Adath Jeshurun Foundation's Development Director, Talor Blustin, gives a D'var Torah on building a culture of philanthropy within our community. Watch or read his D'var Torah below.
The famous Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore lived in nineteenth-century England. Queen Victoria once asked him, “What is the extent of your wealth? How much do you own?” Sir Moses told her it would take him a few days to do a proper accounting.
When Sir Moses told her his wealth she became upset, saying, “You’re not telling the truth. Everyone knows that you have much more.” Sir Moses explained that he considered as his wealth whatever money he gave away to tzedakah. Anything else that he possessed was only temporary and could be confiscated or lost.
May, 7 2021
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
1. We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
2. It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
3. Shabbat comes every week.
My sabbatical was supposed to begin in Israel. My brother Dan was being ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem, and the timing — at the end of December — was set to coincide. But Omicron hit and Israel’s travel ban was reinstated. After two failed applications and an exceptions committee review, my family was denied entry. The allowance for beauty contestants to fly from all over the world to Israel, flocking to Eilat, created a jarring picture of priorities in, well, a jarring world. Too bad I thought. I didn’t apply for the Miss Universe pageant.
Like we did for his wedding earlier in the pandemic, our family watched Dan’s ordination ceremony on Zoom. It was bittersweet. We felt his Torah beaming through the screen, felt buoyed by these new Masorti rabbis, and felt wrapped by an immense sadness. The Zoom screen flashing “unstable connection” only reinforced my own feeling: connected and not, missing this milestone and excited for am yisrael. Hey, I thought, I’m on sabbatical. I’m supposed to feel untethered, able to do anything! But there was the reminder, that to feel alive and connected meant feeling all of the above— all of life’s feels seeking attention. There was no magical place to be but in the moment.
As Covid worsened, other travel plans were upended. I didn’t make it to Israel at all and instead planted roots in new communities and cities I’d visited but never lived in. I had thought about spending part of sabbatical in Madrid, where my grandparents lived as a young couple when my grandfather was in the US foreign service, a rare assignment for Jews, right after World War II. But in Spain’s place came— for a long stretch— Seattle. There I felt the rhythms of a regular yoga practice, the thrill of skiing, the access of the Seattle Public Library, and best of all: connection. There was time with dear friends and meeting new friends who became chosen family over meals, devouring fresh pizza at the Ballard Farmers Market, holding onto scents and tastes of local bakeries, and taking walks that went nowhere and everywhere.
As I got to play with time and play with friends, I realized no one else was on sabbatical! And life didn’t stop for anyone. Life was changing for one of my dearest friends whose entire family was a huge driving force to come to Seattle. She responded selflessly to a parent’s illness, unplanned and unpredicted, that meant we had less time together. But they were exactly where they needed to be and holding onto life as it was calling them. In the last minute nature of one of my sabbatical changes, a rabbinic colleague and her husband opened their family’s home to me during their vacation. They became extended family, as I would return to hang out on Saturday afternoons with them and their kids. Another colleague had an open door policy to just hang and relax and make her backyard another home where I could lose track of time with her high school teens. A new friend — a Jesuit priest working at a local university— became a trusted confidant for wonderful, rich conversations on life across faith lines. And a friend from a Collegeville Institute writing workshop held months before the world turned upside down, helped make so much turn right side up — from touring the bustle of Pike Place Market to exploring the old Jewish neighborhoods and important social change work in the city.
My learning deepened through different pursuits online and in person. I started taking virtual guitar lessons and signed up for Zoom Mussar classes, a practice of Jewish ethical character traits, that has become embedded at Adath. I started with the Mussar Institute’s Virtual Kallah in January, that drew over 100 participants here and in Israel. For several months on Zoom, a small cohort of LGBTQ rabbis and educators learned from and offered a queer critique of a Mussar curriculum through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And as I sat at a kitchen table, housesitting for new friends, I studied Gemara and the role of judges with Svara, a queer yeshiva, with the teacher in Jerusalem and students across the US. I found a study partner for several weeks through the Center for Contemporary Mussar, basing my learning in the same curriculum that has guided many of our Mussar classes at Adath.
And in person, I felt grateful for opportunities that I didn’t know would come to be. Text study and professional skills development filled several days in Baltimore with forty rabbis at the Rabbinic Training Institute (RTI) sponsored by JTS, and I flew to Los Angeles to celebrate with Rabbi Kravitz and Cindy as Rabbi Kravitz became the president of the international Rabbinical Assembly. The Hadar Rabbinic Intensive gave me the time to absorb three uninterrupted days of yeshiva-style learning with rabbis and cantors in New York, and I built in time with my parents and sister and grandmother in Westchester without feeling rushed to be anywhere else but with my family. The same felt true in other places, letting go of time with friends and/or their kids who are like nieces and nephews. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality alumni retreat felt spacious: prayer, the study of Jewish mysticism, and movement, mornings and afternoons spent in silence, gave permission to be with time rather than control it. Throughout it all I continued writing and my work on the editorial committee of the new weekday version of Siddur Lev Shalem, aimed to elevate daily prayer in synagogues, day schools, and summer camps. I didn’t get to all the destinations, but where I grounded myself I found beauty and frustration and newness in the ordinary. That made sabbatical time holy time.
I found the joy of davening with different Jewish communities— sometimes being asked to lead davening but also confronting my own complex relationship with prayer, quietly, in pews much like where each of you is sitting today. I was able to get outdoors in nature, so much the source of my spirituality, alone and with others. Many locals questioned my winter choice of the Pacific Northwest, but I loved noticing the different climate. I traded snow for rain and our two winter options— cold and colder— for temperate and overcast. To make me feel at home, Seattle hit record lows my first few days in December and a few inches of snow paralyzed the city for a full week. Frustratingly I couldn’t move very far. But that meant I couldn’t move very far from the stunning beauty of Queen Anne’s cobblestone streets turned into a winter wonderland. Still I got to hike and lose track of time amidst lush green trees that clipped gray sky, and drive hours for a simple overnight by the undisturbed Washington Coast. My feet planted in the sand and shifted to the will of the Pacific tide.
Returning home to Minneapolis in April, I was saved the last blast of a long winter. I returned to a landscape that looked eerily the same as it did when I left in December. Despite that, it is really good to be back. I couldn’t have taken sabbatical without the support of Rabbi Kravitz and Hazzan Dulkin, our remarkable staff, and our lay leaders who recognize the importance of the clergy taking a step back for renewal and learning — and for the system to adapt and grow in healthy ways as a result.
