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.
Welcome to Congregants of Adath!
In this series, we'll be highlighting congregants who are making a difference within the synagogue and/or within the greater community.
This week's Congregant of Adath is Etta Barry, chair of Adath's Inclusion Committee.
Having grown up in the Twin Cities and as a member of Adath, Etta (and her mother and siblings), have played a constant role as leaders in the community. Click play to hear her Inclusion story and about how we can help the Inclusion Committee achieve its goals.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), which is a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. To learn more, visit Adath's Inclusion Committee webpage. The Inclusion Committee is always looking for new members!
D'var Torah Mishpatim
February 13th, 2021
I take up this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant. Covenants create relationships, and obligations. In Mishpatim, God sets forth the rules or moral laws that will govern the relationship between God and the Israelites.
As distinguished from other societies at the time, the laws of Torah are based on divine principles embedded in the world. The Torah’s overall emphasis is on three interrelated principles; human equality, freedom, and dignity. The dignity of a human being is central. These laws or principles are intended to create not only a just society, but a Holy one.
Why is it important that these are God given laws? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in You Shall Be Holy; A Code of Jewish Ethics (vol.1) states: “Indeed, without God, by what authority can one argue certain activities should be permitted and others forbidden? Ivan Karamazov says ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’”. Without divine authority, we get moral relativism, leading often to moral confusion and ultimately, a moral void. It’s not the transgression, but the forgetting. That’s where I think we are today.
To be clear, I believe that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints. I speak here of a constructive morality of responsibility; a morality that respects the dignity of every human being—and the integrity of God’s natural world.
It’s a perilous time for our nation, as we rebuild our society from its multiple systemic failures revealed in the face of the pandemic. We are also on the verge of ruining the planet.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last book, (may his memory be for a blessing) titled Morality; Restoring the Common Good in Historic Times, he describes how we live in today.
“A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. This is why liberal democracy is at risk.
Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all of us together.
If we focus on the “I” and lose the “We,” if we act on self interest without a commitment to the common good… we will lose so much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a future of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable, humiliated, and alone.
The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. People will feel anxious… aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness; making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left…”.
What are the moral principles of MIshpatim that can inspire the vision we so urgently need to rebuild our nation?
First, Mishpatim says that knowledge of the law is the obligation of an entire people, not a privileged class of specialists. We are all responsible. Responding to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites proclaim, (Ex. 24:7) “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” Our moral codes become our framework for living.
Second, Mishpatim commands us to balance both righteous and compassion. (Lev. 19:33-34) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Third, justice and compassion relate to friend and enemy alike. (Ex 23: 1-4) “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him”.
Fourth, Etz Hayim notes that all the Torah's rules regarding slavery, debts, and indenture, inhibit economic enrichment at the expense of others. They are meant to protect the poor from exploitation. [ Ex. 22:24] "If you lend money to My people, to the poor...do not act toward them as a creditor. “ In other words, do not impose upon them a burden you would not take upon yourself were you in their shoes.
Fifth, and of central importance today, the laws of Mishpatim point to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and of humanity with the natural world.
To illustrate interconnection and interdependence, I will quote from the renowned scholar of twentieth century eastern European history, Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady; Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.
In December 2019, hospitalized with sepsis, he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He kept a journal of the powerful emotions that rescued him from near death. In his prologue, titled “Solitude and Solidarity” he writes; “It was an intense rage and a gentle empathy that sustained me…I felt nothing cleaner and more intense than my rage against deathly illness…. The rage was beautifully pure, undefiled by an object…. I raged therefore I was.
My first extended thought after surgery was about uniqueness. No one had ever moved through life as I had, making just the same choices….I wanted my rage to lead out of the bed and into another year…. My rage was my life….
Yet slowly and softly a second mood impinged, one that sustained me in a different way; a feeling that life was only truly life insofar as it was not only about me….I recited to myself the way my children’s lives were bound to my own. What mattered was not that I was unique but that I was theirs; their father. Every bit of their existence involved the expectation of my presence. They had never not touched me….I imagined what would change without me…I watched their future unfold without me in my mind’s eye—and then I reeled it back.
This…recognition, that my life was not my own, this gentle empathy escorted me away from death. The rage helped me see myself. The empathy placed me among others…it was not important that I was unique and special. It was important that I was inside other people, in their memories and expectations, a support in the shape of their lives, a buoy during difficult passages.
The empathy… worked together with the rage. Each mood revealed a truth, an element of me. Neither was enough, I needed both…the fire and the water, the solitude and the solidarity… to get well, to be free. ”
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.”
