Category Archives: social action

After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

One Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” They shouted, “white lives matter.”

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I’ve never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it’s not just hatred of us: it’s hatred of everyone who doesn’t fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work… and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I’ve had cause to say, “this isn’t the America I thought I lived in,” my non-white friends have said, “…this is the America we’ve always known.” And they’ve pointed out that the fact that I’m surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I’ve never had to walk a mile in their shoes. Continue reading

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A note from the rabbi after Charlottesville

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing today to share with you a post that first appeared on Velveteen Rabbi, written in response to the white supremacist rally and march in Charlottesville this weekend. (My post is enclosed below.)

I commend to you also the statement that was released by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: URJ President Rick Jacobs on Charlottesville.

Torah teaches us not to stand idly by when a fellow human being’s blood is shed (Leviticus 19:16). Silence gives tacit cover to white supremacy, especially in a community like ours that is so predominantly white. In the face of what we just witnessed, I will not be silent. I hope that you won’t, either.

One article I’m finding helpful today is How to Talk to Your Kids About the Violence in Charlottesville. If you have other good resources for navigating these difficult times, feel free to share them on the synagogue Facebook page.

On a pastoral note: what unfolded in Charlottesville this weekend may be activating or triggering for many of us — especially the use of Nazi symbols and slogans. If the weekend’s protests leave you in need of support, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ll be away for a few days later this week, but Rabbi Josh Breindel will be providing emergency pastoral coverage in my absence.

Take care of your hearts and souls during this difficult time, and take care of each other, and do what you can to build a better world.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

*

After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of “blood and soil,” “white lives matter,” and “Jew will not replace us;” white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car — all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a “Shabbesdik” (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we’re meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, “praying with their feet,” as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa’s suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity’s worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they’re clearly intertwined — I recommend Eric Ward’s essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that’s a sign of my privilege. I haven’t had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don’t mean to parrot the “all lives matter” rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn’t change the fact that in today’s America, we don’t all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today’s America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won’t all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I’ve often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we’d been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

Consultation on Conscience Conference next spring

The Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement will be sponsoring their next Consultation on Conscience conference April 30-May 2.

What is Consultation on Conscience?
Consultation on Conscience is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s biennial social justice leadership conference. Held over three days in Washington, D.C., Consultation empowers the Reform Jewish Movement through leadership development; opportunities for network and community building; and active dialogue culminating in an afternoon of advocacy on Capitol Hill. It is open to Congregational Delegations as well as individuals looking to build relationships and deepen their engagement in the fight for progressive social change in North America.

In 2017, there will be a special focus on issues of racial justice, including conversations on how to better organize to combat voter suppression and the staggering problem of mass incarceration in America.

To sign up, go to http://www.rac.org/consultation-conscience-2017-registration — and there is a discount rate if you register before 11/22. Rabbi Pam Wax and Chaim Bronstein are planning to go, and hope that others from CBI will do so as well.

The gates are closing – short words for Ne’ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don’t feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.

 

As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.

 

Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI’s tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It’s incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

“Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?”

“No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home.”

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.

 

The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn — teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source — to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.

 

[Image source.] Also posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

D’var Torah for Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d’var Torah which Reb Rachel offered yesterday. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.

“Y’all shall be holy, for I — Adonai your God — am holy.”

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we’re supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we’re holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There’s chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God’s holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week’s Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don’t render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don’t hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I’ve been studying the Torah portion, I’ve also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie’s funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I’ve seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie’s death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping “I can’t breathe.” I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It’s facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week’s Torah portion can speak to us today.

“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey’s neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah’s system of gleaning aimed to do?

“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.” Do residents of Freddie Grey’s neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

“You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself.” This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week’s Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך — “neighbor” or “other” — meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah’s voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.

 

Celebrate Human Rights Shabbat at CBI

imagesThis coming Shabbat — December 6/7, Tevet 3/4, parashat Vayigash — we will observe Human Rights Shabbat here at CBI.

Now in its 6th year, Human Rights Shabbat is an initiative to commemorate International Human Rights Day by educating Jewish communities about the intersection of Jewish values and universal human rights. Nearly 150 communities around the world will come together and pledge to manifest the value of k’vod habriot (human dignity) in our synagogues, schools, and homes.

“Human Rights Shabbat gives synagogues across the nation the opportunity to shine a light on some of the most pressing human rights issues of our time, through prayer, sermons, educational panels and more,” says Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “These communities are committed to the shared value that all of us are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim, and that this fundamental human equality requires us to work for human rights both around the world and in our own backyards.”

We will take part in Human Rights Shabbat by experiencing some new liturgy, readings, poems, and prayers during our Shabbat morning service (9:30am) and studying texts relating to human rights during our weekly Torah study (11:15am.) Join us!

A social action program for western Massachusetts Jewish teens

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I just received an invitation for teen members of the CBI community to attend a workshop put on by the Temple Israel Greenfield Hebrew School and the Greenfield Chapter of Hadassah.

On Jan. 6, 12:30-2:30, Temple Israel will be hosting a workshop called:

Social Justice and Jewish Ethics:
What was the Kosher Meat Boycott and What Does It Have to Do with Me?

It’s free and open to any interested teens, regardless of affiliation or level of Jewish education. (Also regardless of whether or not the teen has ever kept kosher!) They will do some interactive exploration of ideas about work and time related to the Labor Movement, learn some American Jewish history together, and read selections from sacred texts which help to provide the backbone of the Jewish ethics related to specific historic events and the Jewish participation in them. They will then study and discuss contemporary events, and will brainstorm possible projects stemming from the teens’ interests.

This is an opportunity for western Massachusetts Jewish teens to meet each other and study and discuss these issues together. It’s a chance for these teens to meet one another and to talk about important issues which matter to them. And it’s also an opportunity for them to develop their ideas and understanding of shared community ethics, and to think about what they can do to make the world a better place.

This program is ideal for teens post bar and bat mitzvah who are looking to expand their interest in tzedakah (righteous giving) and tikkun olam (healing the world). I think it’s appropriate for those who are becoming b’nei mitzvah this year, too.

This will be the first in a series of social justice workshops where teens will have the opportunity to study American Jewish history in social activism, and then to look at what interests them today and what are related problems they would like to tackle.

I would love for some of CBI’s kids to attend. I’ve sent a flyer to the parents of our teens — if you didn’t receive it, let me know and I will send you another! Please share this with your child(ren) and consider whether they might be willing and able to attend. We can arrange carpooling if that’s helpful.

Many blessings to all,
Reb Rachel