Saturday, November 3, 2018

Solidarity Shabbat: Remembering the Victims of Tree of Life Synagogue

This has been a tough week.  I’ve personally been in a cloud from the moment my Shabbat joy was shattered last Saturday.  I’ve been filled with utter sadness at the loss of precious life at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  I’ve been filled with fear.    Fear for myself.  Fear for the Jewish Community.  Fear for the future of our country.

I know that I am not alone.  The Jew’s heart is breaking.  All in our wider community are hurting.  All of us are in grief, in mourning.  That is why we are here together.

Each week, we gather to read a section of the Torah, the five books of Moses.  We began a few weeks ago with the very beginning of Genesis.  And now, we are in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  It completely confounds me that no matter what is happening in our lives, no matter what is happening in our world, the week’s Torah portion seems to fit perfectly to our communal mood and mindset.  This week is no exception.

Our Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with death and mourning.  Sarah dies suddenly, and Abraham mourns the loss of his beloved wife.  The Torah teaches that Abraham grieves for Sarah in two distinct ways: he wails, and he remembers her.

We are in the midst of shiva, the seven days of initial mourning, for the eleven souls of Pittsburgh.  We’ve cried.  We’ve grieved.  We’ve wailed.  We Jews also mourn by sharing stories of the dead.  Abraham remembered Sarah by reflecting upon her very essence.  We too need to remember the dead: what they believed, what propelled them in life, and what mattered most in their world.  You may have heard their stories, but they bear repeating.

Joyce Feinberg was a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center for more than 25 years.  She was an elegant and warm person who was enormously caring with a huge personality.

Richard Gottfried was a dentist who along with his wife shared a dental practice.  Richard and his wife were fixtures in the community and they volunteered together at the Catholic Charities Dental Clinic.  He was an avid runner who had recently been attending services at Tree of Life Synagogue.

Rose Mallinger was spry, vibrant, and full of life.  At 97 years old, she was the quintessential bubbe (Jewish grandmother) where family was everything.  She was mother of three, grandmother to five, great-grandmother to one.  Rose attended services every Saturday, sitting next to her sister in synagogue.  She was always quick with a friendly greeting, a hug, and a smile.

Jerry Rabinowitz was a primary care physician.  During the early days of HIV treatment when stigma was high, Jerry was known to hold patients’ hands without gloves and to embrace them.  He was known for wearing bow ties to help make people laugh.  Jerry escaped the initial assault on Saturday. and turned around and ran inside to see if anyone was hurt or needed a doctor.

Cecil and David Rosenthal – were two incredible brothers.  Cecil was a gentle giant who greeted everyone with a smile and a strong handshake.  He had a youthful exuberance and a laugh that was infectious.  He had developmental challenges and was a beloved member of the community.  David was quieter, but no less beloved.  He was a greeter, standing in front of the sanctuary handing out prayer books.  The brothers were inseparable.

Bernice and Sylvan Simon were married at the Tree of Life Congregation more than 60 years ago.  A neighbor shared that they were the sweetest people you could have imagined.  They were always giving back to people, they always stepped up, and were kind and generous. 
Daniel Stein was a simple man who didn’t require much.  He had a dry sense of humor and was a great guy.  He was a former president of the New Light Congregation and is remembered for his kindness.

Melvin Wax was known as Mel to everyone.  His greatest passion besides the Pittsburgh Penguins was his grandson.  Mel was generous and a sweet man who would help anyone.  At almost 88 years old, he’d always park his car a few streets away from the synagogue to leave closer spaces to those who needed them.

Irving Younger greeted each member with a big smile and a handshake.  He liked to make sure that everyone knew what page they were on in the prayer book.  He went to synagogue every day, he never missed a day.  He felt a true responsibility and a role to serve the community.

These eleven precious souls are us.  They are young and old.  They are singles, couples, siblings, and friends.  They are Jews, interfaith couples, Jews-by-choice, those with disabilities; the rainbow of our Jewish community.  They are the greeters, the Torah readers, the prayer leaders, and the board members.  They are the regulars and those who come every once and a while. They are us.

As I read their stories this past Monday, I began to cry.  I know the Rose Mallingers, the Jerry Rabinowitz’s, the Cecil and David Rosenthal’s.  I know the Bernice and Sylvan Simon’s and the Joyce Feinberg’s.  Pittsburgh is us.  Squirrel Hill is us.  We are Squirrel Hill.  I cried because we are one big family.  We lost precious lives.  We are all in this together.

As we mourn, I’m cognizant that our shiva, our initial seven days of mourning, is almost complete.  As one rabbinic colleague shared: “Today we mourn, tomorrow we act.”  What happens tomorrow?  Where do we go from here?