Finally, the study of Torah and the keeping of Shabbat anchors us in all of this: With these practices, performed within community to create community across our differences, we safeguard it, our collective remembering, the integrity of our moral laws, and our faith traditions.
To summarize, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, we need to bring the “we” back into our consciousness. We are all responsible, and it moves us away from our dualistic mindset.
Our problem is discursive. If we do not talk differently, we won’t think differently. We need a language, a moral narrative, to articulate our moral instincts. We need to engage in ethically informed conversations, across our differences.
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better society and a better world? These are the general questions we must ask with a view to the welfare of the whole.
In addition, in the name of our interconnectedness and interdependence, we need to rethink the role of the “public”. What are the public policies that would bring about a just, compassionate, and more peaceful society, public policies that respect the dignity of all people? What are we willing to commit to make that happen?
I believe our young people have the vision we need. I hear it in The Students’ Prayer.
The Students’ Prayer:
God, help our country to seek equality amongst people, that all minorities are treated fairly, and create peace between political standpoints.
May this country be blessed with peace, justice, and acceptance. May our leaders be guided by the strength of truth and compassion. Let our leaders be wise and helpful in their decisions for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect.
In times of uncertainty, allow us to continue leading a life of gratitude and kindness. Allow us to continue creating special memories with the people we love. Allow us to let times of uncertainty not make us weaker, but even stronger than we were before.
There are lots of reasons to be scared, and many reasons to be frustrated. But the unseeable future will be better. We need to be optimistic. We decide when change is needed, and we take the steps to make that happen.
May we feel connected and stable, feel steady emotionally and mentally, feel healthy and in the right mindset, feel ready to overcome the obstacles in our path, feel safe making our decisions, feel prepared and educated for the unknown, and feel accepted for our actions and words.
And let us say: Amen.
– Adath Confirmation Class of 2021/5781, January 19, 2021 (Inauguration Eve)
Conversation over Kiddush:
Here is a quote from Dr. Yehuda Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s his definition of pluralism from a lecture, “Pluralism in the Face of Injustice”.
"True pluralism...is rooted in the belief that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints, and it translates into the commitment to build societies of mutual respect. Pluralism is a belief system in which we make room for the opinions and whole selves of others, and a tool to build a society that is improved by the presence of difference."
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Parashat Mattot Masei
July 18, 2020
There are so many controversies swirling around our country. It is hard to get one’s brain wrapped around one before we have moved on to the next one. There is one controversy that I want to take some time to focus our attention on because the underlaying issues keep surfacing as the presenting issues change.
The issue I call your attention to is that of wearing masks. I will confess that I have barely been in any store to see it directly, but there are ample reports on social media about confrontations taking places in which people walk into stores without wearing a mask. It is not uncommon that a scene ensues in which people assert their right not to don a mask. They explain that it is a matter of their personal freedom to choose not to wear one. When governments have established a mandate, as the Minnetonka City Counsel did this week, the response from some is that it is impinging on their liberty. They appeal to that most venerated document the US Constitution that declares:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This debate has been playing out all over the US. This week the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who has encouraged the voluntary wearing of mask for public safety, voided orders from 15 local governments, asserting that it is an infringement on people’s freedom to require them to wear a mask that even he agrees would protect all involved from COVID-19. And yesterday Democratic Gov. Tim Walz announced that he has not made a decision on issuing a state wide facemask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19 because he is hoping that, rather than relying on a unilateral an Executive order, he can get Republicans to join him in creating such an ordinance.
I find it appalling that so basic a health practice as the wearing of masks has become a political football and a badge for some of political identification. While there were mixed messages early in the pandemic about the value of wearing masks there is no real debate about the value of wearing masks in order to maintain the health of the public and contain the disease. Four days ago. The Director of the national Center for Disease Control Dr Robert Redfield stated, “We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow the spread of the virus- particularly when used universally within a community setting.” In an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC’s Redfield asserted that “universal face coverings in public would help get the pandemic under control within 4 to 8 weeks.” As each day new records are broken in this country for the number of COVID-19 cases that total 3.5 million and more than 135,000 deaths, among the highest rates in the world, I find it quite shocking that there are those who world refuse to wear a mask on the basis of asserting their personal freedom.
