D'var Torah by Jacob Kraus of Jewish Community Action
January 18, 2020
21, Tevet 5780
Spend an evening with JCA members and friends:
Decriminalizing Communities Campaign Member Meeting (February 10, 2020)
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you to Rabbi Kravitz for inviting me this morning and to all of you for being here. I also want to take a moment to thank everyone here at Adath for your extraordinary leadership around Tzedek and Hesed work, Since I started working at JCA on Immigration and Criminal Justice issues a year and a half ago, I have really enjoyed working with your clergy and Hesed leadership on meaningful programs and xin support of impactful policies such as Driver’s Licenses for All. My primary background as an organizer is working with synagogues, and because of that, I believe deeply in the power a synagogue has to transform individual lives and entire communities. Adath confirms that belief for me every day.
I want to start with a story: A group of people, facing food insecurity in their homeland, immigrate to a rich and powerful nation, where a family member helps them settle and ensures that they are welcome in this new place. They are able to experience the security they sought, and their community grows over the years. However, leadership changes, and the new ruler of this land has no relationship with the immigrant community. He is worried that they may challenge his power, and stokes fear against them. He levies oppressive measures against them, and argues that if this community continues to grow and thrive, they will take over the whole nation. The immigrants now face violence, repression, and are forced into labor without fair compensation.
Does this sound familiar to you? It should, because we read it in today’s parashah: Sh’mot. Sh’mot contains the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt -- a story that features so prominently in our prayers, our ritual, and, of course, our holiday calendar.
Why are we constantly recalling this story? Perhaps because it has something to teach us about how to act in the world today, when we see xenophobia, repression, violence, and fear-mongering.
In particular, Parashat Sh’mot contains three lessons I find useful for us to consider in these challenging times:
First, know yourself. This is a lesson we learn from Moses, who, though he is an Israelite child, is raised from the age of three months up to adulthood as a prince of Egypt. We read this morning of how Moses, now grown, witnesses an Egyptian beating an Israelite. The Israelite is described as “achav” -- Moses’ kinsman or brother (Exodus 2:11). Moses, though he has been raised in a situation so far removed from that of his people, sees himself and his family in the eyes of the Israelite slaves. He doesn’t have to -- he could live the rest of his life in the privilege afforded to princes of Egypt -- but he knows that his destiny is wrapped up in the destiny of his kinfolk, the Israelites.
Knowing who we truly are, what we value, who we share a destiny with, provides a strong foundation for the work we do for immigrant justice. Knowing who we are requires us to remember that the vast majority of Jews who live in the United States came here as immigrants, either at times when we were welcomed here or after overcoming xenophobic barriers. I will never forget my first visit to Duluth, when I was able to walk the same streets my great-great-grandfather walked as he took his first steps in America. But I will also never forget that the only reason my wife is here is because her grandfather was able to circumvent the quotas that kept Jews fleeing the shoah (Holocaust) out of the U.S. Knowing who we are also challenges us to consider where our long-term interests lie: in a society that sows fear and division or in one that embraces diversity. Knowing who we are invites us to acknowledge the relationship between antisemitism, white nationalism, and anti-immigrant movements. It helps us show up for ourselves as part of our work to show up for all impacted by injustice.
Second, know one another. One could argue that the most significant change that ushers in the enslavement of the Israelites is a breakdown in connection and relationship. The first thing we learn about the new Pharaoh who arises in this story is that he did not know Joseph -- “lo yada et Yosef” (Exodus 1:8). This Pharaoh did not have a relationship with Joseph, or his descendants, making him susceptible to fear and anger towards them.
We can contrast this with G-d, as we read just before the iconic moment with the burning bush. “Va-yara Elohim et b’nei Yisrael va-yeda Elohim” -- “And G-d looked upon the Israelites and G-d knew” (Exodus 2:25). G-d knew the people, and could hear their suffering, and chose to act upon it.
Relationship is key to overcoming fear and division. In the Fall of 2018 JCA members knocked on doors and had non-partisan conversations in Edina, Hopkins, and Minnetonka with voters about immigrants and immigration. What we learned, time and again, was that when the voters we spoke with shared stories of immigrants they knew, or heard stories from us about immigrants we knew, they became more open-minded and sympathetic on the issue. Relationships can change hearts and minds, and they also can help us remain aware of what the needs are in our community. I am really lucky that JCA partners with community organizations led by Latinx immigrants, Black immigrants, Asian/Pacific Islander immigrants, native people, people of color who are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system, advocacy organizations, legal service providers, and faith communities like Adath. It is through these relationships that we are able to identify things that need to change and act powerfully to change them.