I find my answer by going back to the Torah.  Halfway through our portion, we meet Rebecca, the matriarch, for the first time.  Rebecca sits by her town’s well.  When Eliezer, servant of Abraham, appears, she welcomes him with open arms.  She provides him with water and also draws water for Eliezer’s many camels.

Rebecca’s quintessential feature is kindness.  She welcomes Eliezer, a stranger, into her home.  She goes out of her way to help him through his troubles.  It might seem like a small thing to provide someone with a glass of water but remember she didn’t have a tap or a sink!  The well was far away.  And camels after a long hot journey drink much water.  This was a big moment and a lot of hard work.  Rebecca lives her every moment with kindness and with a welcoming personality.

There is real fear in our community.  There is so much hatred and anger in the world.  We wish to guard ourselves by building a fortress around our community.  There is an urgency to protect ourselves with ever greater walls, doors, guards, and guns.  After this attack, the trauma, pushes us to look inward, to circle the wagons, to protect our own.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  We must keep our community safe.  With our President, Melissa Zieve’s leadership, we have already begun conversations about security and safety.  New protocols and new procedures have been implemented and will be implemented to make our community secure in the days ahead.

Yet, it’s not just safety procedures, it’s also outlook and prospective.  Do we look inward?  Do we close the door?  Or do we look outside our walls?  As a community, Bolton Street Synagogue has always stood for warmth, welcoming, and community.  Our new tagline is: “Doors Wide Open.”  Our identity is about opening ourselves up to the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community.

It’s more than us, it’s also the lives who were lost in Pittsburgh.  I shared their stories because each person whose life was lost, lived his or her days with kindness and compassion.  They focused their days living life with: generosity, kindness, caring, giving, warmth, laughter, smiles, and love.  As Rebecca’s essence was kindness and a welcoming personality, so too did the eleven who died at Tree of Life Synagogue.  We can’t put up barriers.  We can’t turn in the wagons.  We Jews need to live our lives with kindness in our hearts and with our doors open to the world.

Our Torah portion begins with mourning.  Abraham grieves with wailing and remembrance for his beloved wife Sarah.  But, our Torah portion ends in an entirely different light.  It ends with comfort.  Isaac, the son of Sarah, also grieves.  He finds comfort in his new wife Rebecca.  We learn in the Torah that: “Isaac loved Rebecca and finds comfort after his mother’s death.”

Isaac finds comfort not through vengeance and anger, not through rage and resentment, but through kindness, love, and togetherness.  It’s through relationship and friendship, that Isaac finds peace.

Even more powerfully, our Torah portion ends with the burial of Abraham.  We learn that Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s two sons, come together to bury their father.  Jewish tradition teaches that Ishmael is the patriarch of the Arabs and Islam.  How powerful that two brothers, of two different religious traditions, come together, to bury their father.  To comfort each other.  To support each other.

Tonight, I’m overwhelmed at the number of non-Jewish friends, family members, and allies who are here to support us.  In addition, we have a dozen members of the clergy: pastors, reverends, priests, and ministers, who are here with us in solidarity.  We know that we as a Jewish community are not here alone.  There are so many of you, who have our back.  You are here to comfort us, support us, and be our friend.  There is fear for the future, but there is also great optimism that together we can make a difference.  Together we can help change this world for the better. 

I firmly believe we do that by getting to know each other better, by building deeper relationships across religion, ethnicity, race, and community.  That’s why we invited you to be here with us tonight.  Don’t just leave after the service and never see us again.  Let this be the moment to renew our relationship with each other.  As Rebecca opened her home to Eliezer, we too open our home to you.  After the service, lets join together to talk, to get to know each other, and to break bread together.  Let this moment of sadness and grieving, lead us to comfort, to friendship, and to peace.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yom Kippur Sermon: Don't Give Up Hope on Israel

One of the first lessons you learn as a rabbi is that there’s a third rail in Judaism: “It’s called Israel!”  My fellow rabbis like to joke that no good comes from speaking about Israel on the bima.  No matter what you say, everyone will be angry!  Those on the right and the left will give you menacing stares, write angry e-mails, and you’ll rub everyone the wrong way.  Oh, and you’ll get fired!  Lovely!  So here we go…

With all this uproar and anger, why would I wade into this conversation?  Wouldn’t it be better to talk about something, anything, else?  Alas, I MUST speak about Israel.  Israel has been on my mind.  I’ve heard from many of you about your own worries around Israel.  I too have struggled with recent news.
I’d like to start this conversation by describing my own experience with Israel: my love of Israel, but also my current questions.  I hope that by sharing my story, it will help you think about your own personal connection to Israel! 

Israel has been a part of my life, since the very beginning.  Literally, one of my first memories is connected to Israel.  When I was five years old, I remember distinctly making my first Israeli flag at Sunday School.  Blue and White construction paper were cut out and pasted together to form the Magen David (the Jewish Star).  We waved these flags as we sat down on our “El-Al” plane with a mock passport in hand.