Last Monday I returned to a rhythm I love. I was leading Havdalah for our preschool kids in the Gan. We were talking about the sadness of saying goodbye to Shabbat and doing so with fire and grape juice and spices. I asked the kids if they thought we’d ever get to have Shabbat again. One of the kids, true to form, shouted “No!” But an older kid quickly jumped in, like a bat kol, a heavenly voice. “Rabbi, Shabbat comes every week. Don’t worry.”
They’re both right. No two Shabbatot will ever be the same, but Shabbat does come back again and again. Shabbat is in some ways a mini sabbatical for all of us, a chance to feel the holiness, the difference, of not being beholden to the same patterns. That we can play with time when time often plays with us. That in stepping back we don’t become untethered. The responsibilities of life are always present. But we can better appreciate our ordinary routine when we lose track of time a bit, when we get to play with it differently. We eat differently. We dress differently. We talk differently. We live in community differently.
Sabbatical is not always the trip to Madrid or Israel we imagined. Sadly sabbatical was not the high point of a brother’s ordination I’d been looking forward to for years or an Omicron-free existence. Because life is often not the — fill in the blank — that we thought it would be. As soon as we start writing life’s script, the editing begins.
We’re reminded as much in Parshat Kedoshim, when Leviticus 19 opens to tell us “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy…” only to be followed in the next verse …Keep my sabbaths, I the Lord am your God.”
The pursuit of holiness, framed as “you shall” captures the imperfection of life’s pursuits. Of never fully “achieving" whatever the “it” is — holiness, serenity, untethered reality. The commentary in Etz Hayim says, “To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary.”
The great Italian commentator Sforno teaches hundreds of years ago that the plural use of the word Shabbtotai/sabbaths means that it’s not just the Shabbat of creation as we know it each week. But we’re meant to keep many different ways of rest: the rest of the land, shmittah, and the release of money owed, and of course what we’re doing in this sanctuary today. He reflects,
ואת שבתותי תשמורו שלא על שבת בראשית בלבד הזהיר אבל על כל מיני השבת שהם שבת בראשית ושבת הארץ ושמיטת כספים המעידים על חדוש העולם.
Perhaps we add sabbatical to that list. Sabbatical was set apart from the ordinary to appreciate the ordinary. I got to feel alive and connected and play with time differently, wherever I was. And return here, and return to Shabbat.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his famous work, The Sabbath:
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
As I leave the world of sabbatical, I will try to be more attuned to the holiness in time that it gave me. And I hope for each of us:
We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
And that Shabbat comes every week. Shabbat Shalom.
Our long awaited celebration of Bernie Goldblatt's retirement. Hear from Bernie about his journey to recovery from COVID-19 and his experience of immense gratitude. We honored Bernie Goldblatt for his 20 years of service as Adath's Executive Director.
Bernie and his family have established the Bernie Goldblatt Fund of Adath Jeshurun. A focus of this fund is to support Kiddush lunch at Adath to strengthen the social bonds of our community. Donate here in honor of Bernie.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
D'var Torah Beha'alotcha
May 29, 2021
This past Tuesday evening Cindy and I felt an obligation to drive over to 38th and Chicago, that has been dubbed George Floyd Square to participate in some aspect of this week’s activities to honor the memory of the man whose brutal murder, under the knee of now convicted former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, shook this city and shook the world. We arrived at the square in time to hear the end of a concert and accompanying speeches and prayers to a gathering of people I later learned that people came from all over the country feeling the need to be here to mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Cindy and I
participated in a ritual at the end of the program, as the sun set by lighting a candle [see photos below]. Like any memorial ritual - it provided us a chance to reflect on what got us here and our hopes going forward.
So much has occurred this year- the impact of COVID-19 and our thoughts about how it feels to re-enter; the recent ugly flare up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. On this Shabbat Beha'alotcha, whose story about Moses' siblings criticism of their brother for marrying a black skinned woman, a Cushite, with which I introduced I asked you to focus this morning, I want us to consider issues of racism that it inevitably raises for a modern reader. I ask you today to consider:
How has your understanding of issues related to racism changed in the past year since all of the events related to George Floyd’s murder that impacted the world and the nation, literally making Minneapolis and 38th and Chicago a focal point of the nation as it grappled with issues of racism?
Has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder?
What have you read, or seen, that influenced your thinking?
What steps, if any, have you taken to address racism? It could have been related to organizations you supported to address these concerns; it could be advocacy you have done; it may have involved conversation you had with others.
One thing that has changed here at Adath was the establishment of Adath Jeshurun’s Antiracism Committee. We are so grateful for the outstanding work they have done as we have learned together, built trust and struggled together to think about our responsibilities at Adath related to antiracism – not simply addressing prejudice, but dealing with the systemic issues that racism poses.
I appreciate that Adath’s Board of Trustees has expressed its support for those efforts in a note to the congregation sent out in our weekly Chadashot email Monday on the eve of the George Floyd Anniversary:
Adath’s Board of Trustees appreciates the work of Adath’s Antiracism Committee which was formed after the George Floyd Murder. As we head into the anniversary of the murder, we encourage you to visit the Committee’s Webpage (adathjeshurun.org/antiracism) where you will find activities to promote the visibility of BIPOC members of Adath and advance racial equity in our larger world. Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages),“It is not on you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it." Words written over 1,500 years ago continue to inspire our action today.
These efforts are not without their challenges.
An early thing we learned was about the feelings of Jews of Color in our congregation. We had to hear them express the ways they sometimes feel marginalized, or not completely welcome. In that they may well relate to our parsha in which Moshe’s wife is called out as an outsider, even if God ultimately takes her side. The event that took place in Minneapolis at the end of last May left Jewish people of color in our community shaken and looking for the support of our community.
In dealing with issues of race we need to look at the complexity of Jewish attitudes about race and in relation to people of color. Many Jews in our country, do not particularly identify as white and therefore do not relate to white supremacy, other than to think that we too are at risk from the hated of white supremacists.
What we seem to have some difficulty understanding is that while it is true that Jews are hated and put at risk by white supremacists, we have also benefited from the fact that most Jews in North America, whose families came here from Eastern Europe are white and have long benefited from being able to pass as white. Those benefits are many, as I shared in my Yom Kippur sermon that focused on the issue of racism. The evidence of racial disparities and inequality in this country are quite real and well documented:
For example, during this pandemic Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population (source).
Black civilians are arrested at over two times the rate of white civilians (source).
Yale University reports that studies over the course of the last five years show consistently, for example, that “Among unarmed victims, Black people were killed
at three times the rate (218 total killed), and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people (146 total killed) (source).
There are clearly documented racial disparities in this country in health care, employment, housing and policing. These are disparities and inequalities to which the majority of Jews, who appear white, are largely oblivious and not impacted by.
