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Proclaim Liberty . . . That Means North Carolina too!

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land; to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25.10) So states our Torah portion this week, Behar. We know this verse as Jews. For us as Americans, though, this verse is seared into our minds, as it is carved into the Liberty Bell, which we can view in its glass encasement in Philadelphia. In the Torah, the verse occurs within the context of the Jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and lands revert back to their original owners. In America, the meaning is much broader: freedom from religious tyranny, freedom from externally imposed taxation, freedom of intellectual inquiry and development. The Declaration of Independence spoke of all human beings as being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

While this aspiration, born of the Enlightenment, was revolutionary in history, it would seem that all the logical extensions of the principle were not “self-evident.” At the time this verse from Leviticus was carved into the Liberty Bell, slavery still existed in America. Women’s rights were barely recognized and sorely limited. Various religious groups still suffered discrimination and exclusion at the hands of the majority populations of the localities in which they lived. LGBTQ rights? Forget it.

In the long history of humanity, we recognize that our country is still relatively young, and is still experiencing growing pains, frustrating as they are. We have had to evolve in our understanding and recognition of concepts and human realities that never had been recognized before. The argument over the rights of the transgender community is the latest, but certainly not the last frontier of the ongoing struggle to fully realize the aspiration of the liberty that is expressed on the Liberty Bell. At the moment, the spotlight is on the outrageous and unacceptable attempts of the State Legislature to discriminate against transgender individuals. The law that this body passed puts into place a statewide policy that bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex – the sex they were born with. It also prevents cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people, and in this case, particularly “T.” NC Governor McCrory has vowed to uphold this law. This is a heinous act on the part of the NC state house, and must be fought by freedom-loving people all over the country. Similar laws are being crafted in other states as well. There was even one introduced into the Assembly of our very own state of New York, but was defeated. Thankfully our own Governor Cuomo signed a non-discrimination bill into law. But we note with sadness the recent attack upon a transgender individual right in our own backyard of Park Slope. So we have a lot of work to do.

While our Founding Fathers considered “unalienable rights” to be “self-evident,” it is clear that the fine points of what is included in these rights is anything but self-evident. Those of us who are concerned with the fullest realization of this aspiration, however, continue to the struggle with what it must mean for all of us. I am proud of our Reform Movement for its discussion and passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People at the Biennial Convention in Atlanta this past November.

Perhaps the most salient verse for us that is contained within our Torah is back at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with the creation of human beings B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created the human in God’s image; male and female, God created them; and God blessed them.” (Genesis 1.27-28) Ultimately this is the source of our “unalienable rights,” and we are all obligated to respect and promote them.

From Schmutz to Soaring Inspiration

martin-luther-king-jrThis week we are reading the portion Tazria in our Torah; at first blush, not very appetizing reading. Most of the portion concerns itself with what we, in less elegant vocabulary, might call schmutz; skin infections, mold on houses, and the like – not one of the more inspirational portions in our literature. On the other hand, perhaps more than any other, this text’s preoccupation with schmutz may represent the most immediate reality that any of us faces in real human existence. How did this schmutz appear in our midst, and how do we remove it so that, hopefully, it doesn’t return? In Ancient Israel, the primary responsibility devolved upon the kohanim – the priests – to control and monitor schmutz. In our own lives and in our own time, it devolves upon us – all of us.

I am struck by the fortuitousness of our reading this portion this year during this first week of April for a poignant reason. Earlier this week, on Monday, we were reminded that it was the anniversary of the assassination of The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee – April 4, 1968. We remember that Dr. King went to Memphis to support a strike by the sanitation workers of that city, who were demanding more equitable pay and working conditions; men who dealt with schmutz, if you will, every day of their lives – but the most important word in the sentence is men. These men were people like all others, and deserved to have someone stand up for them and assert their rights to a living wage. I guess sometimes we might fall into the trap of associating the people with their work. But Dr. King was hell-bent on reminding all of us that sanitation workers were endowed with the same level of human dignity as anyone else, and needed to be recognized and treated as such. And so, Dr. King went to Memphis.