Eight year later, I journeyed to Israel for the first time for my Bar Mitzvah.  I remember standing stoically at the Kotel, the Western Wall, alongside my parents and grandparents.  I watched as my grandfather got teary eyed when he spotted Gordon Street written in Hebrew letters.

As soon as I came home, I knew I would be back!  This time for longer.  A semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later my entire first year of rabbinical school.   That year and a half in the Holy Land allowed me to experience Jewish time.  I watched as everyone scurried on Fridays to get home in time for Shabbat dinner.  I was in awe as the streets emptied during Yom Kippur or when each family placed a lit Menorah in their window during Hanukkah. 

Many Friday evenings, I traveled to Kol HaNeshama, one of the Reform synagogues in Jerusalem, praying with Israelis and singing familiar songs.  I met friends who became future Israeli Reform Rabbis.  I was honored to watch these pioneers create a vibrant Liberal Judaism in Israel.

I love Israel.  I love the history and connection to our past.  I love the diversity of Israel, the smells and the sounds: the ringing of the church bells, the call of Muslim prayer, the davening that wafts through the windows of the synagogue.  I love the brashness of the no-nonsense Israeli.  I love the can-do attitude and the hope for a better tomorrow.

Yet, recently, that love has turned to confusion.  The news coming out of Israel has been challenging and at times infuriating.  Not long ago, Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative Rabbi from Haifa, was awoken in the early morning hours as the police arrested him and detained him. The crime?  Illegally officiating at a Jewish wedding.  Liberal rabbis have officiated at weddings for secular Israelis, Russian Jews, and same-sex couples, even when they were not recognized by the State or the Chief Rabbinate.  This was the first time that a rabbi was arrested for performing a wedding, punishing my liberal colleagues and using this as a scare tactic.

Not long after, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted in favor of the Nation-State Law.  This law focuses exclusively on Israel’s Jewish character, superseding the values of pluralism, democracy, and freedom that were at the heart of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  There are already repercussions. After seventy years, Arabic is no longer an official language of the state.  The Druze, a small non-Jewish sect, which is deeply loyal to Israel and serves bravely in the army, now feels betrayed.  This is a blow to all who care deeply about both Israel’s Democratic and Jewish values.

At the same time, the Knesset passed a bill, making surrogacy legal for straight couples, but illegal for LGBTQ families.   And then there is the never-ending occupation; the fighting in Gaza; and the pessimism that Israel and the Palestinians will never achieve peace.

I’m saddened by this news.  The Israel I care about is under attack.  I shudder to hear stories of those who are mocked, treated unfairly, and arrested for living their Judaism.  I am hurt that Brian and I would be unable to build a loving Jewish family in Israel, the Jewish State, solely because we are gay.  I’m troubled that the values I hold most dear: democracy, egalitarianism, respect for all citizens, pluralism, diversity, and justice are now under siege.  I love Israel with all my heart, yet it’s hard to love when the values I care most about are trampled upon.

If it makes you feel a little bit better, and it makes me feel better, this is not a new problem.  This is an age old problem.  We Jews have constantly argued with one another.  For millennia, there has been a battle for the very soul of Judaism, the soul of Israel. 

Long ago, the prophet Zechariah lived in the sixth century BCE, just as the Jewish community was returning home to Israel.  After seventy years of exile in Babylonia, the Jewish community began to rebuild what had been destroyed.

A question was asked: “What should a rebuilt Israel look like?  What should be the vision of our new country?”  In Babylonia, the people had mourned for the destruction of their Land and their Temple by fasting and weeping.  Now that they returned home, should they continue these Jewish practices? 

Zechariah replied with a sharp answer: You are asking the wrong question!  It’s not about fasting or lamenting or focusing solely on the Jewish rituals of the past, “No, this is what Adonai says, execute true justice, deal loyally and compassionately with one another.  Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another” …. “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.[i]

Those who returned from Babylonia stressed Israel’s Jewish identity above all else.  Zechariah disagreed staunchly with this assessment and shared a distinct moral vision for the country.  A rebuilt Israel must also embrace justice, decency, and compassion.  Israel must become a beacon of morality, a light to the nations.  The battle of Zechariah’s day was over the essence of Israel’s character.  That is our battle today.

We might not hear about it, but Zechariah’s vision is alive and well in Israel!  Unfortunately, the attention given by our news sources, tv and print, focuses only on the negative as well as the rise of Israel’s right.  There is another side!  Did you know that weeks ago over 100,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv in support of Gay rights and in opposition of the new surrogacy law?  Did you know that 22,000 people gathered at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem?  These are huge numbers for Israel.  That would be more than 4 million people protesting in Washington or almost a million people marching at a Pride Parade in Baltimore.