As we were launching Adath’s Antiracism Committee, we heard from Jews of Color associated with Adath of the discomfort they felt as they approached our building as we have ramped up an armed security presence in response to potential threats that overwhelmingly come from white supremacists. As we contemplate reentry into our building we will need to get back to the issue of security and how it lands on people of color, both visitors and those who are members of our congregation. I expect and hope that Jews of color will be a growing part of Adath as demographers agree it is a growing part of our North American Jewish community.
I want to reflect for a bit on a valuable book we have studied this past year in our Downtown Study Group that we will soon complete by Emory University historian Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (2006). We are grateful to our member Riv Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the U of MN. She stepped in, with her deep knowledge of this area, to lead the class from Dec to March, when I was on sabbatical and has thankfully remained a participant as we finish up the book.
Prof Goldstein, in his valuable look at the history of the Jews in America from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century demonstrates the deep ambivalence of Jews about race. Given that most Jews after the Holocaust would be leery about describing ourselves as race, it was quite surprising to learn that prior to WW II, Jews were commonly understood to be a racial group by themselves and others. While on one hand many Jews expressed real discomfort at the brutal treatment of blacks in this country, they often were glad to assert that Jews were part of the white race, or if a separate race, we had much to contribute to the country as good Americans. While there are many examples throughout the historical period covered of Jews standing up against the oppression of black people in this country, there are also many shameful examples of Jews participating in the exploitation of black people as they sought to create a good life for their families. Defining Jews as a race had the advantage of preserving Jewish identity, even if a Jew had given up on Jewish observance and belief. The only pattern that we could discern as Jews related to race was a consistent ambivalence about how to understand ourselves in relation to it. I highly recommend Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity to understand how Jews grappled and still grapple with our identity, our relation to whiteness and our place in this country.
Coming back to the gathering Cindy and I attended at the George Floyd memorial there is one other aspect that I want to comment on. As we discuss the issue of Jews and whiteness and how to respond to the work of antiracism, I want us to consider one other challenging issue of how we deal with the growing strength of antiracism activists who link the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs related to the cause of the Palestinians.
Thank you Rabbi Weininger for your thoughtful sermon last Shabbat responding to the identification of some leaders of the Black Lives Matters with the Palestinian cause. Having made clear my support for BLM through Adath and in our Rabbinical Assembly, which along with the USCJ asserted support for the Black Lives Matter Movement in the past year, I need to express my uneasiness at seeing a Palestinian flag waved in the crowd at one point and another that was planted in a section of the memorial and posters in the vicinity calling for the linking of Gaza with Ferguson, MO the killing of a black man near St Louis several years ago. We cannot close our eyes to the impact of ongoing occupation on the West Bank and the continuing inequality and discrimination exprienced by Israeli Arabs.
However, we need to continue to challenge those who would draw an inappropriate analogy between racism in the United States and the complexities of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East that ignore the historic ties, and continual presence of Jews in the land of Israel. Nonetheless, defending Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizen against violent attacks should not deter us from standing up against racism in North America.
In doing so let us turn to God’s role in this week’s parsha which lands on the side of the person who is being marginalized. It is up to us to know when to speak up in support of what is right and to find compassion when people, regardless of their color or background are being treated unfairly.
I invite you to join us at the kiddush later to reflect together on the questions I asked earlier:
How has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder? And what steps have you taken, or would you be willing to take?
We conclude the service with this reflection on the prayer Aleinu that I shared this past Yom Kippur. It was written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker of Saint Paul’s Mount Zion Temple and her sisters Hollis Schachner and Sara Stock Mayo.
Aleinu. It is on us.
To bow in praise before God
as a sign of reverence
and perhaps submission
It is on us to bend our knees
only in reverence for life
and only for submission to that which is good
Aleinu. It is on us.
Our sages teach that the angels have no knees
Their legs do not bend
They do not need knees
because their entire purpose
is to stand tall before God in service
But we are not these kinds of angels
We bend under the weight on our shoulders,
We let this twisted world twist us,
into knowing that our service to God comes,
not only in the form of thoughts and prayers,
but in the form of action
Aleinu. It is on us.
Va’anachu kor’im. We bend at the knee
Umishtachavim. We bow at the waist
Lifnei Melech Malchei HaMalchim. We stand straight before God
HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We who are made in God’s image
must be holy because God is holy
So we rise
To repair this very broken world
We stand straight because we can
We stand up because we must
Aleinu. It is on us.
We bend our knees before the God of love
In devotion and in disruption
In protest and in praise
From shame to shleimut – wholeness
We rise before the God of truth
to march and to move
to bend this broken arc towards justice
Aleinu. It is on us.
Bent knees are for showing reverence
to prostrate in peaceful protest
to prepare us for moving
to prepare us for marching
Bent knees are not for killing
God did not make knees, or any other part of us, for that
Aleinu. It is on us.
— Hollis Schachner, Sara Stock Mayo, and Rachel Stock Spilker
For more sermons and conversations over Kiddush, join us for services on Saturdays at 10 am from our Shabbat webpage.
Dr. Diana Cutts
D'var Torah Bamidbar
May 15, 2021
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you for your invitation to speak. I’m very honored to share this very special virtual space with you this morning.
I sometimes feel a bit like Dorothy – slightly bewildered about how I landed here, in front of you all. The short answer, of course, is that your Rabbis, for whom I have much respect, asked me. Plus, years ago my youngest children, Joey and Greta, began their lives as students with 2 wonderful years at the Gan. They officially graduate from college later today, so there’s a debt of gratitude to be repaid, too. The longer answer involves my personal development as a pediatrician, researcher, and advocate.
I’m told I showed an early interest in caring for children, and was fortunate to have parents who nurtured and supported that interest. After I finished my pediatric training, my husband, whose family roots are in North Minneapolis, and I moved to the Twin Cities and I began my practice.
I found myself drawn to a specialty area – taking care of infants and young children who were not growing well. With a clinical team of pediatric dietitian, developmental and other specialists, we cared for babies like this one, working to achieve the kind of successful treatment you can see in this before and after photo, and helping kids and parents get on track for a healthy future. The painful recognition that factors beyond my exam room were too often more powerful than anything I could do in my exam room came quickly.
I was incredibly fortunate to connect with a national group of child health experts across the country, now called Children’s HealthWatch and together we began to study how material hardships impact very young children’s health and how policies can alleviate harm. Our earlier work was focused on Food Insecurity, but over time we expanded our interests to include Housing Instability and other hardships. We’ve collected data from the parents of infants and toddlers at the frontline of care, in the EDs or clinics of 5 national sites in Boston, Baltimore, Little Rock, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. Covid interrupted continuous data collection that spanned over 20 years. We’re now conducting a covid impact survey by phone of previously interviewed parents, and just re-starting interviews with our core survey again. So, I met Rabbi Kravitz because of our shared interest in Food Insecurity work, but – as he’s already educated you well on that topic - today I will talk a bit more broadly about Child Poverty in the United States.