Finally, know what it takes. Perhaps the most surprising part of this parasha to me was that, when G-d is enlisting Moses to free the Israelites from bondage, G-d tells Moses everything that is going to happen! G-d says to Moses: “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). G-d even reveals the last of the Ten Plagues: the slaying of the first born. Why give away the rest of the story?
To me, the lesson here is that when we set out to create change and take risks in the face of adversity, we should do our best to know what it takes to succeed. The campaign I work on at JCA -- Decriminalizing Communities -- has a wide ranging vision where immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems are transformed into systems that center human dignity, rather than fear and division. And, we know that it will take a whole lot of changes -- political, structural, narrative changes to get there. So, we look at what we have the power to change right now.
One of the places we can act most powerfully is on the County level. County governments have control over many institutions, such as sheriff departments, jails, courthouses, and social services, that have a significant impact on the lives of those targeted by immigration enforcement. And we have the ability to create change in how those governments operate. I’ll share two brief examples.
The first is a story of a significant achievement we’ve already made. If you’ve ever observed an immigration court proceeding, you’ll notice that much of it looks like a standard courtroom: there is a judge, a prosecutor, a defendant, an interpreter, a court recorder, and a gallery. One key difference is that, in immigration court, the “defendant” is less likely to have legal representation, because they have no right to legal representation. This can make a significant difference -- people with legal representation are ten times more likely to have a positive result at immigration court than those without. For the past several years, JCA and our partners have been advocating for county governments to commit public funding for immigrant legal defense, and I am excited to share with you all that Hennepin County has just completed its first year of such a program and has committed funds for the coming year. While the funding is nowhere near the need, we are hopeful that Hennepin County will build on the success of this program.
The second story is of work that is very much in progress. One of the main ways Hennepin County residents end up in ICE custody is through the county jail. Currently, when someone is arrested and booked into the county jail, the jail records where they were born, and if ICE asks for to speak to an immigrant on the phone, jail staff will arrange for that to happen. Moreover, ICE will ask jail staff to tell them when specific people will be released, and the jail staff will share that information with them. While this level of cooperation is much lower than it was a couple of years ago, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure local law enforcement is only enforcing their own laws, and not immigration law.
So, through research and productive conversations with the Hennepin County Sheriff, Dave Hutch, we and our partners are learning exactly what it will take to eliminate this cooperation, and will be taking action to do just that.
I want to invite each of you to be a part of this action. Together, we can reflect on who we are and why we care about immigrant justice, build powerful relationships with one another and with partners, and understand what it takes to build a more safe and welcoming community. Here is how we can walk this path together: JCA is hosting a meeting to learn more about these and other opportunities to take action for Decriminalizing Communities on Monday, February 10 from 6-8 PM. Please join us.
Again, thank you all and Shabbat Shalom.
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
January 4, 2020 7 Tevet, 5780
Abayudaya - Uganda Visit
Many have been asking Cindy and me about our trip to Uganda, from which we returned last week. I promised I would speak about it this Shabbat, though I am still reflecting on and absorbing the experience. Our Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of about 1700 Conservative/Masorti Rabbis, has been working to more fully realize the international aspect of our organization by providing opportunities for colleagues to travel to places around the globe where our colleagues are hard at work building Jewish communities. When the RA announced that a trip was being organized to Uganda to visit the Abayudaya Jewish community it felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this community led by our colleague there, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. Some of you may recall that Rabbi Sizomu visited us here at Adath for Shabbat a number of years ago.
I am grateful that timing worked out for Cindy and me to be part of this group of 20 RA rabbis and spouses for an adventure that was beyond what we could have imagined. I must confess how odd it was to be flying to Uganda’s International Airport in Entebbe. It is of course best known as the site of Israel famous Entebbe Operation on July 4th 1976, when Israeli commandos freed an Air France plane, that had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who singled out Jews and Israeli as hostages. It was bizarre to think that our vacation adventure would begin at the infamous Entebbe Airport that shows no signs of what took place there.