Close to my heart, is my friend, Rabbi Tamara Shifrin, who leads Achavat Yisrael a Reform Congregation in Rishon Le’Tzion.  The congregation has been around for seventeen years and has grown and flourished under Rabbi Shifrin’s leadership.  A few months ago, Garin Torani, an Orthodox Community attempted to take over her synagogue building.  Luckily, she and her congregation didn’t back down and received support from the municipality.  All is well, yet she’s worried about the future.  I’m proud that she recently joined an organization called Elifelet that supports Refugee Children in Israel.

And there is Woman of the Wall, a group of Jewish Women who gather each month at the Kotel donned with kippot and tallasim to pray and dance with the Torah.  They are spit on, drowned out with blare horns, and have been arrested for “not keeping the peace” solely because they are expressing their right as women to join in prayer and read from the Torah.  For thirty years, each month, they have gathered and they won’t stop until there is equality for all!

And most impressive is our Reform Movement in Israel, especially the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which fights against discrimination and abuse in all facets of Israeli Society.  When an extremist group created a job website that only allowed Jewish employers and Jewish job seekers access, IRAC joined with the Mossawa Center and filed a lawsuit that later won in court!  At cross examination, Anat Hoffman, the Director of IRAC was asked: “Why does the Reform Movement care if we discriminate against Arabs?  Isn’t your focus on providing services to Reform Jews.”  Her answer: “We are committed to equality as a religious value.  It is as important to our movement as religious services on Yom Kippur.”

I know the news coming out of Israel is upsetting.  It sometimes feels easier to walk away.  And many in our community have done just that.  More and more liberal Jews feel that the Israel of their youth is no longer the Israel of today.  They feel lied to, betrayed by the Jewish Community for not telling the full story.  They’re angry, sometimes and often rightly so, but that anger causes them to leave Israel behind.

And there are those who close their eyes to Israel’s mistakes.  Sometimes it’s easier to put on blinders and ignore the challenges.  We love Israel, yet, in that undevoted love, we fail to call out Israel’s warts.  Like our country, Israel is not perfect.  Israel must be reminded that she has a duty to support all Jews and all her citizens.

I have felt both these reactions, sometimes too often.  There are times when I just want to walk away.  I want to say enough is enough.  There are other times, when I want to defend the indefensible and hide all of Israel’s problems.  But neither of these reactions is helpful.  It doesn’t further my relationship with Israel and I believe won’t change anything at all.

Rather than walking away, we can effect change!  There are millions of Israelis who care about the values of democracy, equality, pluralism, and peace.  There is a growing Reform Jewish community that just ordained it’s 100th rabbi this past year.  New synagogues are sprouting up and more Israelis are entering these communities for weddings and B’nai Mitzvah!  There are organizations such as the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, Women of the Wall, the New Israel Fund, T’ruah, B’tzelem, and dozens of others that fight for progressive Jewish values and equality for all.

Our Israeli brethren need our support!  Recently, Rabbi Shifrin reminded me (once again!) that she needs us.  Israelis who fight for justice and equality, who care about peace and pluralism need to know that we are by their side and that we stand with them in support of this vision.

So here’s what you can do, if may be small, but it will make a difference: Travel to Israel!  And when you do, visit a Reform Congregation.  Add Progressive Israeli organizations as part of your annual giving.  Stay informed.  Write to the Israeli Embassy and sign petitions when you are upset.  Get involved in organizations that work for peace.  Stand with our allies in Israel!  Don’t walk away.  Don’t give us hope. 

As the prophet Zechariah teaches: “the fast will become an occasion for joy and gladness, but only if you love honesty and integrity.”  On this fast day, on this Yom Kippur, may our actions bring about joy and gladness in Israel.  May we help build an Israel that is overflowing with justice and mercy, honesty and integrity, an Israel that celebrates all Jewish heritage and the heritage of all her peoples.  And let us say, Amen.

[i] Zechariah 7:3, 9-10 and 8:16

Kol Nidre Sermon: The Teshuvah of #MeToo

It was a few weeks[i] after the Inauguration, in early February 2017, when a good friend, a rabbinical school classmate, shared a picture on the Rabbis Facebook Group.  There stood a cartoon woman stood in a pink pants suit with her back to us.  Surrounding here were dozens of comment bubbles, such as: “Your clothing is distracting the boys,” “That’s a man’s job,” “She was asking for it,” “Aren’t you cute.”  At the bottom of the picture were the words: “Nevertheless She Persisted.”  My friend posed this question: “Woman Rabbi Edition.  What true comments have you experienced?”  With that introduction, there was an outpouring from my fellow rabbis.  1,000 comments in a little over two days, mostly by rabbis who happen to be women.  Here were a couple that rattled me to my core:

 “Great legs, Rabbi” 
 “I’m sorry, but do you know a male rabbi who can do the wedding?  We’d just prefer a male rabbi.  It’s nothing personal.” 
 “Calm down Rabbi, you’re getting emotional”
 “Are you the rabbi’s secretary?”
“If my rabbi growing up looked like you, I would have gone to synagogue much more often.” 
“There just isn’t any more money in the budget.  Can’t your husband earn more?” 
“Honey, Sweetheart, Sugar, Baby.”
 “You don’t look like a rabbi.”