So what can I tell you about Child Poverty in 2021? Of the 34 Million people living in poverty in the US in 2019 (the most recent national data available) nearly one third, 10.5 million, are children. Children are the poorest age group in our country, and the younger the child, the higher the risk of poverty. While overall the child poverty rate was 14.4% for all children, that for children less than 6 is higher as the bar graph shows… Just as there are variations by age, there are wide variations by race, with poverty rates of 8.3% for white children, compared to rates of 26.5% for Black, and 21% for American Indian/Alaskan Native and Hispanic children. - This overall rate of 14.4 % is pre-covid, however, and researchers now estimate that child poverty has risen to over 20% for all children as a result of the pandemic, affecting an additional 4 Million children. So, US children today have a 1/5 likelihood of poverty.
One cannot talk about Child Poverty in the US without talking about racism. Economists, historians, and others educate us that systemic racism has prevented the success of families of color by limiting education and employment, and prohibiting purchase of property and access to loans. And these income inequities are only magnified by the covid pandemic, as families of color have been hardest hit by illness and death from covid-19, job loss, and material hardship. It’s estimated that at least 43,000 US children have lost a parent to covid, and that Black children are most disproportionately affected.
Our Children’s HealthWatch pre vs post-covid study shows sharply rising Household Food Insecurity, from 21 to 35%, Housing Instability increases from 27 to 43%, and Child Food Insecurity – a much less common and more severe food insecurity that directly limits food for children - increases from 2 to 7%. We saw that evictions actually decreased, the impact of moratoriums which protected families from evictions. This all feels a little grim, but there is Good News in the form of Federal Relief.
4 packages have been passed by Congress over the past year. The key measures in the first 3 packages, collectively, include economic impact payments – or the three waves of what we’ve called stimulus checks, creation and extension/expansion of Pandemic EBT which provides dollars for food for children out of school and childcare who would otherwise receive free or reduced school meals, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits at maximum levels with a 15% increase, rental and utility assistance, eviction moratoriums, expanded health insurance coverage, expanded unemployment insurance and paid leave.
These were a good start, but the 4th Act, The American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 Trillion economic stimulus bill, takes things to a new level. You can see the broad array of assistance in includes in this overview slide, but I’m going to focus on the real winner for Children, the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which is the primary driver behind reducing child poverty.
This part of the bill, makes temporary expansions to the existing tax credit for a year. It increases the benefit from 2K to 3K for children 6-17 extending the benefit to 17 year olds where it previously went to age 16, and it rises to $3,600 for children under 6. Families are provided the full refund, rather than a portion, including families with little or no income who were previously excluded or got reduced refunds. Half the credit is to be sent this July, so that relief will not need to wait until the 2022 tax filing season. This change expands the credit to an additional 27 M children typically left out. Because families of color are overrepresented among families in poverty, this component of the expansion has a large racial equity impact. In all, 90% of US children/families benefit (including PR and US territories for the first time). It’s predicted to lift 6.1 Million children out of poverty, a reduction of 49%, and to drop the child poverty rate to < 10%, from its current of ~ 20%.
There will be some challenges – the estimated reduction in child poverty will only be realized if those with the lowest incomes access the benefit, so outreach will be critical – to increase awareness, to ensure that all families file taxes – even those who are not obligated. Anxiety that the benefit will count as income such that a family might be made ineligible for other assistance must be allayed. There’s free IRS software available for families earning < 72K, and the national volunteer tax assistance programs, called VITA nationally, and called Prepare and Prosper in the twin cities will be critical resources. I urge you to consider volunteering with these programs, if you have any interest in helping!
The Biden-Harris administration has 2 new proposals now under debate. The first, called the American Jobs Plan is mainly about infrastructure in housing and the care economy. The second, shown here, is called the American Families Plan. It includes historic investments in childcare and universal pre-K, expands food assistance, expands the EITC, and extends the Child Tax Credit through 2025, and restores eligibility to immigrant families.
So, I’ll end as I began – thanking you for the opportunity to share this time with you, and urging you to learn more about these policies, ask questions, get involved, consider your role in Tikkum Olam – Repairing the World. This is not a we/they issue, this is an us issue. These children are our children and grandchildren’s classmates and friends, and their future co-workers and neighbors. This is a really monumental opportunity to help every child get, as Children’s Defense Fund says, a Healthy Start, A Fair Start, A Safe Start, and a Moral Start. Shabbat Shalom.
Diana Cutts, MD, is Chair of Pediatrics at Hennepin Healthcare and has practiced pediatrics in the Twin Cities for over 30 years. She is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and Principal Investigator with Children’s HealthWatch, a national network of pediatric researchers focusing on the intersections of Food Insecurity and other hardships, health, and public policy. Dr. Cutts graduated from the University of Illinois Medical School and completed pediatric residencies at Boston City and Children’s Hospitals. She credits her 4 children with additional in-the-trenches training, a heavy responsibility now assumed by 2 recently arrived grandchildren.
Join us for Shabbat Services for more Divrei Torah and discussions over Kiddush -
D'var Torah Masorti Shabbat
May 1, 2021
Reflection on the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision recognizing conversions by Masorti and Reform rabbis in Israel.
Heidi Schneider is the chair of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, which is the U.S. arm of the Masorti movement in Israel, dedicated to fundraising for and education about pluralistic, egalitarian Judaism in Israel. Heidi became committed to the work of Masorti after a mission to Israel with Rabbi Harold Kravitz that opened her eyes to the unique challenges faced by Masorti rabbinic and lay leadership in the Jewish state and the pioneering spirit that draws Israelis to join Masorti program and kehillot throughout Israel. Heidi is proud that Adath Jeshurun hosted the Twin Cities National Masorti Gala in 2017.
Heidi also served as president of Adath Jeshurun after years of service on the board of trustees, including acting as chair of the Adult Learning Committee and co-chair of the Adath Israel Committee. She is a volunteer speaker for the Jewish Community Relations Council, where she speaks about Israel and about Judaism in high schools, middle schools, churches, and civic organizations.
Heidi is a student of Mussar with the Center for Contemporary Mussar led by Rabbi Ira Stone, and she teaches Mussar classes at Adath Jeshurun.
Join us on Shabbat for more Divrei Torah and discussions over Kiddush -
D'var Torah Vayakhel-Pekudei
HIAS invites us to sign a welcome letter to our elected members of Congress encouraging leadership on issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers. Sign the welcome letter here.