Instead we entered the country without fanfare. In our first days we marveled at the richness of Uganda’s natural beauty. We got to see wildlife such as chimpanzees, giraffes, elephants and in a special trek at the end of the trip we hiked almost 10 miles to stand within feet of mountain gorillas, an endangered species unique to that region. These are animals that we had only ever encountered in the zoo. In preparing for the trip I had not given a lot of thought to how moving it would be to see these wonders of God’s creation. It gave new meaning to the words we recite in the morning service “Mah Rabu Ma’asecha Adonai- how wonderous are Your creations Adonai.”
At the same time Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world. I have never witnessed this level of abject poverty. Many people live in roughhewn brick homes, without electricity or indoor plumbing and hunger is widespread. Children often walk without shoes, wearing tattered clothing. Substantial wealth seems to be limited to those who are associated with the government and corruption is pervasive.
Our primary mission in undertaking the trip was to meet the Abayudaya community that I have heard about over the years and was eager to encounter firsthand. Imagine arriving in their tribal area in Eastern Uganda and pulling into their largest village of Nabugoye to be greeted with the words “Shalom” and introduced to members of the community with names such as Moshe and Yisrael, Yehudit and Yonit. We met two young twin boys named Jacob and Esau. We went first to their beautiful Stern synagogue, built through the generosity of a Southern Californian Jewish couple, with South African roots, to accommodate large communal gatherings. There are about 8 synagogue and 4 schools that serve the Ugandan Jewish community.
The story of the Abayudaya African community is a fascinating one. They make no claim to having been a lost Israelite tribe as is believed about the Jews of Ethiopia. These African communities had no previous contact with each other at all. The Abayudaya story starts about 100 years ago when Uganda was a colony of Great Britain. The British were assisted in conquering Eastern Uganda by a local military leader by the name of Semei Kungulu who was converted to Christianity. As he immersed himself in the study of the Bible he was struck by the practices of the Israelites that were not maintained by Christianity. As he questioned these changes, he was told that these were things done only by the Jews. He resolved that he and his people would become Jews, calling themselves Abayudaya- the people of Judah.
Starting in 1919 they began to adopt the practices of circumcision, Kashrut and Shabbat on Saturday in contrast to their Christian neighbors and to the Muslims who make up the largest population in that region. They practiced Judaism, as they understood it from reading the Bible and despite having no contact with the global Jewish community. This changed when Kungulu encountered a foreign Jew named Joseph who had come to the nearby city of Mbale to assist with a water works project. Upon meeting Kungulu, Joseph recognized his eating and religious practice as being derived from the Hebrew Bible. Joseph introduced the Abayudaya to the Hebrew calendar, the Jewish prayer book and the wearing of the Kippah and Tallit. He began to instruct them in Hebrew.
After the death in 1928 of Kungulu, who personally had sustained and taught the Abayudaya about Judaism as he understood it, the group began to experience division and a decline. Eventually the community was united under the leadership of a disciple of Kungulu, Samson Mugombe, the grandfather of Gershom Sizomu, who took on the role of spiritual leader of the Abayudaya. He helped them reorganize and revitalize themselves to the point that they grew to 8000 members. The rise of power of Ida Amin in 1971 was a very difficult chapter as he is estimated to have killed as many as ½ million people. During his regime he outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. The persecuted Abayudaya saw an attrition to just a few hundred adherents until Amin was thankfully overthrown in 1979.
Contact with the broader Jewish world helped the Abayudaya to develop their Jewish knowledge and commitment. In the 1960s the Abayudaya had their first contact with an Israeli Jew named Arye Oded, who later worked for the Israeli Embassy in Kenya. He and others from the Jewish Diaspora, who came upon the Abayudaya, helped them connect to the broader Jewish world. For example, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, now the retired Exec Director of Tufts U Hillel recorded the unique African Jewish music of the Abayudaya for a Smithsonian Folkways cd that was nominated for a Grammy award. Using profit from the recording and with the help of friends, he has for years raised significant funds to send capable Abayudaya students to University.
In 2002 five rabbis of our Conservative Movement went to Uganda and formally converted approximately 400 of the Abayudaya to Judaism, helping them to better understand Judaism as it developed through rabbinic interpretation over the centuries. Samson Mugombe’s charismatic grandson Gershon Sizomu was admitted to our Movement’s Zeigler Rabbinical School. Since his ordination in 2008 he has worked hard to build the Abayudaya as a Jewish community that now numbers 2000 members. Gershom even got himself elected to the Ugandan Parliament, which was no small achievement, given that the vast majority of his constituents in his region are Muslim or Christian. He explained to us that he considered this necessary to protect his vulnerable community. When we asked how this could happen, he explained that he was helped by the fact that the Medical Clinic established by the Abayudaya community with the help of a Detroit Jewish physician Dr Tobin in the nearby town of Mbale serves everyone regardless of religion. We got to affix muzuzot to dedicate the rooms of a new maternity section of the clinic. It is fascinating to see that the schools established by the Abayudaya, which possess a great reputation, are all multifaith institution. Jewish, Christian and Muslim children study together, separating only to receive their specific religious instruction. We could learn from their example of respectful collaboration.