I am once again pleased to be able to tell you that our MN Rabbinical Assoc, under the leadership of our Rabbi Weininger and Rabbi Jill Crimmings of Bet Shalom, issued a statement a few days ago advocating for mandates requiring the wearing masks. (Pull it up on the screen). Thank you to our member Rabbi Ryan Dulkin who drafted this statement, which is deeply grounded in Jewish teaching about the obligation we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.” The letter is filled with biblical and rabbinic references showing that we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another” represents the fundamental thrust of our faith.
Let’s take a moment to look at mitzvah ma’akeh, with which you may be less familiar than other texts to which it refers. This is the biblical requirement from Deut 22:8 that commands a homeowner to erect parapets (railings) around the roof of one’s house to prevent someone from falling off. You might find that odd wondering what they were doing on the roof of the house to begin with? Houses in rabbinic times had flat roofs and this meant that the homeowner even had a positive obligation to protect someone who invited himself to sleep on the roof of the house. This mitzvah ma’akeh of parapets is applied widely to support the obligation that one must protect oneself and others from harm, to the best of one’s ability. This principle is hard wired into the very “DNA” of the Jewish people, which is in a covenantal relationship with God (as pointed out in my intro to Ahava Rabbah and to the Haftarah).
This week’s first portion Mattot has a great example of communal responsibility. I asked you to take a look on Numbers 32 when the Israelites’ journey through the desert has finally brought them to the border of Canaan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
We encounter the incident of the Reubenites and the Gadites who are said to be cattle herders. They claim that the land east of the Jordan is just perfect for the purpose of raising cattle so they tell Moses, 32:5 “It would be a favor to us if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”
Moshe responded to the tribes of Reuven and Gad saying, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?’ I will spare you Moishe’s long speech berating them for looking out for their own welfare, rather than for the entirety of the nation and the dire consequences they and all Israel will experience if they make such a selfish choice. The rabbis heap further scorn on the greed of these tribes saying in Midrash HaGadol that these tribes did not have more cattle than the other tribes, “they just spent more time thinking about their cattle.” See Etz Hayim p. 951. The Reubenites and the Gadites shrink under Moshe’s withering critique and respond that of course they will cross over to join in the battle together with the rest of the tribes of Israel, they just want to be able to return to this area and have it as their portion.
The message is clear that central to the Jewish ethos is an expectation that one will focus on the community’s wellbeing and not just on one’s own. This is the furthest thing from the language we bear bandied about in discussion of health mandates for wearing masks that will protect everyone as being an infringement of my freedoms.
In thinking about this approach to living that honors the preciousness of every individual but demands responsibilities for the whole nation I turned to a wonderful chapter of my teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, JPS 2002 . It one of three volumes on Jewish ethics published in 2002 by the Jewish Publication Society. It remains an essential set for one’s Jewish library. In the opening chapter Rabbi Dorff explores the “Fundamental Beliefs That Guide Jewish Social Ethics.”
In the chapter he describes exactly how the Jewish, Christian and American secular stories, graphically portray each tradition's beliefs about the individual, society, and the goal of living. p. 3
…the Jewish and American understandings of the nature of community and of the status of the individual within the community have some important similarities. In the minds of many American Jews, these mask the significant differences between the two concepts. Indeed, many American Jews want to believe that their Jewish self and their American self fit neatly together, like hand in glove, with no contradictions or even tensions. As we have seen, though, American ideology depicts the community in a "thin" sense, by which membership is completely voluntary and may be revoked by the individual at any time and by which the purpose of the community is predominantly pragmatic. In contrast, Judaism's sense of community is "thick," which means that its members are organically part of the communal corpus and cannot sever themselves from it and that the purpose of the community, while partially pragmatic, is essentially theological, “to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex 19:6) p. 25-26
It is no wonder that we sometimes feel pulled as American Jews between the individual thrust of Americanism holding up as a model the idea of rugged individualism and the Jewish ideal of communal obligation. In the case of the current controversy over requiring the wearing of masks we can see the evidence that the assertion of individual freedom over communal responsibility can leave many people sick, or even dead.
We need to follow Dr Redfield’s wise counsel, “All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
On the clear basis of Jewish law, I and our MN Rabbinical Association, with no hesitation say that we are all obligated as Jews to wear masks to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our world. We need to send that strong and clear message to ALL of our elected representatives.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Minnesota Rabbinical Association Advocates For Mask Mandate 7/14/20
My eyes pine away from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, each day; I stretch out my hands to You” (Psalm 88:10)
The Minnesota Rabbinical Association calls on our governor, lieutenant governor, and elected leaders to put in place all reasonable measures that will help our community reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly by mandating the wearing of face coverings in public.
