Judy: I think I’ll just start at the beginning because a lot of it, I think of a lot of what has happened to me and who I am, is a result of where I grew up. My name is Judy Kamins Goldstein, and I was born and raised in North Dakota, back in the day, when there were small congregations in various cities, when there were one or two Jews in some of the towns, and not very many others.
By the time I was a teenager, I became involved in BBYO, because the Jewish men and women in North Dakota and Northern South Dakota all belonged to B’nai Brith. There was the B’nai Brith Organization and the B’nai Brith Women, and the kids all belonged to BBYO. This was the main connection. I was from Minot and once we had a Rabbi, who stayed for, I think, a year- otherwise we were served by the travelling Rabbis who might come for the High Holy Days or by Mr. Gordon. Mr. Gordon was replicated in many other cities in small towns. He was a very learned man who would help the occasional Bar Mitzvah boy with his studies.
Back in those days, of course, girls weren’t Bat Mitzvah’ed, heaven forbid, so I grew up in BBYO. I became very active in that, and I was the regional president for a year, which entailed trips to the conferences, to the Twin Cities, Winnipeg was involved- that was always kinda fun, you know, a bunch of teenagers going across the border to Winnipeg. And then it was time to go to the University. Now, the common practice in the 50s was, especially if you had a daughter, you sent her to a university in a large enough community that had a reasonable Jewish population. Because, in the 50s, you not only went for your BA, your BS, or the unspoken reason, was to get your MRS. I was more interested in, you know, getting my degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, but as it happened, I DID get the MRS. One of you mentioned working with Hillel, so you must recognize the name Rabbi Louis Milgrom, who was an institution there in the 50s and 60s, and he had a saying “meet your spouse and the Hillel house”, and we all laughed about it! I met my husband on a Friday evening. They, once-a-month, had dinners and services at the Hillel house, and I was there with another fellow, when he said “come on, there’s somebody I want you to meet, he’s also from North Dakota.” And as they say, “the rest was history”. That man’s name was Alvin Goldstein.
After his family left North Dakota, they settled in South Minneapolis and joined the Adath Jeshurun Congregation. Louie, Al’s father, lived a block from the shul, and went every morning and every evening and Al was affiliated there and [did the] USY, LTF kind of thing. So, after his service and when we were married, it was just logical that we would join the congregation. No shopping around was needed. I’m sure that we would have enjoyed the process, but [it was] not an issue for us. So that was in 1959.
We joined the synagogue and really didn’t do a whole lot at first. We were both working and very busy, and attended services. And then, in the summer of 1964, I remember distinctly because that was just before one of the children was born, I was asked to serve on one of the education subcommittees. And I said yes! I have been working on and off, mostly on, at various committees and various board positions since: Secretary of the congregation, President of the congregation, and everything in between.
Talor: When you got involved with Adath, in sounds like you went from being kind of not being involved to being really involved over the course of your years. What was it that kept you coming back and taking positions and joining committees?
Judy: Well, I have been a volunteer my entire life. I grew up in the type of household. My father was always doing some volunteer kind of thing in the general community. And I just grew up, that’s just what you did. My first volunteer job was in 9th grade. There was a junior Red Cross group at the high school, so that was my first volunteer thing. So, the concept of volunteering was just what you did. And I had been heavily involved in Hadassah in the community in Minneapolis. I was president of one of the groups and so it was just my mentality. I had one child at the time, and working, you know, it wasn’t the Gan then, it was the preschool then, committee, just seemed a logical place to start (because I was pregnant with my second).
Mikaela: Definitely! What was your involvement like through Hadassah? Was that through Adath at the time or was that a separate entity?
Judy: It was just through some of the women that I knew. We were all young brides and we got together and joined the Weitzman Hadassah and I was fairly new at it- very new at it. I think I had only been there about a year and I was asked to be president, and I said ‘sure, why not!’.
Mikaela: That sounds like a theme, where people think very highly of you and ask you to do all of these positions.
Judy: My philosophy is if you’re going to do something, first of all, don’t take a job that you aren’t willing to finish, and you aren’t willing to give your best effort toward. And, once you’ve made that emotional and mental commitment, follow through with it! And I just do!
Mikaela: It’s so cool that you’ve been consistently at Adath your entirety, it sounds like, of being in Minnesota. What’s made you stay at Adath?
Judy: Well, there’s absolutely no reason that Al and I ever would have left! I mean, that was his synagogue! He was on the Board occasionally from time to time, and it was comfortable for us. The staff, the philosophy of the congregation, the way the services were conducted, and the educational philosophy and opportunity were there for the children.
Talor: Do you want to tell us about the National Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the experience you had?
Judy: I could talk about Women’s League for years! Women’s League for Conservative Judaism was founded in November or December of 1918 by Mathilde Schechter and different conservative congregations from around the country started joining. The Adath Jeshurun women joined on June 1 of 1919, so we were one of the first congregations to join the organizations. It had lots of different names before it ever became Women’s League. It didn’t become Women’s League until the mid to late 20s. It was the Sisters of Peace and all sorts of really interesting backgrounds. So, it was the way women at the Adath connected. Because you have to realize that back in the ‘20s, and the ‘30s, and the ‘40s and the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, we really had no identity. I have, around here, some old Clarions and I was always Mrs. Alvin Goldstein. I didn’t become Judy Goldstein until the late ‘60s. That’s just the way it was. We cooked in the kitchen, we served the Men’s club, we ran a very successful gift shop, and we did other charitable kinds of things, but it was years before we could even be on the board. And it was many more years before a woman, heaven forbid, became president of the congregation. Well, Esther Katz opened the flood gates and there have been many of us since then.
