also working round the clock to help, and they could use your help as well.
After this week of destruction and turbulence, it is my hope that our fellow Americans in the South will begin to experience some relief. And for us, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and a pleasant and peaceful Labor Day Weekend.

No Justice This Year

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16.18-20)

Our Torah portion this week contains one of the most well-known commandments concerning the formation of a just society. The leaders whom we, the people, set in authority, are charged with the responsibility to govern impartially, and not allow themselves to be influenced by the promise of personal financial gain, or swayed by personal prejudice.

Last week, the President of the United States tried to present a façade of impartiality—at least some may think that’s what it was—in condemning violence and hatred “on all sides” in Charlottesville, VA. But this case, as it were, has already been tried and settled. Nazism is the very embodiment of evil, and has wrought nothing but hatred, violence, brutality and genocide. This was not a time for impartiality. In this case, justice required clear and swift condemnation from the leader of the free world. But when it finally came, it was too little, too late.

The pursuit of justice is not the interest of this president. Because of this, the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Rabbinic bodies of North America have jointly arrived at a painful and sad decision. Every year before the High Holy Days, we arrange a joint conference call with the President of the United States. Whether Republican or Democrat, presidents have understood the importance of addressing and speaking with Rabbinic leadership of this country, particularly at this solemn and sensitive time of year. This year, however, in light of the outrageous and unacceptable behavior of this president, our Rabbinic organizations have jointly decided to forego this phone call. We are not interested in speaking with this president, and must make this joint statement of opposition to his behavior and his words over these past eight months, and particularly in light of these most recent ghastly events.

The statement of our organizations appears below. This is a sad day in America.

Rabbis Forgo Annual High Holy Days Call with President
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.

In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.

The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Central Conference of American Rabbis
The Rabbinical Assembly
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Domestic Terror in Charlottesville

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day. . . (Deuteronomy 11.26-28)

So begins our Torah portion this Shabbat. Blessing or curse—the choice is ours.

Oh, my dear friends—what a horrible week this has been—A lovely young woman was buried on Wednesday; a resident of Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, z”l. Heather was a paralegal by profession, and as an individual she stood up against hatred and bigotry. That is what she was doing on Saturday when her life came to a violent end in a mindless act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated by a 20-year-old from Ohio. Having intentionally traveled to Charlottesville to march with the Alt-Right, according to his mother, he deliberately rammed his car into the crowd, killing Heather and injuring 19 other people. 20 years old, and already so poisoned; so damaged. He will spend his life in prison, and Heather’s life is over. And our country is wounded and bleeding.

On Tuesday, I participated in a webinar co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. We heard from several of our colleagues; most notably, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. He explained to us that the synagogue is located right in the thick of things in the downtown area of the city—one block away from Emancipation Park in one direction, and one block from Justice Park in another. I looked up these two parks. Apparently, “Emancipation Park” used to be known as “Lee Park,” after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose statue was at the center of the maelstrom last weekend. “Justice Park” used to be known as “Jackson Park,” after Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. This is the reality of the history of the South, and there are statutes, parks, streets, towns, and monuments throughout the South that commemorate the Confederacy.

An excellent account of what Rabbi Gutherz and his congregation experienced may be found in this fine article by the president of his congregation, Alan Zimmerman. Though some of you have already seen this article, I would commend it to all of you. It appeared in Monday’s edition of the Reform Judaism Blog: In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On. Of particular note is not only the response of the congregation and clergy, but also of their non-Jewish neighbors who came to stand with them in support. We will be discussing additional initiatives of the Reform Movement in the coming weeks.

On Monday, August 28, Stephen and I will be marching in Washington, DC, in the “Ministers March for Justice.” It is co-sponsored by the National Action Network and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Early in the morning, the RAC will hold a prayer session for rabbis, after which we will join our colleagues of other faiths at the Martin Luther King Memorial, for the 1.7-mile march to the Department of Justice, where we will present a list of demands concerning voting rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. The hope is that we will be 1,000 strong. But in the current atmosphere of open, blatant, unabashed racism and bigotry, aided and abetted by no less than the President of the United States, I hope and expect that we will far exceed that number.

On August 28, 1963, The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, sent out a clarion call for justice to this country, founded upon the ideals of freedom and liberty for all human beings. While we have made progress since that day, it is excruciatingly clear that we have a long road ahead of us to realize these ideals, particularly as Dr. King so eloquently expressed them.

Our Torah puts before us a choice between blessing and curse. There are those in our country who have chosen the curse. We must stand up and demonstrate that the blessing is far more powerful. I know that our hearts are united in praying that this coming Shabbat will be peaceful for all of us, and for all who live within our borders.

The following is the statement issued yesterday by the CCAR, of which I am a proud member.

Central Conference of American Rabbis Condemns President Trump’s Response to White Supremacist Domestic Terrorists

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is outraged that the President of the United States has repeatedly equivocated in condemnation of the white supremacists who rained terror and violence upon Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The President’s failure to differentiate Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and white supremacists of the self-proclaimed “Alt-Right,” on the one hand, from those who stood up to that threat and an imaginary “Alt-Left,” on the other, only encourages racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic hate-mongers to continue their reign of terror.