Our world is experiencing the most widely felt international plague in a century. Many states in our country are witnessing record new cases daily. We are losing loved ones to COVID-19, many more are experiencing debilitating illness, our livelihoods are under threat, and our children’s education and well-being are at stake.
Communal challenges require communal responses. We must take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.
The core of Jewish tradition centers on the value of life (Deuteronomy 30:19). The saving of life supersedes all other religious duties (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 2:1). Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches that “a person should never remain in a state of danger and say, ‘a miracle will be performed on my behalf ’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a).
We look to our sacred Scriptures for guidance. Face coverings fulfill the mandate set out in the book of Deuteronomy 22:8, which commands home builders to erect parapets around a roof to prevent anyone from falling from it. Jewish tradition understands this verse to be broadly applicable to any reasonable measure that will protect public safety.
We have learned that those infected with COVID-19 can spread the disease before they are symptomatic, which makes wearing a face covering in public all the more crucial. We find support for this practice in the words of Leviticus 19:14, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” If we work together, we can change the dangerous trajectory we are on. Let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Rabbi Kassel Abelson, Rabbi Esther Adler, Rabbi Morris Allen, Rabbi Shalom Resnick Bell, Rabbi Norman Cohen, Rabbi Jill Crimmings, Rabbi Barry Cytron, Rabbi Alexander Davis, Rabbi Max Davis, Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, Rabbi Shosh Dworsky, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Rabbi Avraham Ettedgui, Rabbi Jeremy Fine, Rabbi Jennifer Hartman, Rabbi Sim Glaser, Rabbi Yosi Gordon, Rabbi Tamar Grimm, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Harold Kravitz, Rabbi Jason Klein, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg, Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Rabbi David Locketz, Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, Rabbi Micah Miller, Rabbi Tobias Divack Moss, Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Rabbi Debra Rappaport, Rabbi Adam Rubin, Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, Rabbi Adam Spilker, Rabbi David Steinberg, Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, Rabbi David Thomas, Rabbi Heidi Waldmann, Rabbi Aaron Weininger, Rabbi Michelle Werner, and Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
September 14, 2015 5776
It was our pleasure, this past May, to celebrate the graduation of our youngest child Elana from Washington University in St Louis, where she received her Master’s Degree in Social Work. We were curious about who would be the commencement speaker. It was our second time attending a Wash U graduation; we had been there the year before when she received her BA. Then the speaker was Tony LaRussa, former manager of the St Louis Cardinals, who led them to three National League pennants and two World Series. Clearly he was a tremendous baseball manager, but as a graduation speaker- not so great. We were curious about how Wash U would handle it this year when St Louis, and nearby Ferguson, had become ground zero for one of the most difficult issues facing this country- that of racism.
When we learned that the speaker would be Ken Burns, Cindy and I assumed that it had to be an improvement. Ken Burns is a distinguished American filmmaker, known for his use of archive’s footage and photos in documentary films featured on PBS. Among his best known are his series on The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and most recently The Roosevelts (2014). He seemed a promising choice, especially given that this year our country marked the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
Delivering a successful commencement speech is a difficult task. I think it even tops the difficulty of delivering a good High Holiday sermon. What we really did not expect was how moving, how impressive Burns’ speech would be. Listening to him, I knew immediately that I would want to reflect further on it for these High Holidays for he powerfully addressed the issue hanging over all of us-the issue of racism in this country.
Burns based his speech on one delivered just up the road in Springfield, Illinois in January, 1838. It had been delivered by a 29 year old, tall and lanky lawyer, who would one day become President of the United States- Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was speaking about national security. He said: “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? …Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Lincoln answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Burns asserted that racism was at the front of Lincoln’s mind in that speech and throughout his life. Could Lincoln have imagined that all these years later issues of race would still plague this country? Pointing to Ferguson, Burns said that, “the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone’s skin. It has been with us since our founding.”
Burns recalled the immortal words of a founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who drew upon the Hebrew Bible to draft the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” How deep the irony, Burns pointed out, that Jefferson “owned more than a hundred human beings. He never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of those human beings, ensuring as we went forward that the young United States — born with such glorious promise — would be bedeviled by race, that it would take a bloody, bloody Civil War to even begin to redress the imbalance.
Burns was not only charging the graduates. That day I felt the charge knowing that it was my responsibility to urge our congregants to reflect on the events of this past year that have played out in such bloody fashion in NY, Baltimore, and Charleston. These flashpoints made evident that racism is still very much an issue in this country. Not even the hard fought civil rights movement of the 1960s put an end to American racism. Stephen Colbert captured it well in the first night of his new show, pointing to personal memorabilia decorating his set. Among the items he has on display is a pennant that his mother received in 1963, while attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Colbert quipped, “Sadly, Civil rights only won the pennant that year. Racism won the World Series.”