Women’s League had conventions every 3 years at the Concord Hotel in Upstate New York. And, for those of us from the Midwest, it was a double treat not only being with so many sisters, but to go to the Concord up in the Catskills. And in 1982, there was a conference in November, and the region president, at that time, was Beverly Fine, who at that time belonged to the Adath Jeshurun, and as I indicated before, the Adath was a reasonably progressive congregation, and had talked about counting women in minyan- I forget exactly when that happened. But, as a branch, we had decided we were going to offer a resolution at the plenary conference. So, at the end of the plenary session, when the question was asked if there was any other business, Beverly rose, paper in hand, approached the microphone, and read the resolution, which asked that Women’s League strongly encourage the Jewish Theological Seminary to accept women in their Rabbinic program. And then all you-know-what broke loose. Lots of buzz, lots of conversation. At first, they didn’t know quite how to respond and there was talk back and forth. It was decided that the motion was out of order, because it had not gone through the Resolutions Committee, and the issue would be referred back to the Committee, and brought forth at our next convention in 1984. And of course, for the rest of the conference there was talk about “ugh, these women from the Midwest” and “what are they trying to do?”. So, by the time we returned for our 1984 convention, of course, the whole thing was academic, because Amy Eilberg had already been admitted and was a student in the Rabbinic program. But back in the days when United Synagogue Rabbinic Assembly, or whomever, was going around the country and having listening sessions about women being counted in Minyan, one was held at the Adath, and I believe, that we were counting them in Minyan before it became “official policy”.
There were the days when women, of course, never put on T’fillin. I mean, that’s really sacrilegious. We had a staff person, a woman, who appeared at minyan one morning- she went regularly- and whipped out her T’fillin and put them on, and I remember my father-in-law talking about that, “how could she? How could they let her do that?”, and by the next week, he was okay with it. So, the idea of exposing people to some of these things.
Talor: Everything kind of moved really fast after that motion was introduced. What were your thoughts as it was introduced? Did you think it would become a thing as quickly as the next convention? You said it was kind of academic and that they were bringing it up again because it had already happened, but did you think that that would become a reality?
Judy: My hope was that eventually woman Rabbis would be permitted in the conservative movement. I don’t think that- I was hopeful, I was cautiously optimistic, but I really didn’t think it would happen at that point because things were always moving so slowly. But very pleased when it did happen.
Talor: What kind of progress have you seen since that point? Was that the first domino to fall in terms of progress for women in organized [Jewish] religion? Walk us through where we were then to where we are now.
Judy: It opened the door. If it is permissible now to have a woman Rabbi, why not have female Cantors? Not a bad idea! We have female Cantors [now]. We are producing female Rabbis. Now, we needed to get congregations at a point that they will accept them and hire them in pulpit positions, and that was not an easy task. How are we going to make our congregations comfortable counting women in minyan? Leadership on the board and presidencies were probably, maybe, one iota easier because during those times, women were taking leadership roles in business and in community organizations and were shown to be strong and effective leaders and could really do the job and in some instances, their skills were more appropriate than typical male skills.
We’ve gone from, “can they do it at all?” to “now let's have a congregation, whose staff is representative of the congregation”. That is a HUGE leap. And if you think about it and maybe from, well, from the mid 80s to now, it isn't really that much time. Yes, it's a number of years but historically speaking it's just not that much time. I’m proud to say that the Adath has been out front, you know, in many of these aspects.
Mikaela: Yeah, I definitely hear what you're saying-it's interesting. Since you've been a member, through a lot of this, you know, progression and change as Adath would do these progressive things that are ordinary today, would you agree with that being a long running theme of Adath?
Judy: Yes, I do think that the congregation has been in the forefront, a lot of these challenges. And I think a lot has to do with the type of professional staff that we hire.
I don't know how it happens because each committee is different. It's composed of different individuals, and a variety of viewpoints and skills, but generally speaking, we have managed to find just the right clergy person for the time, and to continue this forward view. So I think the lay leaders have to get some credit for it, because if we're smart enough to get the right professional staff, we've made it easier for all of these things to happen.
Talor: Judy, I would like to know, you know, you've kind of always stepped up to leadership and kind of taken on the responsibilities you’ve needed to in order to exact the progress that you wanted to see. I would love to know like what advice or what words of wisdom, you would give to the congregation in terms of keeping that trend going.
Judy: Well, I kind of have an idea in my mind of what needs to be done. I'm not sure how it's going to happen. But we, as I said earlier, we need to make the leap, the generational change.
The next generation or two after mine have completely different views of what a religious institution, in this case the synagogue, should have in their life, what the role should be, how it should operate. And they are different. And each generation has a different point of view. And as my group ages out, and the next one comes in, we recognize things are going to be done differently. You're going to have to appeal and find what works to appeal to the next generation or two. But while doing that, the new leadership can't lose sight of the fact that there are still members who are used to things being done another way. And to figure out how to blend these two things together, to service both groups, I think is the challenge. I don't have any idea. And I thus cannot make a suggestion as to how to do it, but I do know that it has to be done.