I am very grateful to have this opportunity to speak today at Adath’s participation in Refugee Shabbat, a HIAS-led initiative that has been observed this year at over 300 congregations in the United States as well as in synagogues located throughout Canada and Europe. In a sense, Refugee Shabbat mirrors and reinforces a central ethos of the Jewish people of maladjustment to gross injustices perpetrated toward our fellow human beings and an insatiable search drawing upon the rich tapestry of Jewish theological teachings, ethics, history, and experiences to repair the world.
As you quite likely know, HIAS was initially established as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Throughout its existence now totaling over 100 years so as to make us the oldest continuously operating refugee rights organization in the United States, HIAS has served as the voice of the American Jewish community dedicated to refugee protection. HIAS has always and continues to stand for a single overriding proposition: we rescue, protect, and provide dignity to people whose lives are in danger for being who they are – that is, people who are persecuted for their religion, skin color, sexual identity or sexual orientation, political thought, social membership, or other inherently unalterable characteristic.
But in the adherence to this commitment, something profound has changed within HIAS and the world in which we live. For much of its existence, HIAS rescued refugees because they were Jewish; today, we rescue refugees because we are Jewish.
So, permit me to illustrate how HIAS has changed while simultaneously remaining unchanged in our commitment to refugee protection.
In the early 1950s, a survivor of the Shoah appeared at the local immigration office in New York City for a naturalization interview, which required her to pass a rudimentary test in American civics. Each question posed by the examiner was met by a blank and confused stare, until the examiner, Leon Rosen, asked the following: “Madam, what is the highest law of the land?” to which the applicant triumphantly responded: “HIAS.”
I had previously thought that this was a charming although an anachronistic story until just over a year ago, during a trip I took to South America to visit various HIAS offices, I entered a refugee shantytown in Barranquilla, Colombia along with some HIAS employees. Upon entering this camp and arising seemingly out of nowhere, a young Venezuelan refugee girl, probably around 5 years old, literally flung herself at the HIAS child psychologist in our group, and through her laughter, tears, and an embrace that would not end, this girl poured forth an excited monologue in Spanish, none of which I understood except for her recurrent recitation of “HIAS” which at least for that moment and presumably for many moments thereafter was for her the highest law of the land.
So, permit me to take a journey with you in exploration of the commitment of HIAS to effectuating a statement made by the Reverend Martin Luther King at Temple Israel – not the one on Hennepin Avenue, but rather in Los Angeles – that “we are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We are commemorating today the second HIAS-led Refugee Shabbat. The first such commemorative initiative took place roughly two years ago, and it also attracted the participation of hundreds of synagogues seeking to express their unquenchable support for the cause of refugee protection, although this event tragically ended a week later with the murders of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which the murderer, right before entering the synagogue, posted on Social Media “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
In its essence, Refugee Shabbat is a HIAS-organized initiative intended to create sacred time and sacred space to focus on and rededicate to the protection of the stranger. I believe that this observance has six main resonances for our own lives as American Jews, consisting of the following:
1. Its observance is a recognition that the Torah commands us 36 times to love and welcome the stranger. This is a personal prescriptive imperative. It cannot be delegated to the sovereign or to any third party. Quite simply, this is our personal responsibility. This is such an important and perhaps even counterintuitive notion that the Torah does not even give us an option simply to act kindly to the stranger. Rather, the Torah is direct and unequivocal in its commandment to love the stranger for we were once strangers.
2. Second, Refugee Shabbat constitutes a recognition that there is no hierarchy in human value because Judaism adheres to and honors the belief of B’tzelem Elohim – that we are all conceived in the image of God. Whether life springs from the master work of a deity or is a biological evolutionary function, Refugee Shabbat reaffirms that there cannot be any justification or gradations in the essential value of human beings, much less policies of exclusion, minimization, discrimination, stratification and persecution.
3. Third, Refugee Shabbat draws upon the central and recurring story of the Jewish people of persecution, displacement, migration, and resilience, and then weaves together this narrative saga with our collective memories, morality, and learning to create in the words of Elie Wiesel the foundational principle of hope for a better world.
4. Fourth, Refugee Shabbat constitutes our immediate connection to our own personal narratives – that is, to the lives of our own ancestors. I would surmise that nearly all of the congregants in this sanctuary, to say nothing of the overwhelming population of Israel, have ancestors who fled persecution precisely in the hope of creating better lives for their progeny, so this is an opportunity to recognize and honor not only that they endured, but that they prevailed.
5. Furthermore, in our work on refugee protection, HIAS on behalf of the Jewish people interacts with persecuted populations throughout the world, and in so doing, we oftentimes change their narratives on the Jewish people. In short, we are performing quite corollary work to the JCRC in that we declare that it is precisely because we are Jewish that we extend hope and protection in the creation of new lives to those who have few options and little hope.
6. And finally, Jews have something quite akin to an ownership interest in the U.S. refugee program. The entire development of U.S. laws recognizing that humanitarian protection should be grounds for immigration relief is embedded in the Refugee Act of 1951, the keystone document creating a right of protection to those being persecuted, which was a long-overdue reaction to the xenophobia and moral myopia that witnessed the refusal of the United States to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Shoah.
In terms of the identity of HIAS, we were created by American Jews over 100 years ago as an assertion of Klal Yisroelto assist, protect, and resettle Jews fleeing the pogroms of czarist Russia. Throughout the entirety of our existence, we have facilitated the rescue and preservation of Jewish communities in peril, from Russia, the Soviet Union, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Nazi Germany where 23 HIAS employees died providing protective services to victims of Nazi atrocities, and the list of theatres in which HIAS in essence has said the resonating words of Hineni, here I am, is coterminous with each and every episode in which Jews found themselves imperiled simply for being Jewish.
The germinating seeds of HIAS were planted by the American Jewish community and it is from this sliver of a population comprised of people with big hearts, unparalleled generosity, and ethical resolve that over the course of our existence we have evolved into one of the world’s most impactful and most honored humanitarian relief organizations. We maintain operations today in 16 countries located on 5 continents providing direct humanitarian relief to over 1.4 million people whose lives are in danger simply for being who they are. We have a $90 million budget and our principle funders are the United States Government – in particular, the Department of State, the Department of Health & Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development – the United Nations, private foundations, corporate funders, and individual contributors. We are the only faith-based organization holding a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, the world’s chief agency for refugee protection, which makes us the chief implementer of a wide range of global initiatives on behalf of refugees.
The history of HIAS can be broken down into 3 stages:
1. For most of our existence stretching until roughly 1995, we were involved in the rescue, migration, and resettlement of Jewish refugees mainly to the United States.
2. In our second stage of operation, we maintained our focus on the resettlement of refugees and vulnerable populations in the United States, but the beneficiaries of our services expanded from solely Jews to nonsectarian refugee populations, owing chiefly to the blessed reality that the number of Jewish refugees requiring protection had diminished dramatically.