Reform rabbis across America and around the world join in solidarity with our colleagues in Charlottesville and the community they serve. We are grateful to Alan Zimmerman, President of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, for eloquently sharing the congregation’s story with the world. That community bravely gathered on Shabbat to serve God and humanity in an atmosphere that no Jewish community has ever faced in this country, reminiscent of Germany as Nazis were coming to power.

We grieve with all who mourn the death of Heather Heyer. May her memory be a blessing to the loving family and community she leaves behind. We pray for the healing of all who were injured. We pray for our country, that it may once again reflect the words of its first President, George Washington, who wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Rabbi David Stern
President

 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox
Chief Executive

Even If We Are Not Alike

This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.

Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)

As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.

 

Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.

 

It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.

Harmony and Discord

This past Sunday evening, Steve and I attended a most enjoyable concert at the Jerusalem YMCA— known to Jerusalemites as “Imka.” It was a joint concert of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. Of course we already knew the music of the Whiffenpoofs. This was the first a cappella all male college choir, founded at Yale in 1909. Steve played violin in the Yale Symphony while he was a student there, and also played trumpet in the Yale Precision Marching Band. But he never sang with the Whiffenpoofs, even though he has always loved them. The members of the Whiffenpoofs take a full year off from their studies in the senior year, and devote all their attention and time to the group. They travel all throughout the United States and the world. This week they were in Israel. In September, they will resume their studies and look forward to their graduation next June.

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is made up of about 25 high school kids, both Jewish and Palestinian. They also are an a cappella choir, though occasionally they are accompanied by keyboard and/or drum. They sing in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. Whereas the Whiffenpoofs all wear white ties and tails, the kids—girls and boys—dress more informally, in shirts and pants. At this concert they made it a point to all wear different colored shirts, I suspect to stress their individuality within the remarkable ensemble that they have. The group is conducted by Micah Hendler, who himself was a member of the Whiffenpoofs six years ago.

This is the stated mission of the YMCA Youth Chorus:

“The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. Our mission is to provide a space for these young people from East and West Jerusalem to grow together in song and dialogue. Through the co-creation of music and the sharing of stories, the chorus seeks to empower youth in Jerusalem to become leaders in their communities and inspire singers and listeners around the world to work for peace.”

I have to tell you that the sound that these kids produce together is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It is a pure sound, the pitch is spot on, and the kids themselves are clearly delighted to be there, singing and making music with one another. Their singing was so beautiful that at one point Steve and I both were moved to tears.

This is harmony at its finest.

Sunday night and Monday were also Rosh Chodesh Av—the first day of the month of Av. As happens on every Rosh Chodesh except for Tishrei (which is Rosh Hashanah), Nashot Hakotel—Women of the Wall—gather at 7:00 in the morning in the women’s section of the Kotel to pray the Rosh Chodesh Morning Service. This Monday was no exception. Steve and I got up early and joined them, both with our Women of the Wall Talitot. (Yes, Steve has one too, which he wears frequently.) Incidentally, you might be happy to know that we were joined by Cantor Lauren Phillips, who was there with her husband Dan Fogelman on vacation.

This was the first Rosh Chodesh since Prime Minister Netanyahu nullified the agreement that took some 5 years to hammer out regarding a new egalitarian platform along the Wall that would be designated specifically for liberal, egalitarian prayer. The case itself, of course, has been dragging on for 28 years. But, as I wrote earlier this month, even after reaching a carefully negotiated agreement, Mr. Netanyahu caved in to pressure by the ultra-Orthodox power mongers, and reneged. So not only are the women of Nashot Hakotel subjected to the taunts and terrible noise of the Haredim, we are now segregated even further behind an additional barricade within the women’s section, mostly for our own protection.

While it’s not unusual for cat calls, whistles, and obscenities to be hurled at the women who gather together by the Haredim, both men and women on their respective sides of the mechitza, this particular Rosh Chodesh seemed particularly loud. And, at one point, the Sheliach Tzibbur in the men’s section got hold of a microphone that is only legal to use during public commemorative events. But no one made any attempt to take the microphone from him. As he chanted the service in the men’s section, his voice bellowed over the loudspeakers, in an effort to drown us out. The one positive effect this did have is that the whistles and cat calls stopped for awhile, because they did not want to drown out the sound from the men’s section. As though only the prayers of men may be heard on high.

This was discord at its most irritating.

Rosh Chodesh Av ushers in a 9-day period leading up to Tish’ah B’av, the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem. The huge stones of the Roman destruction some 2,000 years ago, still lie in the rocks and concrete, as they tumbled randomly and violently to the ground. Tish’ah B’av is known to Jews as the saddest day of the year. This is not only because of the destructions and additional calamities themselves which befell us on this day. It is because of the discord and infighting that accompanied these catastrophes. Sinat Chinam is the term—

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus

hatred without cause.

Within a 12-hour period we experienced the melodious sounds of harmony and the distressing cacophony of discord. The harmony, from a group of high school kids, Jews and Palestinians, seeking to create understanding and a better world for themselves and their peers. The discord, from a plaza full of Jews, some of whom are so rigid and closed-minded that they are unable to tolerate differences among us.

As we anticipate the observance of Tish’ah B’av this coming Monday night and Tuesday, it would behoove us to contemplate the significance of this spectrum, and where we would locate ourselves level upon it. Then it is up to us to assert our position, and uphold it.