An example is technology. There are a number of people who are just not technologically proficient. And you have the question of then are we only going to have a Chadashot? Are we going to do away with the Clarion? And would that cut out the service to a large group? And blending together the generations and their needs is really, I think, the important task. And I'm cautiously optimistic that the leadership, the lay leadership, at the synagogue will be up to it.
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.
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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 D'var Torah and discussions over Kiddush -
Dr. Steven S. Foldes, Ph.D
D'var Torah- Shmini
April 10, 2021
Making Sense of Vayikra: The Curious Case of Tzara'at
Today, we are well into Vayikra, a difficult book filled with things many of us find foreign and baffling at best, irrelevant and primitive at worst. The majestic story of creation and the fascinating stories of our earliest ancestors are over for the year. In Shmini we begin with animal sacrifice and end with kashrut, and along the way we encounter the death of two of Aaron’s sons because they proffered some kind of unauthorized fire offering to God. Vayikra is consumed with lots of prohibitions about things like menstrual blood, threats and curses, and what looks like an antiquated diagnostic manual for priests about leprosy. Why does the central of the five books in the Torah, the book with which children traditionally began the study of Torah, focus on this stuff? As we used to say in the 70s, "I can't relate!"
I would like to suggest that Vayikra, while it may contain an off-putting set of prohibitions, is the most ideological and in some ways the most central of our sacred texts. Today I am reaching back to my training as a cultural anthropologist to offer an interpretation to help us better comprehend this difficult text.
My starting point is that Vayikra cannot be understood in the same way we read the narratives of Sh'mot because Vayikra's source is the unique world of the priests. To our modern Western minds, this world requires a symbolic mode of interpretation in order to be meaningful. I will illustrate this by reference to the laws of "tzara'at," commonly translated as leprosy.
What is Vayikra about? For the priestly authors of Vayikra, the objective of life was kadosh, defined as holiness, sacrality, or being set apart. Howard Schwartz argues, in his remarkable book The Savage in Judaism, that the priestly authors of Vayikra sought in this text to communicate their cosmological interpretation of God's creation of the world. According to that account, one important aspect of creation was the classification of the natural world. As we know, God distinguished the light from darkness, the waters below from the waters above, and the land from the waters. Vayikra is similarly preoccupied with classification, the creation of order out of chaos. As Dr. Schwartz points out, this is a classic example of imitatio Dei. Just as God classified the world at creation, so God's holy people is expected to reaffirm and uphold the distinctions god implanted in the world at creation, and observing and extending these classifications was the path to achieve sacrality.
This is expressed in several ways in Vayikra. The Israelites must not mate two kinds of cattle, plant two species of grain in a single field, or weave a garment from linen and wool, materials taken from a plant and an animal. To do any of these things is to undermine the distinctions God embedded in creation. Similarly, Vayikra conceives of certain sexual acts, such as bestiality, as unnatural because they threaten the order established at creation. Further, on observing Shabbat, Israelites affirm the basic distinction between sacred and profane time, a distinction God also established at creation. In the priestly writings, then, creation and classification go hand in hand. Even a superficial reading of Vayikra shows that the priests conceived of classification as an integral part of the religious life. The creation story supplies a rationale both for the preoccupation with taxonomy in general and for many of the specific distinctions proposed in Vayikra.
According to Everett Fox, the priestly authors had in mind a world of desired order and perfection: a realm in which the human world mirrors the divine order portrayed in the creation story, creating distinctions in the natural and human world in which anomaly and undesired mixture are not permitted, and in which boundaries are zealously guarded. The result is a world in which everything and everyone are to take their place under the perfect worship of a perfect God, banishing or avoiding death, defect, and disorder. The majority of Vayikra concerns how to deal with what the priestly authors considered to be threats to maintaining sacrality.
The priests dealt with these threats through separation. Boundaries were erected around the human body. There is a boundary around what enters the human body, expressed through kashrut, which we encounter in today’s parsha. There is a boundary between life and death, expressed variously through laws concerning sexual functions and genital discharges. And there is a boundary about inner and outer surfaces, expressed through laws about tzara'at, to which I will return.
As is true with many other cultures, the priests enforced boundaries through the concept of purity. As written in today’s parsha, “This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Vayikra 10:9-10) The priests used the terms "tamei," or unclean, and "tahor," or clean. It is essential to understand that tamei and tahor are about ritual cleanliness or pollution, not about hygiene. Being tamei, unclean, was not a sin or a violation of the moral order. In the priestly view, one became tamei as a matter of course. Women, for example, became tamei every time they menstruated. Being tamei was a violation of the moral order only if someone in a ritual state of "tum'a" (n.) came into contact with "kadosh," the sacred, a transgression of a crucial boundary, and that was mortally dangerous. One who became tamei could approach the sacred only after being made tahor, clean. This transformation was achieved through ritual sacrifice and through water, which not so much cleansed as ritually purified the person who was tamei. That is how the priests created, enforced and protected a sense of sacrality.