3. In our most recent incarnation which was accelerated substantially by the restrictions on humanitarian protection under the Trump administration, we pivoted significantly to the global stage so that we now provide protective services to refugees in 16 countries located on 5 continents. We are the largest and most impactful refugee rights organization currently working in South America, largely focusing our efforts on refugees from Venezuela, which today is the world’s second largest refugee population.
Today, there are over 80 million persecuted individuals requiring protection, which is the highest such figure in human history. Our language has even developed its own lexicon that categorizes more precisely individuals needing protection – refugees, asylees, internally displaced persons or IDPs, and migrants. The trend line strongly suggests that this figure will continue to increase owing to nationalism, xenophobia, political oppression, climate change, economic downturn, and other push factors that marginalize the “other.”
HIAS seeks to address this tragedy in human history by striving for 3 outcomes:
1. The safe integration of refugees into their host countries, most of which are in the developing world;
2. The repatriation of refugees to their home countries assuming they will be safe and secure; and
3. Resettlement to a third country, which in the HIAS context is disproportionately the United States.
With the election of the Biden Administration, we expect to see a recommitment of the United States to humanitarian values as a cornerstone of our immigration as well as global policies. HIAS is quite well positioned to effectuate key objectives enunciated by the administration in the following specific geographic areas:
1. The Biden Administration has declared its intention to set an annual refugee admissions quota of 125,000, which is a stark increase from the current paltry level of 15,000 that was set in the last year of the Trump Administration. HIAS is one of 9 national resettlement agencies that has been empowered to effectuate the U.S. refugee program. Essentially, we work abroad with the U.S. Department of State and the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to identify vulnerable refugees who also have good prospects for successful resettlement in the United States based on a myriad of factors. HIAS provides sustaining support during the entire ramp-up abroad during which refugees are vetted for admission to the United States, a process that can take well over a year, arranges for their transferal to the United States and entrustment to our local community partners, most of which are Jewish Family & Children Services, and oversees their successful, ongoing resettlement experience in the United States.
2. The Biden Administration has pledged to undertake a major stabilization initiative to address the humanitarian degradation currently producing the refugee crisis in South America, where HIAS is the largest refugee protection agency in that region. Venezuela currently represents the second largest refugee population in the world, but there are also substantial refugee populations coming out of the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua, and Colombia. We provide life-saving services of incalculable benefit to refugees in such areas as: legal representation that allows refugees to access legal protection and benefits; mental health and psychosocial services to enable refugees to overcome the trauma arising from their previous experience of persecution and violence; economic inclusion so as to provide refugees with the tools to economically succeed and gain economic viability in their host countries; and interventions against gender-based violence directed toward LGBTQ refugees and women and girls who are disproportionately victims of predation and sexual exploitation.
3. Perhaps the most immediate challenge facing the Biden Administration is the situation at the southern border which over this past period of time has witnessed a deplorable series of developments – separation of families, incarceration of children, deprivation of asylum applicants to any form of due process, refugees languishing in Mexico who thereby become subject to exploitation and violence. As the only humanitarian agency maintaining offices both in Mexico and in the United States, HIAS has begun to team with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to develop orderly programs intended to reunite families and identify the most vulnerable individuals stuck in Mexico and to then develop programs consistent with U.S. legal norms, economic priorities, and environmental policies to allow asylum seekers to access the U.S. judicial system to determine whether they indeed have a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
While HIAS has a breathtakingly broad global sweep, we ultimately rely on the involvement and commitment by American Jews. Here is a list of actions that each and every one of us in this sanctuary can take:
1. Write Congress to support asylum relief, professionalization of our immigration courts, and an expansion of global humanitarian relief.
2. Join the Facebook group entitled “Jews for Refugees” to keep abreast of new developments pertaining to refugees.
3. See the HIAS Events Page on our website and sign up for various HIAS webinars that explore different facets of refugee law policy and individual experiences.
4. Donate air miles to allow us to reunite children with families.
5. Contribute to bond funds intended to release immigrants from detention (and in this regard, thanks for the Minnesota Rabbinical Association for its work in opening up new avenues for post-conviction relief to immigrants and refugees).
6. Patronize refugee-made products, services and establishments.
7. Contact the Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs within the Mayor’s Office of the City of Minneapolis.
8. Join the HIAS Online Book & Film Club.
9. If you are a Spanish speaker, volunteer remotely to support the HIAS Border Response Team working out of Ciudad, Juarez, or see about volunteering with a local agency representing asylum seekers.
10. There may be some opportunities for lawyers to engage in pro bono projects representing asylum seekers.
11. We recently concluded an agreement with Airbnb in which refugees can avail themselves of substantially reduced short-term lodging, but even here, additional resources are needed to underwrite housing arrangements.
12. Donate used technology equipment or serviceable baby items to refugee families.
13. Incorporate the HIAS Freedom Haggadah into your Passover Seder observances.
Again, thank you for allowing me to share this HIAS saga with you and for your involvement in this year’s Refugee Shabbat.
Conversation over Kiddush:
HIAS is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies, six of which are faith-based. I would be very grateful for your thoughts as to what is the unique Jewish voice in refugee resettlement. What is it that we bring that is so empowering and so life-altering?
Robert Aronson, a member of Adath, is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis and he concurrently serves as the Chair of HIAS. Over the course of his career, he has represented innumerable foreign nationals, largely Jews from the former Soviet Union, in attaining safety in the United States. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Law and was a Fulbright Fellow at the law schools of Harvard University and Moscow State University. In 2017, Bob received the Sidney Barrows Lifetime Achievement Award of the Cardozo Society, the affinity group of Jewish lawyers, jurists and law students in the Twin Cities, for his professional achievements, community service and love of learning.
D'var Torah Tetzaveh
February 27, 2021
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register here to join on Zoom.
Today’s Torah portion is an interesting one in that it is heavy on details. It methodically documents how the menorah of the Tabernacle is to be lit every day as well as how to construct the ephod and holy garments for Aaron the high priest and his sons. Sometimes it is easy to see a list of details and just go through the motion of completing it, but as Jews we have an obligation to try and seek to understand the deeper meaning.
This Dvar Torah was a group effort by members of Adath’s Antiracism Committee, and as such, found the descriptions of clothing to be prepared for Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, very compelling. Aaron’s holy garments are described in such detail that we could draw an actual picture of what he looked like as the high priest.