These are my colleagues and friends.  To hear such demeaning, ugly, and hurtful comments about their bodies and their gender was deeply upsetting.  We went through the same rabbinic training together.  They are bright, thoughtful, and charismatic leaders.  Yet, the truth is, my rabbinic colleagues still face discrimination and disrespect solely because they are women.  Even in our Reform Movement, rabbis who are women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. 

And we know, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  This past year, every #MeToo has left me struggling and upset.  And it continues, in the news this week!  I’ve been shaken by the many stories of trauma: of psychological and physical abuse.  Too many in our community have experienced uncomfortable words, inappropriate touching, and unwanted glances. 

During Yom Kippur, the prayer leader, the Cantor or Rabbi, stands before the community and shares a personal confession called the Hin’ni.  This prayer is an admission of inadequacy of self-doubt in the face of the daunting responsibility of leading the community. Tomorrow, I’ll recite these words: “Hin’ni.  Here I am.  So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive.  Although unworthy, I rise and seek favor, for my community had entrusted me in this task…  Accept my prayer as though it were offered by one more worthy of this task.”

Tonight, I offer my own Hin’ni.  Here I am.  I recognize that I am a man.  As a man, I have privilege and power.  Hin’ni.  Here I am.  Who am I to give this sermon?  I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.  I don’t know what it’s like to be silenced or face discrimination because of my gender. 

Hin’ni.  Here I am.  I am nervous.  I may say the wrong thing.  I might offend.  I might stir up an emotion or trigger a past experience.  Nervous as I am, I ask for your forgiveness.  If I say the wrong thing, I ask for your willingness to teach me.  I believe that the alternative is to say nothing at all.  And if there’s one thing that I have learned from my colleagues, is that even I, especially I, as a man, must not stay silent. 

Hin’ni. Here I stand, I am called to give voice to our transgressions of humiliation and abuse.  For #MeToo is everywhere, including our wider Jewish Community.  Yes, men of every nationality, background, and religion have made the headlines, but there is a surprising number of stories reported about Jewish men. [ii]  We know about Harvey Weinstein. The list also includes the likes of Al Franken, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Halperin, Woody Allen, Israel Horowitz, Brett Ratner, and Anthony Weiner.  We’ve seen major figures in our Jewish Community from Professor Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, Israeli Activist Ari Shavit, to local rabbis in both Baltimore and Washington who have faced accusations.  That is a lot of Jewish men with some serious accusations.

Those who are guilty must repent for their sins.  They must seek forgiveness and change their ways.  Yet, there is something deeper going on in our society.  As the famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches: “The people of Israel may be likened to a body of which every Jew is a living part.  The vitality of the whole depends upon the health of every organ and limb.  That is how deeply we are connected to one another.  Each individual sin inflicts damage on the entire body.  All of us share in the responsibility of healing the body of Israel”[iii]

The transgressions of humiliation and abuse are a poison upon our society.  These sins don’t just affect one person, they affect us all.  We are all deeply intertwined with each other.  It’s not enough for us to point fingers at those who have been accused and blame them.  It’s not enough for us to wipe our hands clean.  Each of us, in some way is responsible for allowing these horrible actions to continue, with little repercussions at all. 

Or to put it differently, there’s the story of my colleague and rabbinic school classmate, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, who a few months ago attended a Jewish Federation Gala.  The comedian that evening signaled her out publicly.  Here’s her account and her response to him: [iv]

“’Are there any female rabbis in the room?’
This isn’t like when you ask if anyone is from Cleveland. Everyone in that room knew who I was. It was just me. In a brightly colored dress. Dead center.
If I had chosen to not raise my hand—like I could have done in a comedy club—any number of people would have ‘outed’ me. So I raised my hand.
‘You’re a rabbi?’ you asked. I nodded. ‘Well that’s great! I support that!’ Great, I thought. The comedian supports my professional ambitions.
But you didn’t stop there. You gave me the once-over. ‘Wow, you’re really pretty,’ you said. ‘Are you married?’
‘No, I am not.’ I smiled through gritted teeth. You couldn’t read my body language, but I was shooting daggers at you with my eyes. I didn’t like where this was going.
‘Oh,’ you said. ‘Maybe I’ll divorce my shiksa wife and marry you!’
Some people laughed. Later some people told me they were offended and wanted to write an angry letter. One of my congregants—the one being honored—told me he nearly stood up and shouted, ‘Leave her alone!’ But he didn’t. We all just sat there.”