The laws of pollution were put into place to protect the sanctuary, the priests and the people from estrangement from God, so that the land might not "vomit out" the people, as it previously had others who were not kadosh. Failure to observe the separations of God's creation led to impurity and was therefore profane. Unfortunately, as Rachel Adler and others remind us, some of the very boundary demarcations intended to establish right relations instead built certain injustices around gender and sexuality into the social fabric. Only in a patriarchy, for instance, would menstruation be seen as polluting. But that is a topic for another time.
In Vayikra the realm of the sacred is more than simply separated from the realm of the profane. As part of their vision, the priests elaborated God's classification of the universe by the qualities of wholeness, completeness, and perfection, which became in their view essential aspects of sacrality. From the priests' perspective, to be kadosh is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind. Indeed, much of Vayikra is taken up with emphasizing the physical perfection that is required of things presented in the Tabernacle and of the persons approaching it. The animals offered in sacrifice must be without blemish, women must be purified after childbirth, persons with tzara'at should be separated and ritually cleansed before being allowed to re-enter the sacred encampment. All bodily discharges are defiling and disqualify one from approaching the Tabernacle. Priests may only come into contact with death when their own close kin die, and the high priest must never have contact with death. He must be perfect as a man. In short, the concept of sacrality is given an external, physical expression in the wholeness of the body seen as a perfect container.
These are the salient characteristics of the priests’ uncompromising vision of the sacred people the Israelites were supposed to be. Clearly, the world described by the priestly authors of Vayikra was a rigid, and a very moral, universe. For every action carried moral significance, from the momentous act of worshipping another god to the seemingly minor act of using two kinds of materials in the same garment. As Dr. Schwartz suggests, this unbending perspective reinforced the hierarchical status of the priests, whose office was ascribed by virtue of birth rather than achieved due to study and apprenticeship.
But what, in this context, are the laws of tzara’at about? Why, indeed, are they here in the first place, together with the laws of kashrut and the Sanctuary? This is the only illness considered in Vayikra; What is unique about it? Is this an editorial lapse? Is this a section of helpful hints for the High Priest, a kind of priestly how-to? Clearly there is the common theme of ritual purity which links kashrut and the laws regarding tzara’at, but then why not consider other diseases that might also be contagious or physically disfiguring. Given the emphasis in Vayikra on being without blemish, why does Vayikra fail to consider the lame or the blind to be tamei, or those who have other contagious diseases? And why is it the priest who deals with this medical problem rather than a healer?
In fact, it is far from certain that leprosy is what these laws are about. The Hebrew "tzara'at" is of uncertain etymology. In the text, tzara'at designated a variety of skin ailments, but also referred to unusual changes in the appearance of fabrics and house walls. In the Greek translation of the Torah, tzara'at was rendered as "lepra," which means "a scaly condition." "Lepra" became "leprosy" in the Middle Ages. Tzara'at may have included leprosy but, unlike leprosy, from which it was not possible to recover at that time, apparently one could recover from tzara'at. The fact that tzara'at applied to textiles and houses as well as bodies indicates that a wide concept was being applied. I would like to suggest that the underlying concept was that visible imperfection in the skin, another boundary, transgresses the boundaries, disturbs the order of a sacred society.
The priestly authors did not regard tzara'at as just one disease among others. Tzara'at was a "nega," a "plague" or a "smiting," the manifestation of extreme divine displeasure. For, unlike the person in a routine state of tum'a, ritual uncleanliness, tzara'at did not merely exclude the defiled person from the Sanctuary, it barred that person from all human society and sent him or her into mourning. This carried the implication that the victim did something awful to deserve his or her fate.
Over the centuries, this inspired the rabbis to search for causes. Tzara'at became associated with slander and gossip through Midrashic punning on "metzora," meaning "leper," and "motzi ra," meaning "slanderer." This association served generations of rabbis well as a proof text when they sought to condemn slander and gossip in their communities.
What was tzara'at, this smiting, about in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra? Let us return to the priests and their vision of sacrality, and to their concern with classification, separation, ritual purity and wholeness. I have argued that we should understand the laws of Vayikra as the priests' concerted attempt to create sacrality in the community by imposing boundaries to protect the sacred from the profane chaos of daily life. The skin is itself a boundary. As anthropologist Terence Turner points out, throughout the world the skin is perceived as a link between the biological person and the social world in which he or she lives, between the biological individual and the "body social." In the Amazonian society he studied, the Kayapo, Professor Turner observed elaborate body painting and other ornamentation of the skin, which he interpreted as a way that this society's culture was literally as well as figuratively imposed on the biological person. Jews are familiar with this, are we not? What else is circumcision if not the literal as well as symbolic imposition of Jewish culture on the male body?
Tzara'at may have been the inverse of this. It appears to have been the physical manifestation of an inner disorder, an eruption of disorder that threatened the perfection of the individual and the order of his or her social world. In this sense, tzara'at undermined the priestly vision of a world modeled on creation, with its carefully drawn boundaries and separations. Of course, there were other biological disorders, but it may be that tzara’at represented something more, possibly a physical manifestation of an unstated violation of proper social relationships in the community, a sign that might emerge on the skin of a person, on a garment, or on the walls of a house. I suggest this based on evidence from other cultures where, when envy or hatred disrupts the social fabric, an oracle may be consulted to identify the source of the social breach. In this case, the priest may identify the source of the disruption in the person, garment or house, and attempt to resolve the breach by sending that person out of the encampment, and to a symbolic death.