As we gather as a congregation on these High Holidays, these days of awe, charged with the sacred task of doing cheshbon hanefesh - serious soul searching, I hope that we can look into our hearts and answer the question raised by Ken Burns’ talk in St Louis that day: what is our responsibility? Though it may make us uncomfortable to ponder the question, how do we otherwise make sure that racism finally ends in this country? Or to use Colbert’s image, how do we make sure that racism does not continue to win the World Series?
As Jews we come to this topic with a great legacy. We are the direct inheritors of the Biblical Genesis story Jefferson drew upon in writing the Declaration of Independence, the same words Lincoln drew upon to begin his short and brilliant Gettysburg address that, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
This concept of human equality, embedded in the Torah’s creation story, teaches that all human beings are descended from a common ancestor created Btzelem Elohim- in the image of God. This concept is a gift that the People of Israel gave to the world and we can take some pride in that. But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prof. of our movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960s asked profoundly, “How should a being created in the likeness of God act, think, feel? How should we live in a way which is compatible with our being a likeness of God?” It is quite clear in reading the questions Heschel posed that he thought we were not adequately fulfilling our responsibility. I dare say that not enough has changed since he framed those questions.
Yes as Jews we can claim some bright spots- We can take pride in the fact that Rabbi Heschel marched with his dear friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, AL, the anniversary of which was also observed this year. Two years earlier, Heschel played a prominent role in Chicago at a National Conference of Religion and Race (Jan 1963), a gathering that inspired the participation of clergy in the great march on Washington that year. Drawing on the principle of B’tzelem Elohim, that we are created in the image of God and that all human beings are descended from the first Adam, Heschel said that, “To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error, it an eye disease, a cancer of the soul.” "One hundred years ago," he reminded the delegates, "the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry." The greatest sin, he declared, is that of indifference: "Equality is a good thing ... what is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality."
There were many Jews who followed Heschel’s example in taking up that cause such as Rabbis Jerome Lipnick of Adath Jeshurun and Moshe Sacks of Bnai Emet, whose courage as active participants in the Civil rights movement I spoke about three years ago on Yom Kippur. We look back on these stories with justified pride. We tend to forget how much grief many of the rabbis who marched in that cause took from their congregants for doing it. Even today I would venture to guess that American Jews feel that the issues of slavery and racism are not really our responsibility. After all, we can fairly claim that most of our relatives came to this country well after Lincoln had emancipated the slaves. Though there were a small number of Jews who profited from the African slave trade, most of our ancestors were being subject to fierce anti-Semitism and being chased out of Europe when these things were happening.
However, if we look into our hearts during this High Holiday period, can we truly say that we have no responsibility for the sin of racism? How honest are we being with ourselves? To what extent do we as a community, now largely seen as white people, though we know we are more diverse than that, to what extent do we benefit from laws and practices that disadvantage people of color? In creating our High Holiday Machzor the rabbis were wise in framing most of the prayers in the plural because they had a deep understanding that when there is misconduct in a society, all of us have to some extent contributed to it. Thus in the Vidui prayer of confession we will recite on Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness, “For the sins we have committed.”
As we closely examine the sin of racism that remains so prevalent in this country, we need to understand that racism is not only about individual bias or prejudice. The numbers tell the story of how deeply racism is imbedded in our society such that Black Americans in this country experience significantly higher rates of early death, incarceration and are at a distinct disadvantage according to so many measures of social wellbeing. There are vast gaps in median wealth between whites and blacks. "Systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common.'' in the American criminal justice system asserted, former US Attorney General Eric Holder. As one example, he cites a U.S. Sentencing Commission study (2013) demonstrating that black men received prison terms that were 20% longer than those imposed on white men involved in similar crimes. The disparities in this country go on and on.
And what about MN, which we like to think of as a relatively progressive place? The Itasca Project, which brought together 50 of Minnesota’s civic, corporate and political leaders issued a study which documented that the average black Twin Cities resident earns 48% less than whites and is 73% less likely to own a home.
Myron Orfield, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, observes that racial segregation is increasing in all of the 25 largest U.S. metros, but it is happening at a much faster clip in the Twin Cities where, “Neighborhoods and schools have remained more stubbornly segregated here” and “those once integrated have re-segregated at alarming rates.”