We know how easy it is to laugh it off, ignore what’s happening, or to just sit there stone faced.  We know the repercussions of remaining silent.  Nothing will change unless we stand up against misogyny and any inappropriate behavior. 

Even the litany of sins that we recite during Yom Kippur are expressed in the plural.  We don’t say: “I sinned, I transgressed.”  No, we say: “We sinned, we transgressed.”  Later tonight, we’ll chant these sins together: “We betray.  We steal.  We scorn.  We act perversely.”  Reciting in the plural reminds us that all of us are culpable, all responsible for the sins of society.

Tonight, I recite a confessional for the sins of #MeToo.  Here is a new litany of sins written by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore:[v]

“Al Cheit Shechatanu, for the sin we have committed before You…
By not believing the victims
By being silent while women were bullied, harassed or undermined
By claiming to be ready to listen when we were not
By claiming equality exists for all
By not supporting the victims
By accepting the sexist comments made every day
By blaming the victims
By explaining away harassment
By promising change and not fulfilling this promise
Al Cheit Shechatanu…
For the sin we have committed before You, we ask forgiveness.”

It seems that only now are we acknowledging that there is a problem.  We have a long way to go.  We all share responsibility for these sins, but those of us who are men, myself included, have a particular role in this.  Men have influence over other men.  What are we as men doing to address this?  Are we laughing at the sexist jokes or saying that it’s not ok?  Are we speaking out when we see bad behavior?  Are we being exemplars for our sons and grandsons?  Are we recognizing our mistakes and apologizing for our behavior?  Are we always acting like mensches? 

Rabbi Rachel Bregman reminds us that sexual violence thrives when power is unevenly distributed.  As she writes: “Ultimately, #MeToo is a call to fix a deep wound that is a symptom of a much larger systemic disease: Men have privilege, and the power that comes with it.”[vi]

Our Jewish tradition is based upon centuries of cultural norms and Jewish practice that describe specific gender roles in Jewish life.  It’s time for us to reflect upon the gendered Judaism we have inherited.  Even as a liberal community, we must continue to expand the roles and responsibility of leading our community, to make sure that all of us share privilege and power.    It’s easy is to quote male rabbis or to teach the stories of Abraham or Moses.  What about modern female rabbis and scholars, as well as biblical heroes such as Deborah, Miriam, Esther, and Sarah?  It’s time to reframe the Judaism bequeathed to us, and to expand the voices in the room so all our thoughts and perspectives are heard.

As your rabbi, I want to make sure that our Bolton Street Synagogue is a place where all are respected and valued.  I want all of us to be present for each other and support each other during times of challenge and pain.  And I believe that we do that by listening. 

Sh’ma Yisrael.  Hear O Israel is our quintessential prayer.  Hearing, listening, being truly present for each other is a key foundation of what it means to be a Jew.  We take in each other’s words and provide encouragement.  We express our empathy and kindness. We hear each other’s stories without commentary and without judgment.  We listen without blaming the victims or refusing to accept their account. 

In the Torah, two letters of the Sh’ma (an Ayin and a Dalet) are larger and more prominent than the others.  The rabbis teach that these letters form the word “Eid” which means witness.  What would it look like to be a witness for each other?  To believe the victims, to be truly present to them, and to support them unconditionally.  What would it look like to be an active witness?  Perhaps it’s just to listen or perhaps to stand with a friend against a perpetrator. As a community, we listen, we bear witness, and together begin teshuvah, that long road towards change.

We know that change does come slowly.  It might not happen overnight and perhaps not even in a generation.  But things are changing for the better.  Women are bravely standing up and courageously sharing their stories.  Women and men are risking their futures by not staying silent, modeling for us all, what it means to speak truth to power.  It’s their bravery and outspokenness, as well as our willingness to listen, to be a witness, and to decry all misconduct, that will help us change this world for the better.  It might not be a Herculean change, but it’s effects will be.  A dream where every, woman, man, and child, will be respected, valued, and honored for who they are.  

[i] In gratitude to my dear friends and rabbinic colleagues Rabbi Jessy Dressin and Rabbi Heather Miller for their guidance, advice, and help in writing this sermon.  You are my teachers, my chevrutah, and my friends.

[ii] Rabbi Daniel Brenner “Are Jewish Men Pigs” in, January 19, 2018 (

[iii] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 83

[iv] Rabbi Leah Berkowitz “Dear Male Comedian” in Jewish Women’s Archive May 23, 2018 (  Thank you to Rabbi Berkowitz for allowing me to share her story.