If this interpretation is right, then it may explain why it is a priest who had to discern that a person, a garment or a house was suffering from tzara'at. For it was the priests who were invested with the spiritual expertise to identify any threats to their vision of a carefully ordered sacred society. The role of the priest was not medical; He did not attempt a cure. His task was to eliminate the threat to the priestly vision of a strict moral universe posed by the ritual impurity of tzara'at, which he did by proclaiming the sufferer tamei and sending him or her into isolation. But in isolating the afflicted person the priest's purpose was not to protect the public health. Other, more virulent diseases did not require isolation. The priests' purpose in isolating the sufferer of tzara'at, in banishing the sufferer from sacred time and space and sending him or her symbolically to the grave, was to prevent the spread of ritual impurity and, perhaps, to eliminate a threat to the wholeness and integrity of the community.
We no longer live in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra. Tzara'at is no longer an active concept for us. But through a symbolic interpretation of the text we can come much closer to understanding the centrality of the seemingly arcane preoccupations of Vayikra, such as tzara’at. Here is a question we might consider that derives from this interpretation of Vayikra. As we’ve seen, boundaries were central to the priests. They saw boundaries as extending God’s work in the creation, and as the way to create a sense of the sacred and enforce an ordered and moral society. Today, we live in a relativist and highly individualistic world, in which many of us rebel against any boundaries imposed by experts and authorities. Some of us still practice the boundaries established in kashrut and shabbat, an inheritance from the world of the priests. Is there more can we learn, is there more we want to learn, from the priests’ vision for how to live a Jewish life?
1998 Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Bamberger, Bernard J.
1981 "Leviticus," In W. Gunther Plaut (ed.), The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
1990 The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1995 "Leviticus: Now He Called," In Everett Fox (ed.), The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books.
Turner, Terence S.
2012 “The Social Skin.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 486–504.
Bio: Steven Foldes, Ph.D., is a social scientist with over 40 years of experience conducting public health and health services research and leading research teams. Currently an independent research consultant and Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Foldes previously worked in leadership positions in state government and private industry. His policy-related publications have influenced state and national policies, such as his work on the healthcare costs of tobacco, which helped pass the Minnesota Freedom to Breathe legislation in 2007 that ended tobacco use in public places. His more recent work focuses on psychosocial interventions for caregivers of persons with dementia, and the economics of youth homelessness.
D’var Torah-First Day of Pesach 2021
March 28, 2021
The Unfinished Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry
Chag Sameach. My thanks to Rabbi Weininger for his kind invitation to deliver the D’var Torah on this, the first day of Pesach this year.
I am appreciative of and grateful for the support of both the clergy and the lay leadership here at Adath for their encouragement and involvement over the years for the Rescue of those Ethiopian Jews that remain in Ethiopia longing to be re-united with first degree blood relatives in Eretz Yisrael.
As we hold our Seders and celebrate Pesach, we re-learn each year about the hardships imposed on the Israelites while they were slaves and oppressed in ancient Egypt. We re-learn about their miraculous redemption and the Exodus from Egypt.
What better time than Pesach to bring to the attention of Jews here in our congregation as well as elsewhere an awareness of the Unfinished Exodus in East Africa where 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk today and have been at risk in some cases for as many as 40 years.
That precious remnant of an ancient Jewish community has been waiting for the completion of its Exodus for far too long. There is a clarion call for World Jewry to help to hasten the completion of the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry, yes in our time, and hopefully before next year they can be in Jerusalem as they and their ancestors have dreamt for over the many centuries since biblical times.
While the Israeli government and World Jewry both earned high praise, and deservedly so, for the airlift of about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews back in 1991 under Operation Solomon, many were left behind.
It’s important to understand the background of life in Ethiopia and some world history as it pertains to the present day situation of Ethiopian Jewry living there.
Let’s begin with geography. Ethiopia is a mountainous region in eastern Africa. It is generally accepted but cannot be definitively established that Ethiopian Jewry traces its origins to a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In ancient times, as was the case in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, there were marriages between relatives in royal families of different nations for political and economic alliances.
So too did Solomon have many wives in his day and at least the one with Makeda, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, was for matters of national interests including trade. It is generally acknowledged and believed by Ethiopians both Jewish and non Jewish that the issue of that marriage was a Prince of Ethiopia known as Menelik. The Ethiopians are very proud of this historical linkage to King Solomon.
Surprisingly perhaps there was a time in Ethiopian History when the Ethiopian Jews had their own minor kingdom. While they prospered for many years, eventually they lost a war and were subjugated. They were oppressed by their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were relegated to certain occupations such as farming and blacksmithing of metals. The latter was considered the work of the devil and was relegated to the Jews. The general population and, in some rural areas yet today, many Ethiopians are fearful of and discriminate against Ethiopian Jews as they believe that Jews turn into hyenas at night.
In the late 19th century the European Rabbi Fleitlovich traveled to Ethiopia to learn whether or not there were Jews living there. He had heard tales of the existence of Ethiopian Jews from travelers to Ethiopia which, at that time, was ruled by Italy as part of the European colonization of the continent of Africa.