It is reasonable to ask why G-d demanded that his high priest to be so ornately and specifically dressed. We read about how Aaron’s garments were constructed to shoulder the burdens of his people through the two shoham stones, one on each shoulder. Clearly the details hold significance. They symbolize the actions he needs to take as a high priest. In addition, the breastplate must have been wondrous to see with all the gemstones laid in gold. We imagine that one could probably see and identify Aaron and subsequent high priests from a distance.
As a group, we thought about what assumptions other Jews made about Aaron when they saw him in his holy garments. Did they assume him to be important? Probably. Did they assume him to be special? Probably. Did they think he must be a person of good character? Probably.
We could go on and on about what qualities or characteristics we could assign to Aaron based on his garments. So, what are the implications for us as Jews.
We are going to imagine ourselves getting ready for synagogue. If you’d like to, close your eyes. Please imagine that it is a time when we are able to be together in the synagogue in person, something we are all looking forward to! What are you choosing to wear? Do you put on a kippah? Are your parents’ voices in your head telling you what not to wear? Are you choosing it based on comfort or appearance or because it belonged to a grandparent? How does it make you feel? If you closed your eyes, you can open them now.
We all choose what to wear for many reasons. It makes us feel a certain way, it makes people perceive us a certain way, it signals to others something important about who we are, whether we want it to or not. As Jewish people preparing for synagogue, we may make certain choices such as putting on a Kippah or magen david necklace to connect us to our Jewish identities and other Jews. We can wear these special things or we can choose not to, depending on context or circumstances. Are we in a place where we feel safe to be Jewish?
Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen talks about the concept of a “Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of a mitzvah through the adornment of the act. This is why we say kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.” For Jewish people the way we dress may enhance our relationship to G-d. And how lucky we are to not only have these ways to connect to our people, history and G-d and be able to fulfill this Hiddur Mitzvah, but to have safe spaces in which to do it.
For others, the way they dress that feels connected to their authentic selves and their histories may put them in danger. Furthermore, there are aspects of our identities that we cannot choose to take on and off like we do with our clothing. Our skin color, for example, is not something that we choose. And often the choices we make about what to wear in tandem with our race can lead people to judgements. Here in Minnesota and all around the United States, everyday fashion choices have to be carefully considered by people of color, Muslim people and transgender people just to name a few.
We are going to ask you to imagine together with us again. Once again, if you’d like to, please close your eyes. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see someone walking towards you. They are wearing baggy pants, an oversized sweatshirt and a hoodie zipped up and with their hood on. How are you feeling? Do you imagine yourself looking at this person or averting your eyes? What thoughts come to your mind? Are you imagining this person as White or Black? A man or woman? Would it matter if it was just one person or a group?
Open your eyes. Unlike Aaron, who was chosen to be the Kohein Gadol because of who he was and was dressed accordingly, today, many times we form judgements, not just about what a person wears but about who they are as a person or the circumstances of how they are living their life. It is a snap judgement that we are trained to make without even knowing we are making it.
Today, numerous examples exist that show how dress, religion, and/or actual physical characteristics that can’t be changed all impact what we think of a person. For those in the Black community, wearing hoodies, baggy pants, and vibrant colors impacts peoples’ perceptions of them. Hoodies and baggy pants generally make us think of athletes, thugs, bad kids, or kids looking for trouble, not smart, intelligent, kids looking for opportunities for advancement. Even if you saw a white kid wearing these same clothes, you may judge them first based on the clothing that they are wearing and the associations you make with it. Then when you realize that the color of their skin doesn’t fit your assumption, your thinking may be challenged.
This does not only happen at a personal level but also at a systemic level. Black women are one and a half times more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle. Whether on purpose or accidentally, Black women are discriminated against for having natural hair that does not align with white beauty standards. White hair and hairstyles are the default of what we assume smart and professional people should wear, but that requires those born with a different curl pattern to spend countless hours, hundreds of dollars, and sometimes the use of harsh chemicals to achieve a look that is perceived as professional. This is being fought with “The Crown Act'' which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” This law prohibits race-based hair discrimintation, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of a persons’ hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. As of 2020 “The Crown Act'' has been signed into law in 7 states. It was considered in many others including Minnesota, but was not passed.
Hair in the workplace, or baggy pants on the street both illustrate some of the ways people’s identities, clothing and positions come into conflict. It might be easier if we could say we were judging people only based on their clothes, not their race. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. It is not just about what Aaron wears but about who he is that informs judgements of him. It is a person's race, gender, religion and more that inform how they are perceived by others. To think we judge people based only on one aspect of their identity, such as their clothing, is both inauthentic and dangerous. It creates a world where we go through making assumptions without being aware of what we are doing.
The Crown Act highlights a powerful way to mitigate judgement based on people's appearance and race. There are many examples of how these judgements are not so easily stopped and can be violent or even lethal towards others. In 2020 the Human Rights Campaign reported at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were violently killed. These people were predominantly Black or Lantinx transgender women. We cannot say for certain that these people were killed because of how they dressed but trying to dress authentically as a transgender person certainly puts you at risk. The fact that these people were predominantly Black or Latinx further highlights that not only what we wear but our race causes people to judge us. This parsha highlights that even to G-d the way people dress is important. Aaron is commanded to wear garments that reflect his position. So how can we be okay with living in a world where people are judged and put in danger because they dress in a way that reflects their position and identity.
We need to challenge ourselves to consider the assumptions we make about how people look, that there may be a very good reason, a deep history and connection for all people to their choices of clothing. That a transgender person dressing in accordance to their gender identity or a Black man choosing to wear baggy clothes are also Hiddur Mitzvot. That if what Aaron wears highlights his holy position and we respect that then the choices of these people reflect their positions and are deserving of the same respect. We make these judgements automatically and unintentionally but this is a call to action. We need to start noticing our own tendencies to judge and react to people who aren’t like us. We can appreciate the times that we feel safe enough to express our Jewish identities and want to make space for others to express their identities as well. In this way we can lift up the holiness within each of us.
This is lifelong work, learning to notice the ways we are thinking and making the conscious choice to think differently. We hope to create space for each of us to begin or continue this work. We have two opportunities we would like to extend to you all. First, at the end of services today please join us for breakout rooms where we will be diving into each of our own relationships to assumptions we make about people based on their race and clothing. Dudley Deshommes-Kohls will lead us into that conversation with breakout groups led by other members of the Adath Antiracism Committee.The question we are going to start with today is, think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it? The goal is to take some time to think about how this comes up in our own lives and reflect on that together. If you find that conversation meaningful and would like to continue to dive deeper with us, we invite you all to join us on Sunday, March 14th at 7:30 pm for a facilitated conversation around antiracism in our own lives. Thank you and shabbat shalom.
Conversation over Kiddush:
Think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it?
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register to join on Zoom.