[v] “A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession for the High Holy Days” by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore (adapted)   

[vi] Rabbi Rachel Bregman “4 Critical Ways Jewish Institutions Cane Learn from #MeToo” in The Forward, March 15, 2018 (

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Won't You be My Neighbor? Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

It was a dark and cold evening, some twenty five years ago, in Billings, Montana.[i]  Brian Schnitzer was downstairs working in his basement when he heard a noise.  He went upstairs and found that his son’s bedroom was freezing cold.  As he looked about, he found a brick lying between the beds with splintered glass scattered all over the room.  It was the week prior to Hanukkah and his five-year-old son, Isaac, had decorated the window with symbols of the holiday: a menorah, a dreidel, a Star of David, and the words Happy Hanukkah!  Someone had picked up that brick from outside the yard and hurled it right through the window.

When the police arrived, they suggested that the family put bars on their windows, get a dog, and make sure to remove all Jewish symbols.  When Margie MacDonald, then the Executive Director of the Montana Association of Churches heard this, she reached out to her Pastor and suggested that the church do something.  They decided to pass out paper menorahs to the members of the congregation to place in their windows at home.  Now, I’m sure many of you know what happened next!  The Gazette, the local paper, decided to publish a full-page color image of a menorah.  Over 10,000 families, cut out these menorahs and posted them on their windows.

In 1993, Billings, Montana was awash in hatred.  Elements of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation were at work.  Fliers targeting minorities and LGBTQ people were found on car windshields; a teenager was beaten with a baseball bat in a racially motivated attack; a Native American family had their house spray painted with racist graffiti; even the synagogue received a bomb threat that Yom Kippur. 

To respond to this hatred, an interfaith coalition began meeting that spring, joining together for community conversations and urging lawmakers to pass resolutions countering bigotry.  Yet, it was during Hanukkah that people courageously proclaimed that enough was enough.  Thousands of Billings residents, almost all of them not Jewish, stood by their neighbors, against hatred and fear.

In our Jewish tradition, there are many commandments, many mitzvot, which we are expected to follow.  Six hundred thirteen commandments in total.  Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, our rabbis have argued for millennia about which mitzvah is the most significant of all.  The consensus, if we could have consensus in Judaism, is the proclamation by Rabbi Akiva:[ii] that the major principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”[iii]  Even Hillel, the famous rabbi, who lived a hundred years earlier, proclaimed this teaching, albeit in a slightly different way.  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the entire Torah.  All the rest is commentary.”[iv]

Our rabbis teach that we are unable to live a meaningful Jewish life without a connection to one another.  We can’t follow the mitzvot, we can’t celebrate Jewish tradition, and we can’t be Holy unless we love our neighbor.  We can’t even be in relationship with God, unless we love our neighbor.
Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about neighbors in recent months.  I’m now settled-in as a Baltimorean.  I’m now a homeowner and live not far from here in Baltimore City.  I’ve been reflecting upon what it means to be a good neighbor.  Who is my neighbor?  What’s my responsibility to be a good neighbor?  What do my neighbors expect of me?

Who better to teach us about being a good neighbor than Mr. Rodgers?  This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode of Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood – that groundbreaking children’s tv show on PBS.  Recently, a new documentary entitled “Won’t You be My Neighbor” was released and a new movie starring Tom Hanks comes out later this year. 

Mr. Rodgers began every show with the song, that I’m sure most of you know: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.  Would you be mine?   Could you be mine?”  Mr. Rodgers was goofy.  Even when he began in the 1960’s, he was a little square, a little “old fashioned.”  Yet, he was beloved because everything he did focused on one thought, and one thought alone: “to love your neighbor and to love yourself.”

In the summer of 1969, a year after he began the show, our country was at war with itself.  There were those who tried to hold on to our racist past. And when Blacks and Whites attempted to swim together in pools in neighborhoods from coast to coast, there were those who threw dangerous chemicals into the water to flush people out.  And on Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood?  Fred Rodgers invited Officer Clemmons, a Black Police Officer, to sit next to him and enjoy the cool water on their feet.  A black man and a white man, in 1969, bathing together in a pool on television.  Fred thought it was ridiculous that we would treat people with such contempt, such hatred because of the color of their skin.

A few years later, Mr. Rodger’s welcomed Jeff Erlanger to the Neighborhood.  Jeff was a young child who since the age of four was wheelchair bound because of a tumor that attacked his spine.  After getting to know each other, Mr. Rodgers and Jeff sang a song together.  “It’s you I like, the way you are right now.  Not the things that hide you. Not the fancy chair beside you.  It’s you I like.”  In the words of Fred Rodgers, “Love is at the root of everything.  Love is what keeps us together and afloat.”

Now I don’t know about you, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me, today.  There is so much fear of those who are different from us.  We are more divided than ever, scared of those who speak different languages, who look different, worship different, act different, or even who came here from distant shores.  This fear has manifested itself in so many ways, most significantly in a hatred of each other.