Ethiopia is a mountainous country and the Jews lived in remote locations and stayed to themselves as a matter of cultural and economic survival. For those of you that have seen travelogues and feature stories about Christianity in Ethiopia, Aksum is the location of a major Christian church and holy site. It is claimed with pride by the custodians that guard the church that the Ark of the Covenant is there. Non Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are prohibited from entering that sanctuary. The historical connections between biblical Israel and Ethiopia are strong and remain to this day. When one tours Jerusalem one becomes aware that among the four Christian sectors of Jerusalem, one is controlled by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this very day.
This helps to frame the history of Ethiopian Jewry in Ethiopia as Emperor Hailie Selaise in the mid 20th Century referred to himself as the Lion of Judah. And it was a descendant of his that negotiated the ransom of the Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon in 1991.
Our own congregant Herman Markowitz, in his official capacity as a senior executive of the United Israel Appeal, worked behind the scenes with fellow Minnesotan Sen. Rudy Boschwitz to facilitate the transfer of the $35 million ransom payment to the Swiss bank account of President Mengistu thatresulted in the airlift of the
15,000 Ethiopian Jews under the direction of and with the blessing of then President George Herbert Walker Bush.
With this historical background we now have a better framework for understandingthe current situation in which 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk in war-torn Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, back in the 1980s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews lived in the hill country and the mountainous regions of Ethiopia where they were subsistence farmers with crops and cattle. The nation was then like many third world nations, lacking communications such as postal service, telephones, and transportation.
To provide a limited comparison, consider American history back in the revolutionary war times. How difficult would it have been to communicate an important message to someone living in the remote hills of Appalachia? So too it was not easy to get information from the major cities such as Addis Ababa and Gondar where the Jewish Agency staff were working to develop ‘The List’.
To be eligible to be airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon, it was necessary to be interviewed by staff and then formally added to the list. Alas, many Ethiopian Jews living in remote areas either were unaware of this need or were too ill or frail or financially unable to travel to get registered.
Today, there are Ethiopian Jews with first degree blood relatives in Israel that have yet to be authorized to be flown to Israel. And their situation is dire to say the least.
We read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Most of us have never seen first hand a sky filled with locusts that descend upon crop fields and eat all of the crops. Yet in the last twelve months there was such a biblical scale plague of locusts in Ethiopia. To its credit, Israeli agricultural experts and pest control technicians were sent by the Israeli government and their efforts brought some limited relief.
Nonetheless the crops suffered in the aggregate and prices of staples such as the grain known as ‘tef’ (with which Ethiopians make ‘injeera’ a pancake stylebread) increased sharply. The demand for the limited supply of grains was further exacerbated by the need of the government to feed its soldiers that were fighting insurgents near the border with Eritrea. Jews in that region were at additional risk because of the bloodshed and war crimes that were committed by Eritrean soldiers that crossed the border to help the Ethiopian government in its struggle against the rebels in that region.
During the last twelve months, Israel has earned high praise for the airlift of about 2,000 Ethiopian Jews under the Law of Family Reunification. Because of some doubts about the Halachic status of the Jews that remain in Ethiopia, it is not easy for Ethiopian Jews to be admitted to Israel under the Law of Return. If they are allowed entry under this law, they must submit to a formal Orthodox conversion process.
While the airlift of the 2,000 is praiseworthy, there remain today in Ethiopia this at least another 8,000 Ethiopian Jews that are living mostly in squalor and subsist on as few as 500 calories per day. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, and children under the age of 5 are deprived of proper nutrition. It is heart breaking to realize that the health and brain development of these children may penalize them for the rest of their lives once they finally get to Israel.
The Ethiopian Jews sold their farms and moved years ago to the major cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa to be ready to travel to Israel on short notice. They remain in misery and deplorable conditions yet to this day. And in a very practical sense they suffer like the ancient Israelites suffered in Egypt.
However, there’s where the contrast and challenge exist. There is no heartless Pharoah to deny them their Exodus. The Ethiopian Government or any corrupt politician no longer requires a ransom payment. Rather, they are at the mercy of political bickering and politics as well as the bureaucrats and their budgets in Israel.
They are hapless and without resources in a land literally plagued by locusts, poor crops, warring factions, and the ever present hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors.
They live Jewish lives observing kashrut and Shabbat and the Festivals according to strict practices. Their children, whenever possible, attend classes on Hebrew and other subjects to prepare them to be successful in their new lives in Israel when their time to go there to live is at hand.
These resources are NOT provided by the Israeli government in any meaningful amount. Were it not for the efforts of several NGOs based in the U.S. including NACOEJ, more would have died from malnutrition and illness. Only during Pesach does the Jewish Agency provide Passover rations. The other 51 weeks of the year they do not provide relief. The Ethiopian Jews rely on the kindness of North American Jewry.
They are exceedingly patient people. Back in 2006 and then again in 2015 the Israeli government promised to complete the effort, they were patient and hopeful. Between 2015 and until about twelve months ago, little was done. We hear governmental leaders in our own communities and state complain about Unfunded Mandates imposed by the federal government on these state and local governmental units. The same unfunded mandates were issued the Israel’s Knesset several times.
In 2006, the Lebanon War broke out and that disrupted then halted the airlift and absorption efforts. In 2015 the Knesset approved the complete transportation and absorption of the Ethiopian Jews yet it failed to provide any funding to the Ministry of Absorption to do so.