D'var Torah Mishpatim
February 13th, 2021
I take up this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant. Covenants create relationships, and obligations. In Mishpatim, God sets forth the rules or moral laws that will govern the relationship between God and the Israelites.
As distinguished from other societies at the time, the laws of Torah are based on divine principles embedded in the world. The Torah’s overall emphasis is on three interrelated principles; human equality, freedom, and dignity. The dignity of a human being is central. These laws or principles are intended to create not only a just society, but a Holy one.
Why is it important that these are God given laws? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in You Shall Be Holy; A Code of Jewish Ethics (vol.1) states: “Indeed, without God, by what authority can one argue certain activities should be permitted and others forbidden? Ivan Karamazov says ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’”. Without divine authority, we get moral relativism, leading often to moral confusion and ultimately, a moral void. It’s not the transgression, but the forgetting. That’s where I think we are today.
To be clear, I believe that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints. I speak here of a constructive morality of responsibility; a morality that respects the dignity of every human being—and the integrity of God’s natural world.
It’s a perilous time for our nation, as we rebuild our society from its multiple systemic failures revealed in the face of the pandemic. We are also on the verge of ruining the planet.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last book, (may his memory be for a blessing) titled Morality; Restoring the Common Good in Historic Times, he describes how we live in today.
“A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. This is why liberal democracy is at risk.
Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all of us together.
If we focus on the “I” and lose the “We,” if we act on self interest without a commitment to the common good… we will lose so much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a future of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable, humiliated, and alone.
The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. People will feel anxious… aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness; making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left…”.
What are the moral principles of MIshpatim that can inspire the vision we so urgently need to rebuild our nation?
First, Mishpatim says that knowledge of the law is the obligation of an entire people, not a privileged class of specialists. We are all responsible. Responding to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites proclaim, (Ex. 24:7) “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” Our moral codes become our framework for living.
Second, Mishpatim commands us to balance both righteous and compassion. (Lev. 19:33-34) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Third, justice and compassion relate to friend and enemy alike. (Ex 23: 1-4) “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him”.
Fourth, Etz Hayim notes that all the Torah's rules regarding slavery, debts, and indenture, inhibit economic enrichment at the expense of others. They are meant to protect the poor from exploitation. [ Ex. 22:24] "If you lend money to My people, to the poor...do not act toward them as a creditor. “ In other words, do not impose upon them a burden you would not take upon yourself were you in their shoes.
Fifth, and of central importance today, the laws of Mishpatim point to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and of humanity with the natural world.
To illustrate interconnection and interdependence, I will quote from the renowned scholar of twentieth century eastern European history, Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady; Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.
In December 2019, hospitalized with sepsis, he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He kept a journal of the powerful emotions that rescued him from near death. In his prologue, titled “Solitude and Solidarity” he writes; “It was an intense rage and a gentle empathy that sustained me…I felt nothing cleaner and more intense than my rage against deathly illness…. The rage was beautifully pure, undefiled by an object…. I raged therefore I was.
My first extended thought after surgery was about uniqueness. No one had ever moved through life as I had, making just the same choices….I wanted my rage to lead out of the bed and into another year…. My rage was my life….
Yet slowly and softly a second mood impinged, one that sustained me in a different way; a feeling that life was only truly life insofar as it was not only about me….I recited to myself the way my children’s lives were bound to my own. What mattered was not that I was unique but that I was theirs; their father. Every bit of their existence involved the expectation of my presence. They had never not touched me….I imagined what would change without me…I watched their future unfold without me in my mind’s eye—and then I reeled it back.
This…recognition, that my life was not my own, this gentle empathy escorted me away from death. The rage helped me see myself. The empathy placed me among others…it was not important that I was unique and special. It was important that I was inside other people, in their memories and expectations, a support in the shape of their lives, a buoy during difficult passages.
The empathy… worked together with the rage. Each mood revealed a truth, an element of me. Neither was enough, I needed both…the fire and the water, the solitude and the solidarity… to get well, to be free. ”
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.”
Finally, the study of Torah and the keeping of Shabbat anchors us in all of this: With these practices, performed within community to create community across our differences, we safeguard it, our collective remembering, the integrity of our moral laws, and our faith traditions.
To summarize, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, we need to bring the “we” back into our consciousness. We are all responsible, and it moves us away from our dualistic mindset.
Our problem is discursive. If we do not talk differently, we won’t think differently. We need a language, a moral narrative, to articulate our moral instincts. We need to engage in ethically informed conversations, across our differences.
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better society and a better world? These are the general questions we must ask with a view to the welfare of the whole.
In addition, in the name of our interconnectedness and interdependence, we need to rethink the role of the “public”. What are the public policies that would bring about a just, compassionate, and more peaceful society, public policies that respect the dignity of all people? What are we willing to commit to make that happen?
I believe our young people have the vision we need. I hear it in The Students’ Prayer.
The Students’ Prayer:
God, help our country to seek equality amongst people, that all minorities are treated fairly, and create peace between political standpoints.
May this country be blessed with peace, justice, and acceptance. May our leaders be guided by the strength of truth and compassion. Let our leaders be wise and helpful in their decisions for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect.
In times of uncertainty, allow us to continue leading a life of gratitude and kindness. Allow us to continue creating special memories with the people we love. Allow us to let times of uncertainty not make us weaker, but even stronger than we were before.
There are lots of reasons to be scared, and many reasons to be frustrated. But the unseeable future will be better. We need to be optimistic. We decide when change is needed, and we take the steps to make that happen.
May we feel connected and stable, feel steady emotionally and mentally, feel healthy and in the right mindset, feel ready to overcome the obstacles in our path, feel safe making our decisions, feel prepared and educated for the unknown, and feel accepted for our actions and words.
And let us say: Amen.
– Adath Confirmation Class of 2021/5781, January 19, 2021 (Inauguration Eve)
Conversation over Kiddush:
Here is a quote from Dr. Yehuda Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s his definition of pluralism from a lecture, “Pluralism in the Face of Injustice”.
"True pluralism...is rooted in the belief that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints, and it translates into the commitment to build societies of mutual respect. Pluralism is a belief system in which we make room for the opinions and whole selves of others, and a tool to build a society that is improved by the presence of difference."
Rabbi Ruti Regan will be at Adath Jeshurun Congregation as our Numero-Steinfeldt Scholar-in-Residence the weekend of February 22-24, 2019 as part of JDAIM—Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month.
Rabbi Regan will spend Friday at Adath welcoming Shabbat with Gan Shelanu Preschool, then assist Hazzan Joanna Dulkin for her weekly talk to the Pre-K class about the Parsha before making a presentation to B’nai Mitzvah educators and members of the Minnesota Cantors Association on “Inclusive Bar/Bat Mitzvah Prep.”
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share