We Jews know what it’s like to feel different – to face discrimination and abuse.  We Jews know what it’s like to be fearful of our surroundings, to hear that cry of sorrow.  Tomorrow morning’s Haftarah reading is one of those cries.  During the time of the Prophet Jeremiah, in the 8th Century BCE, the ten Northern tribes were taken captive by the Assyrian Empire.  There was a feeling of hopelessness that the ten tribes would never again be reunited with the Jewish people.  Jeremiah expresses these feelings of grief through the cry of Rachel, the Israelite matriarch: “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children.  She refuses to be comforted.  For her children, who are gone.”[v]

Rachel’s cry is an eternal cry.  Rachel’s cry hits me right in the gut.  There are still hundreds of kids separated from their mothers, their fathers, their loved ones.  There are kids who of no fault of their own were taken from their caregivers and locked up into cages.  There are mothers and fathers who weep for their children who search courageously for their missing kids.  Refugees and Immigrants who fear for their lives.  Rachel’s cry is heard today, by every mother and every father who refuses to be comforted.  Every parent who lost a child, buried a child, who mourns for a child who is missing.

Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein teaches “Rachel is in pain for two reasons – she is not only in outraged grief over her children’s exile, but she feels the dissonance of knowing what true compassion and graciousness look like.”[vi]  As we watch families torn apart, we emulate Rachel: who wept not only for her children, but also named the compassionate way of living that seemed all but gone.  We protest the vulgarity and the disregard for humanity for this must not become the new normal. 

Protest is one thing, but what about love?  It’s hard enough to love our family and friends, but to love a neighbor?   The rabbis realized long ago that Judaism couldn’t legislate emotion.  No one can say “love them!”  How than do we profess love of our neighbor?  Jewish tradition believes that we love through action.  As writer and teacher Danny Siegel teaches: “Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for the other.  If I wish to have peace of mind, security, a decent living, friends, family, good health for myself, I am to wish that for others also, and to act in such a way as to allow others to have those blessings”[vii]

Whether a refugee, an immigrant, or those that look or act differently from us.  Whether a neighbor with a different perspective or a unique political ideology, we must wish the same for them as we do for ourselves.  That’s the challenge.  It takes courage to fight back hatred with love.  Or as Michelle Obama reminds us: “When they go low, we go high.”  We attack with decency, honor, respect, and kindness.  It takes courage and perseverance to love our neighbor, especially the neighbor who frightens us or makes us uncomfortable or down-right angry!

Twenty-five years ago, on a cold winter evening, the good people of Billings, Montana, acted out of love.  Like the righteous gentiles of generations prior, they quenched the fire of hatred and fear, with acts of overflowing love and compassion.  Their menorahs were signs of solidarity: a beacon that all of their neighbors were welcomed and loved. 

That’s why we light the Menorah on Hanukkah!  The Menorah banishes darkness with light, fear with hope.  In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis ask: “When must we light the menorah?”  The answer: “at sunset until the last of our neighbors arrive home.”[viii]  Think of that for a moment.  The menorah is kindled during moments of darkness and must stay lit until every single person has found a safe way home.[ix] 

This isn’t new!  In every generation, the Jewish Community kindled light in the face of darkness.  We marched with Dr. King, we traveled down to Mississippi along with the Freedom Riders, we stood-up for the Refuseniks, and were loud and proud for Gay Rights.  Yet, that was the past.  The struggle continues today.  It’s the refugee detained at the border, the voter taken off the voting rolls, or the Muslim persecuted for her dress.  We kindle light, until each of our neighbors arrives safely home.

And what about our literal neighbor?  That neighbor that lives a few blocks away or just across town?  It’s the neighbor who stands on the street corner with her arm outstretched or the young man with a squeegee in hand.  It’s the neighbor who’s scared of the ever-increasing gun violence and is fearful of the police that are supposed to protect her.  It’s the neighbor that doesn’t send his children to the best schools or the neighbor that struggles to pay her water bills or just get on by.

Love is difficult.  Loving our neighbor is never easy.  Yet, no one ever said that Judaism was easy.  That is the mitzvah, the responsibility and the expectation of every Jew, and every member of our community: “To love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  To kindle light in the dark places of our city, to shine light against hatred and dehumanization, to banish fear with light and love.    

After the dark days of September 11th, 2001, PBS Executives asked Fred Rodgers to come back from retirement for one final episode.  Fred was forlorn, beaten down by the negativity and fear that shrouded our society after 9/11.  Yet, even in his sadness, he was able to provide these words, his words: “No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be Tikkun Olam – repairers of Creation.”  His words, “We all are called to be Tikkun Olam – repairers of Creation.”  And he continues… “Thank you for whatever you do and wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

That’s our call.  That’s our call of action.  To love the neighbor.  To love yourself.

[ii] Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarin 9:4
[iii] Leviticus 19:18
[iv] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a
[v] Jeremiah 31:15
[vii] “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 12
[viii] Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b
[ix] In gratitude to Rabbi David Stern for his insights on this text