The speech that Dr. King gave that night is one of the gems of American oratory. I have excerpted the text of final segments of it below for a specific reason. We are coming up on our celebration of Passover – our great Festival of Redemption. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the first day of the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar year, and the month of Passover. Though the towering personality of Moses appears nowhere in the Haggadah, he certainly figures prominently in the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt and our redemption from slavery. There can be little doubt that Dr. King, at the core of his being as Baptist preacher, saw himself very much as a “Moses” figure in bringing about redemption for his people in this country, and for oppressed peoples the world over. Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses rehearses the entire narrative of the birth, enslavement, redemption, wandering, and arrival at the bank of the Jordan River, of the People Israel. And then, Moses gazes over to the Promised Land, where he will never go, and dies there in Mo’av. And the people cross over without him. Much of Dr. King’s final speech is reminiscent of Moses’ final soliloquy.

I have often speculated that if Martin Luther King had been Jewish, his Hebrew name would have been Moshe. And so, in the midst of some of the schmutz, if you will, to which we have been subjected during this campaign season, I offer for you some real inspiration in the final words of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King to his people, as he stands with the garbage workers of Memphis. I will begin the transcript with the New Testament’s parable of the Good Samaritan. And for Dr. King we say, zecher tzaddik liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Dr. King. . . .

“You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

“That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

“It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

“And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

“If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

“And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

“And so I’m happy, tonight.

“I’m not worried about anything.

“I’m not fearing any man!

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Groggers, Not Guns!

purim-dress-ball

Academy of Music Purim Association, Fancy Dress Ball, March 15, 1881. New York: Mayer, Merkel, & Ottman Lithograph, 1881. Color lithograph. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (206)

We were horrified this morning as we awoke to the news that two blasts had rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. With dozens of people dead and wounded, we grieve with the Belgian people, with all those visiting who were victimized, and with their families. Only four months after the deadly attacks in Paris, the citizens of the region are still reeling from pillar to post. The sophistication of both these European capitals stands in stark contrast to the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon them. Unfortunately, we in New York are well acquainted with this contrast. So are the people of Israel and throughout the Middle East. So are the people of San Bernadino, and Washington, and cities throughout the world. We have seen the underbelly of human capacity; the potential for evil that exists within human beings.

This Wednesday night and Thursday we in the Jewish community will celebrate one of the most joyous festivals of our year, the Festival of Purim. It is a time of costumes and shpiels, silliness and laughter, eating and drinking – drinking, in fact, to excess (as long as we don’t have to drive!). We should revel in this cathartic release of tension that is, in so many ways, a gift from the architects of Jewish tradition.

This being said, we do acknowledge, however, that our celebration of Purim is in large measure a denial of the very text around which the festival is built – Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Known popularly as “The Megillah,” the story is in many ways a completely ridiculous fantasy, filled with palace intrigue, absurd stereotypes, and linguistic acrobatics that are designed to tie our tongues. But it is also the story of a cruel Persian governor who hatched a plan to annihilate the Jewish people en masse. And in turn, it is the story of the Jews’ turning the tables, and hanging him on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai the Jew. The Megillah is filled with violence and hatred, men who treat women like chattel, women who use sex to manipulate men, and murderous impulses within all of us.

There have been all too many times, even in recent history, in which the themes of Purim have been played out in real life. Hitler, for instance, banned the Jews from observing Purim. On November 10, 1938, the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher claimed in a speech that just as “the Jew butchered 75,000 Persians” in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people as the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany. Numerous additional massacres were carried out throughout Poland and Germany during the following years by the Nazis on the day of Purim.

More recently, the Dizengoff Center Suicide Bombing in Tel Aviv took place on the eve of Purim (March 4, 1996), killing 13 people.

And sadly, there have been those within our own community who have used this festival as an excuse to unleash the demons within themselves. Witness the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron in 1994, upon a mosque filled with men at prayer. He killed 29 souls and wounded 125.

As we all understand, this is never what Purim was meant to be. Purim is meant as a catharsis for us; to yell, and scream, and laugh, and make noise, so that we release the tensions that surround us, both individually and communally. Purim is not a festival that calls us to violence. It is meant as a vehicle through which we can sublimate our frustrations. Haman is the villain of the Megillah. So what does our tradition teach us to do? Eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with jam, in memory of the hat he wore. Blow horns and swing groggers. Go nuts, and enjoy it for a few hours.