As we celebrate Pesach and read the words that all who are hungry are welcome to join us at our Seders and we are encouraged to show concern, compassion, and care for others can there be a better time for us to consider and then act upon the need to complete the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry?
North American Jewry must be the primary advocate for the speedy completion of this modern day Exodus.
As the most affluent Jewish community in the history of the world, can we do anything less than raise our voices and urge our Jewish communal leadership, both lay and professional, to act with dispatch to relieve the suffering and complete this historical modern day Exodus?
The closing words of the Seder – Next Year in Jerusalem – could become a reality for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews if we act now with urgency and resolve.
Let us hope for and work towards making it possible that these 8,000 Ethiopian Jews will be with their families at a Seder in Israel next Pesach.
My Ema was born in Pulawy, Poland in 1922. My Saba moved her and my Savta when my Ema was three or four, because Pulawy had been taken over by (I believe) Soviets and my Saba was concerned for his family. They moved to what was then known as Palestine, and eventually Israel became a state, as we know. I can’t remember what year it was that I was told there was an invasion and all the people were murdered. Only one of my mother’s family members survived.
My mom joined the British Army and met my father on a train to Cairo. They say it was love at first sight, but, my Ema wanted to live in the Land of Milk and Honey and thought all Americans were rich, and my father was raised to believe all Jews are rich. Boy, were they fooled!
After they were married, my father sent my Ema and my sister who was born in 1945 to the States to live with my father’s people. (Side note: My sister was the first baby to travel in a military plane overseas. She's actually in the Guinness World Book of Records.) My father's people were all Christians and they hated that my father married my Ema. The only ones that helped her was my Grandma and my father’s youngest brother.
I wasn't raised Jewish. In fact, I barely knew what being Jewish meant. When I was very young, I knew that there was something different about my Ema because she always talked funny on the phone. And when she would write to my Savta, I couldn't read what she was writing. We lived in Niagara Falls, NY and eventually I learned some things about being Jewish, including what anti-Semitism was. One day, when we were on our way to the lake for a BBQ, we stopped on the side of the road, and my father got out of the car and he was screaming and yelling and my mother was crying. I didn't understand what they were doing and then as we drove away, I saw a sign that said "no dogs or Jews allowed.” It wasn’t written in by someone; it was actually a part of the sign.
My siblings and I attended church and it was very weird for me because at that time the ministers and Sunday school teachers were still preaching about how the Jews killed Christ and were bad people. Eventually, I was the only one attending church, and I just would shrink down in the pews because I thought they were talking about my Ema (they were) and that was hurtful.
Years later, I asked my Ema why she sent me to Church and she said, "Because I wanted you to learn about God.” And I said, "I could have learned about God in a Synagogue or from you, but you sent me to a place, instead, that was teaching me about Jesus and how the Jewish people were murderers.” I think it was probably more about my father and his family than anything else. I didn't understand why he cared if we went to a Synagogue or not - he married a Jewish woman, why would you care that your children were Jewish?
Fast-forward to when my Ema passed away in 2012, I decided to move to where my daughter was living in Florida, but I didn't like it there at all. I was home-sick for Minnesota. I called my headhunter and told her I was moving back. I asked her to find me some interviews to do because I would be in Minnesota the following week. She called me right back and said there was an opening at the synagogue by where I had lived in Minnetonka, but I’d have to be there tomorrow as they were at the end of their interview process. I was on a plane the next day.
When I walked into the building, you're gonna think this is weird, when I walked into the building and I walked up the spine I was just like, I can't even describe to you the feeling that came over me but it was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket when you come in from the cold- you know that feeling your body gets. It was so wonderful and I said "no way!" I'm thinking of myself, no, "really?" As I’m walking, I look up and I'm talking to my Ema, "Did you send me here? Is this from you?”. And so then I met with Bernie and Barbara and it was a wonderful interview. They passed me on to meet with the Rabbis and Jim Sherman. I walked out of the room we were interviewing in and there was Giselle and they introduced me to her, and I told that her shoes are going to be big ones to fill (since she had been there 27-28 years). She said I would catch on. Her eyes reminded me of my Aunt June – another sign that I loved. I thought “OMG I'm gonna be working at a synagogue - that's gonna be a breeze compared to working in corporate” because corporate was... at times difficult. It was people trying to climb ladders and, you know, kicking you on their way up and so it was kind of miserable. I had been in the corporate world since 1974 so it was time for a change. Boy, was I in for a HUGE surprise – there's lots of work that must be done for our congregation!
When I started working at Adath, I was learning and seeing all the things that were going to teach me about this Jewish lifestyle. I read lots of books from the library; I went to services on Shabbat not long after I started, and the up and down and up and down and I was like, "oh man” because it's not just for half an hour. You're going to be up and down for a couple of hours. Suddenly... Cantor Buckner began to sing and the congregation joined him. I closed my eyes and I was listening to them sing, and tears rolled down my face, because I know… I swear... in the background I heard my Ema’s beautiful voice. And I remembered growing up with songs that the congregation was singing that sounded like what my Ema would sing. And the congregation sounded so beautiful.
It's been seven years, almost eight since I joined Adath. I have been so blessed to be here working with and for wonderful people. A staff and congregation like no other… that I love to work for and with as we travel through life cycle events. I have no doubt who I am now and the way of the Jewish people is completely in-line with what I have always felt to be true. I have come full circle.