It is clear that the Abayudaya community has benefited from the support of Jews around the world. Our group brought many things we heard they needed. Cindy and I carried three boxes of our synagogue’s old Siddur Sim Shalom. It was sweet seeing the Siddurim with bookplates from Adath added to the prayerbooks and chumashim used in their synagogues. I hope we can send more. Our group brought badly needed pre-natal vitamins and supplies for the medical clinic. We brought bottles of kosher wine and matza, which are hard for them to get, as well as used clothing. The Abayudaya are not immune from the deep poverty in Uganda as they try to eke out a living from subsistence farming growing coffee and cocoa, among other things. When we returned to the capitol city of Kampala we got to visit the MAROM student center that has been established as a gathering places for young adults who are in the city for their studies and work.
I want to acknowledge the effort in our community on behalf of the Abayudaya of Joanne Trangle who founded Global Village Connect. I understand she has been to Uganda 13 times. Thank you also to Mark and Debbie Glotter who are in service this morning who have been there several times. You may have heard about the trip to Uganda in November organized by our Minneapolis Federation and Global Village Connect. Our Federation and Global Village Connect have made grants to build a kitchen for the Tikkun Olam primary school and to acquire a field to produce crops to feed the students who would otherwise be severely undernourished. Kol HaKavod on those efforts.
There are national Jewish organization such as Kulanu based on NY and Bechol Lashon dedicated to assisting Jews of color around the world. These two have done particularly important work in supporting the Abuyadaya over the years. When I speak about the importance of voting in the election for the World Zionist Organization- our success in this endeavor also determines the extent to which this remote Jewish community gets support from the Jewish Agency. Fortunately, the Jewish Agency recognizes them as a Jewish community. Tragically the present Israeli government has refused to give them similar recognition, which is shameful. There are also new tension in the community as several hundred members in the village of Putti have converted under Orthodox auspices and there are rivalries for legitimacy.
One cannot spend time with the Abuyadaya without being moved by their commitment to Judaism and the difficult challenges they face to maintain it. I cannot convey to you how moving it was to be in services with their community over Shabbat. Rabbi Sizomu is a charismatic leader. He combines his experience with upbeat services playing the guitar, that he no doubt experienced during his time in California, while setting the prayers in Hebrew and in the national language Luganda. His congregants were up on their feet during much of the service dancing. They were very excited to welcome this delegation of Rabbis and Jewish leaders from our Rabbinical Assembly and called on us to lead parts of the service and to teach as well. They are deeply proud committed Conservative Jews (and fully egalitarian!). I was delighted to lead the section of the morning service using upbeat tunes that I learned from our Hazzan Dulkin and to see the enthusiastic response they elicited from the congregation.
The passage that especially moved me that morning in Uganda was the one we say just before reciting the Shema. Our tradition is to take the four corners of the tzizit of our tallit and bring them together praying that our people of Israel should be gathered together from the four corners of the earth. What an honor it was, as North American Jews, to be with our brothers and sisters- and they really felt like our brothers and sisters- from Uganda. I invite you to take a look at the photos of our trip that will be on display in the social hall. Cindy and I will be glad to answer question as will the Glotters and Joanne Trangle.
Those words about gathering our tzitzit together ring out to us again this week as our Jewish community in North America has had to endure another anti-Semitic attack this week that came this time as Jews in Monsey NY were celebrating Hanukkah in the home of their rabbi. We prayer for safety and for healing of those who were heartlessly attacked. This is a negative example reminding us of the bonds we have with Jews, though different in their views of Judaism, but with whom we share the bond of Jewish peoplehood. The example of the Abayudaya in contrast was a positive example of the bonds we have with Jews around the world, even in such a remote place.
I look forward to seeing how we can continue to connect to the Abayudaya community, to assist them as we can, and to learn from them- both from the lively tunes they have created for our prayers and from the example of their deep and profound dedication to maintaining their Jewish faith, in spite of the many obstacles they have had to overcome.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share