And above all, we dare not forget the ethical values of Jewish tradition: kindness, respect, charity, and the pursuit of peace. Remember that after all the goings-on in the Megillah, at the very end we are urged to bring gifts of food to the needy. That is what Judaism teaches, and that is why we celebrate Purim.

And so, even in the midst of such overwhelming sadness and global tension, I encourage us all to celebrate this festival with joy, even as we remember the abiding values of our faith. And I wish one and all a Chag Sameach and a Freiliche Purim.

New York Cares and So Does Union Temple

nycares-coat-drive

New York Cares Coat Drive Logo

As hale and hearty New Yorkers, we are accustomed to much colder weather during this season than we have experienced thus far this year. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I have enjoyed this extended fall weather and I don’t particularly relish biting cold and whipping winds. And while Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, gave the world the gift of his song “White Christmas,” I assume he was quite comfortable himself as he wrote it in the balmy sunlight of Hollywood, CA, letting the movie moguls manufacture the snow from inside the studios. Berlin actually wrote the song in 1942 to comfort the GI’s who were overseas at the time. The song was the most popular in the movie “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Virginia Dale.

Unseasonably warm weather notwithstanding, however, I have little doubt, fellow New Yorkers, that we will yet have our turn this year with cold weather. And while a white Christmas is not in the cards for this year, at some point the flakes are sure to fall on us.

That is why it is important for all of us as New Yorkers to participate in the annual New York Cares Coat Drive. We are proud that this year Union Temple has volunteered as a donation site for coats for our fellow New Yorkers who will be needing them as the thermometer finally does begin to drop this year. There is a box in the entrance way of the temple. I hope you will join me in performing this mitzvah of Tzedakah. If you have a coat in your closet that you know you’re not going to wear anymore, please remember that there is someone who could make good use of it, and will be grateful that you have donated it.

No matter what faith group we may or may not associate with, this is the season of giving in our city, and it is in this spirit that we make this appeal. Thank you very much.

Many Chip In to UT Food Drive

Food Drive 2015

UT members at the 2015 Food Drive in front of Key Food on 7th Avenue

UT volunteers collected food, toiletries and money from holiday shoppers at the Key Food on Seventh Avenue at Carroll Street on Saturday, November 22 for the benefit of CHIPS (Christian Help in Park Slope) which provides meals for the homeless on 4th Avenue.  Organized by the UT Social Action Committee the volunteers worked in 2 hours shifts. A friendly approach and an informational flyer helped get across the message. The shoppers were asked to buy non-perishable foods like tuna, fruit, soup, peanut butter, canned vegetables, mac & cheese, cereal, pasta, rice, drinks, powered milk, and baby formula and toiletries including soap, shampoo, detergent, first aid supplies, paper products and toothpaste. They responded generously, with many people buying large packages and many items.  We broke our record by the end of the 5 hour drive and filled an SUV!

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 Blessing Today

On the morning of June 26, 2015 outside the Supreme Court, the crowd reacts to the Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Photo: Ted Eytan Flickr CC

On the morning of June 26, 2015 outside the Supreme Court, the crowd reacts to the Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Photo: Ted Eytan Flickr CC

Balak, King of Moab, feared the Children of Israel, and sent word to Bylam in Pethor:

Come put a curse on this people for me. . . perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. for I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Numbers 22.6)

So begins our sidra this week.

June 28, 1969 – Stonewall. Before that, gay bars were raided by the police regularly all over this country. Gay men and lesbians lived their lives behind closet doors. Many were rejected by their own parents, siblings, and extended families. Rejected by their religious communities. Rejected by their friends. Refused employment. Refused legal protections of civil rights that other Americans took for granted. Deprived of the personal fulfillment that all of us who live in this great land of freedom and democracy supposedly have the right to pursue. Unseen as individual human beings created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our country cast a curse upon them – begrudged them their very right to live in this great country; indeed, in this world. But that night, at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, men who had been repeatedly harassed by the police and scorned by society, had finally had enough. That night, they stood up and fought back. And the Gay Liberation Movement was born.

June 26, 2015 – The Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision legalizing same sex marriage in this country. Every state in the Union must grant same sex couples full rights of solemnization and recognition of their marriages and uphold all the legal entitlements that marriage brings with it.