Dr. Mitch Bender
D’var Torah Vayikra
March 14, 2021
Adath Antiracism Committee Community Discussion
Thank you for the honor of delivering the D’var Torah for this Adath Antiracism Committee (AAC) meeting. It has also been a privilege to be a member of the Committee and participate in its work. The Committee believes that a frank discussion of racism, both individual and structural, can lead to progress towards ending racism in both the Adath and at-large communities. The tragic events of last summer occurring in Minneapolis as well as in Pittsburgh, Poway, California, Charleston SC, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and other locations have galvanized our community into action, with the hope of making progress towards the end of racism. In addition, Jews of color in the Adath community have openly discussed the anguish and discomfort with some of their Adath experiences. This loyal group of congregants is seeking a secure and fulfilling place in their congregation for people of color. Clearly, now is the time for both discussion and action.
My task today is to discuss this week’s parsha, Vayikra, and what it might teach us about our response to racism. Vayikra means “to call out.” Hashem calls out to Moshe in the Mishkan or Tent of the Meeting. This parsha continues with the elaboration of the laws of ritual sacrifice to Hashem and how the Kohanim are to conduct themselves during this ceremony. Through animal sacrifice and the detailed and meticulous ceremony that surrounds it, the Hebrews would be able to make expiation and atone for their sins. I must admit, however, that I had difficulty relating the text to our topic today, making progress towards ending racism.
If we define anti-racism as ACTION AND DEEDS against racist behavior, I asked myself, “what insight does Parsha Vayikra teach us about becoming anti-racists? Fortunately, Rabbi Weininger was able to help guide me towards the teaching of Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, N.J. His teaching forms the framework of this D’var Torah. I want to thank both Rabbis Weininger and Pitkowsky for their guidance. Their assistance was invaluable.
The first word in today’s parsha is Vayikra. As previously mentioned, Vayikra means "to call out". Vayikra’s final letter, as written in the Torah, is the aleph and it is traditionally written by the Torah scribe with a letter smaller than the rest of the word. Why is this so, what does it mean and what can it teach us about our response to racism? One explanation from a 14th century commentator (Ba’al Haturim) is that when Moshe was acting as a scribe for writing the Torah, he did not want the reader to think that he was important enough for Hashem to have a planned conversation with him. Moshe wished to lower his profile. He therefore intended to leave off the aleph from the word Vayikra. The intention was to change the word “Vayikra” to “vayikar,” altering the sentence from “The Lord called to Moshe” to “The Lord had a chance encounter with Moshe.” Moshe, the prophet who according to the tradition, had a special relationship with Hashem and was the only prophet to “see God face to face.” Yet Moshe wished to convey to the reader his sense of humility. He becomes the role model for humility, despite his unique status.
Another commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain offers another perspective on the issue of the small aleph. As previously noted, the aleph is the final letter in the word Vayikra. However, it is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue). The first word of the Decalogue is anochi, and the statement is, “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and house of bondage. Sachs opines that the diminutive aleph teaches us that Hashem’s presence is not only manifested in grand gestures (examples- parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the Ten Plagues), but also in the small, every day, seemingly mundane events of our daily lives. The fact that we are alive is a miracle and therefore, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis is important. This extends to how we treat others, including people of color, people with disabilities, people with sexual orientations different from ours and those from disadvantaged groups. Ordinary, routine and seemingly unimportant daily actions can have great impact on others. Thus racism, both on an individual and structural level has a great impact on these vulnerable groups.
To be clear, structural racism refers to things like redlining, people of color paying higher mortgage rates than White people, medical disparities between Caucasians and people of color, higher incarceration rates for Blacks and Latinos and challenges for people of color in the education system. Thus, People of Color, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and the LGBTQ community feel, ‘less than,” excluded and believe that White people have special privilege in our society, known as White Privilege. Perhaps one remedy for this is to adopt the Moshe humility model and have White people shed their hubris, acknowledge their privilege, cease to be judgmental of those who look different from them and be respectful in their communication with members of the Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ communities. The diminutive aleph in today’s parsha is serving as a teacher for us. It teaches us to act with more humility and let go of arrogance and insensitivity. It reminds us that our daily actions and language have profound impact on others, particularly with the more vulnerable groups.
As Hashem called out to Moshe in the Mishkan, Parsha Vayikra calls out to us to address racism both in our congregation and community at large. Our response should include humility, appreciation for all the blessings in our daily lives, compassion for those who are not yet liberated, and ACTION toward ending racism and increasing opportunity for everyone. We Jews understand the bitter taste and malevolence of racism and oppression and we are reminded of this at every Seder we attend. We have been liberated- now, it is our obligation to help liberate those facing racism. The Torah is exhorting us to take action. We can do this. Hashem does not suggest that we pursue justice, but rather demands it in the phrase "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof". We have taken action and supported the oppressed before- It is in our spiritual DNA, and together, we can make progress in helping to end racism.
What changes and personal sacrifice are you committed to making in your daily life this year? What will you reflect upon not only at Yom Kippur, but next year, 5782 when we read this Parsha anew?
For more information visit Adath Antiracism Committee webpage at https://www.adathjeshurun.org/antiracism
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.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share