I wonder if any of the brave men in that bar that night, exactly 46 years ago, ever could have imagined that a day would come when the Supreme Court of the United States would affirm the right of all people, regardless of sexual preference, to marry the person they loved, and to experience the fullness of family life.

And Bylam opened his mouth and said: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Eternal has not doomed? . . How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 23.8, 24.5)

We dare not delude ourselves into believing that all ignorance and prejudice will immediately cease, and the LGBTQ community no longer has any challenges before it. There is blindness and arrogance all through our nation. But now, at least, there is legal protection against such blindness and arrogance. The better angels, if you will, have spoken. A very significant battle has been won. And in this, we are fully entitled to rejoice. We rejoice, and give thanks and blessing.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והיגיענו לזמן הזה
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life, and sustained us, and brought us together to see this day.

We Mourn Together as People of the Faith

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC. Site of the racially motivated killing of 9. Photo: Matt Drobnik Flickr CC

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC. Site of the racially motivated killing of 9. Photo: Matt Drobnik Flickr CC

Late last week, as you know, nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, were brutally murdered as they sat together with their Pastor in the fellowship of Bible study. They were doing what we at our temple do as Jews all the time, and what faith communities of all denominations do as well. They were doing what we as Americans take for granted in the our religious conscience and traditions.

This is being treated as a hate crime by the Charleston Police and the Federal Government. In addition, it seems to have struck a chord of particular revulsion for us as Americans. I think the reason for this is that we take for granted the right to free exercise of our religious conscience and traditions. And while we are staunchly committed to the legal separation of church and state, fundamentally America is a deeply religious country. The idea of people being brutally attacked when they are at prayer, or engaged in related religious activity, strikes at something very deep within the American psyche. In so many ways we seem to have lost our way in this country. This attack shines a light on the serious issues that we don’t seem to be able to address appropriately: gun control, effective diagnosis and treatment of those with mental and emotional disorders, an effective way to curb the effects of right-wing extremism within our country. These are obviously discussions for another time. But we can’t let our minds wander far from them, lest we forget.

For right now, however, our hearts go out to those who mourn. There are parents, spouses, children, siblings left behind, whose lives will never be the same. There are friends, fellow church members and colleagues, who are changed now forever.

In light of this I would like to make a suggestion to you. On a number of occasions when Jews have been the victims of attacks, I personally have received expressions of sympathy from Christian friends of mine. And the Jewish community as a whole has received expressions of sympathy from many around the world. I suggest that we at Union Temple, and our children as well, send expressions of sympathy to the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (To give full credit, my colleague from Troy, NY, Rabbi Deborah Gordon, posted a note about this gesture on the part of her congregation.) If I may suggest, we might consider including one or more of the our own traditional phrases of comfort that I am certain will resonate with the members of that church:

“May the Almighty comfort you amongst those who mourn.”
“May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.”
“May the souls of your loved ones be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”

The address of the church is:
Emanuel AME Church
110 Calhoun Street
Charleston, SC 24901
Or, email: emanuel@emanuelamechurch.org.

I will be sending a short letter of condolence on temple stationery, and I hope that as many of you as possible will communicate with the people in Charleston. We cannot bring back their loved ones, but we can let them know that there are people of faith around the country who care about them.

If you would like to read a bit about the very interesting history of this church, which is known fondly to the community as “Mother Emanuel,” you can find it at: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/churchhistory.php .

Many thanks to all.

Israel…Wonderful, and Complicated

In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

It’s wonderful; and, it’s also complicated. . . .

It is the end of a long but wonderful day – the first full day of our journey on our Breadth of Israel Tour. When we arrived last night we gathered for our opening dinner at a very special restaurant in the cultural heart of Tel Aviv. Liliyot is an upscale restaurant which presents the modern kosher kitchen at its best, with an innovative menu of the freshest and most beautifully prepared ingredients. But Liliyot’s real significance lies in its social action initiative for the rehabilitation of youth at risk. For this initiative, Liliyot collaborates with ELEM, the Organization for Youth at Risk in Israel. Every year Liliyot trains and employs 15 high school dropouts who receive instruction, supervision and employment for an 18-month period. The staff employs experts in the culinary world, of course, but also a social worker, and other professionals, to train young people for jobs in the highly competitive, and highly valued food industry – young people who were headed in the wrong direction – Jews and Arabs alike – until ELEM threw them a lifeline. To dine at this restaurant is a sheer pleasure. To watch these young people at work, one would have no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary without knowing the story. But the story is remarkable indeed, and is only one of a number of projects initiated by ELEM for the rehabilitation of youth at risk in Israel.

This morning, after a moving visit to Independence Hall, we visited another remarkable program, this one in Jaffa. In 2003, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli counterpart of the Union for Reform Judaism) launched an invaluable program for young Israelis. “Mechina” means “preparation.” The “mechina” programs in Israel are voluntary programs for high school graduates that enable them to defer their Army service for a year, while continuing their studies. There are over 30 mechina programs in Israel. The Reform mechina program, however, is unique. It is specifically devoted not only academic studies, but also to religious studies from a liberal, Reform perspective. In addition, the participants in this program volunteer for various service programs within Israel. They work with mostly with senior citizens and children with special needs – Arabs and Jews alike, both of whom inhabit the city of Jaffa, the port city with a 4,000-year history. We heard from three of the participants in this mechina, and from their director as well. We were moved by their seriousness and commitment, and we look forward to telling you more about them when we return.

Our drive from the airport to the hotel yesterday, however, was not without its kinks. The Ayalon highway, which we were on, was closed for a time, as were other major arteries, due to a massive demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was a demonstration by the community of Ethiopian Jews against police brutality. After Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, it is clear that racially charged problems with police and governmental policies do not stop at our shores. This was an outburst of pent up frustration on the part of this community for many of the inequities in Israeli society, and dozens of people were injured in the scuffling.

Sometimes our high expectations of Israel as a state built on Jewish values lead to disappointment and frustration when Israel falls short of fully realizing those values in the way it should. But expecting perfection of any nation, particularly one as complex as Israel, is unrealistic and unhelpful. What we do expect, however, is the maturity and courage to look at these problems squarely and take steps to ameliorate them. Hopefully the demonstration yesterday, and its continuation today in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s office, will place these issues front and center so that they cannot be pushed aside any longer.

I will end this installment with a note of hope. After lunch, some of us stopped at Abulafyiah’s Bakery, an Arab bakery of great and well-deserved renown in the shopping district of Jaffa. The young men working the counters all were wearing bright orange shirts, authorized by the Arab proprietors of the bakery. The shirts read: JEWS AND ARABS REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES. That is all I will say for now. There is much more to come.

Nelson Mandela’s Work

Nelson Mandela Photo: lasanta.com.ec Flickr

Last Thursday the world lost Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Through his own unimaginable personal sacrifice and almost superhuman determination and political acumen, he brought about peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled land. In so doing, he inspired us all with hope in the potential of human beings to overcome the racism that poisons us and the hatred that divides us.

The Psalmist teaches: “The days of our years are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength, fourscore years.” Threescore and ten – 70 years. But the first 70 years of Mr. Mandela’s life were marked by violence and tyranny, resistance and imprisonment. In the traditional view, that would have been his entire life. But when he emerged from the darkness into the light, standing side by side with the very people who once had been his enemies, he began a new life, and went on to bless this world for almost FIVE score years. It was amazing to behold.

No, we can’t all be Mandelas. One is more than any epoch can probably expect. But we can all learn from him, and draw inspiration from his life and work. We can make an effort to use our intelligence and our strength, and our human sensitivity, to join with others in promoting human progress and a peaceful life on this earth. Each of us has to find some area in which we are most compelled to make our personal contribution. But the work is what counts – our work. We learn from the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each of us is obligated to make some personal contribution to repair the world. Each of us is personally responsible. That is really the most authentic way to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, and all the other heroes and heroines who have worked and fought to make the world a better place.

This week we will complete our reading of the Book of Genesis. The rivalries and enmity that have marked the generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs have been put to rest. After 20 years of separation and estrangement, Jacob and his children are together as one family. At least for now, the spirit of peace and reconciliation has won the day. As we close the Book of Genesis, we proclaim in the words of our tradition, חזק חזק ונתחזק Chazak, chazak, venitchazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

As for Nelson Mandela we say, זכר צדיק לברכה – Zecher Tzaddik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing – and may we keep alive the light he brought into the world.