We would like to believe in this country that anyone who works hard can reap the rewards of their work. The reality of racial disparities and inequalities show that in many ways the deck is stacked against people of color. White people in this country, and Jews are included in this category, start from the position of significant privilege that we take for granted. To use a baseball analogy, it is like those who are “born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”
If we are to live up to our legacy as a Jewish people and our loftiest values as Jews, than we have our work cut out for us. We need to start by really listening to what people are saying when they say that “Black Lives Matter.” Our gut reaction, given the value concept of Btzelem Elohim, Being Created in the Image of God, is to want to assert that all lives matter, and they do. But we may not assert that to deny that racism continues to be a powerful, powerful force in this country. If you want to get a feeling for the depth of discrimination that black people endure in this country, I recommend a new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I first learned of it in an article by the NY Times columnist David Brooks who acknowledged that “The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.” Brooks call Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience.” Though not uncritical, Brooks states that, “Every conscientious American should read it.”
Coates writes his book as a letter to his 15 year old son capturing “The Talk,” the talk that Black parents in this country feel that they must have with their children to try to keep them safe from the risks they invariably face because of their color. On Coates’ Atlantic magazine webpage you can read the stories, stories that African Americans have posted in reaction, writing about the profound discrimination they continue to experience.
There is very strong evidence to support the claim that there is ongoing, systemic racism in our country, but there are also moments that rise up to punch us in the gut, such as the horrific shootings that took place on June 17th at the historic Emanuel AME - African Methodist Episcopal Church – in Charleston when eight people gathered in their church for Bible study were murdered in cold blood. Reading the manifesto of the perpetrator, seeing him posing by the Confederate flag, brings home powerfully that even extreme racism still thrives in this country. It is shocking to me that a person can harbor such a deep hatred that it obliterates the image of God in another human being, allowing him to sit in study and fellowship with people and then shoot them down ruthlessly. Racism really is, as Heschel said, a cancer of the soul.
One week after that atrocity I attended a service of comfort and solidarity at St. Peter’s AME Church in South Minneapolis. It was a deeply moving event. The presence of members of the Jewish community and others from across the Twin Cities was greatly appreciated. Sometimes showing up is what is needed. The MN Council of Churches has asked congregations around the state to take turns hosting a service on early Weds evenings to coincide with and commemorate that brutal attack. I invite you to show up for evening minyan on Weds Dec 23 when we will be the hosts and demonstrate our commitment to eradicating racism. At the end of that moving service at St. Peters AME, I extended an invitation to their Minister, the Rev. Nazim Fakir, to speak here at Adath and he has agreed to do that on the Shabbat morning of Thanksgiving weekend.
Sometimes just showing up and reaching out in concern is enough to show we care, but surely we can do more. For the last ten years our synagogue has sponsored a terrific adult education series organized by our Adult Learning Director Nina Samuels and sponsored by our members Mark and Lucy Fisher and Peter and Gloria Cooper. This series has never shied away from difficult topics. When our planning group gathered this past August to brainstorm for this spring, we quickly arrived at the conclusion that we needed to focus our study on the issue of racism. But we will not only study it. Partnering with Jewish Community Action, which celebrates its 20th Anniversary of engaging our community in working for justice in this state, we will seek paths of action that our congregants and our congregation can take to eradicate racism, which Rabbi Abraham Heschel called “[Racism is] man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” I hope you will show up.
Before concluding I want to return to the speech that Ken Burns delivered so powerfully that day at Wash U, which is as privileged a place as one could imagine. It was clear that not everybody was comfortable with what Burns had to say. It seemed to me that there were sections of the crowd at the commencement whose reactions were muted. It was clear that the Social Work faculty and students were delighted to see the issue being pressed before the entire university. Burns made it point powerfully. As Abraham Lincoln long ago asserted, this country will not be destroyed by outside threats, but as we have seen this summer, we are liable to self-destruct if we do not address the critical issue of racism and the social inequality that accompanies it.
The High Holidays are a time of cheshbon hanefesh – personal and communal introspection. It is a time to consider the choices we have to make about who we will be, and about what God expects of each of us and of our society.
Let’s make sure that each of us is making the right choices. Let us make it our business to take a close look around ourselves, wherever we have a sphere of influence and make sure we are each doing the right thing. Let us work together to finally put an end to this illness of racism that plagues our country so that we can honestly assert that we are truly living up to the principle, grounded in our Torah and affirmed by our rabbis, of Btzelem Elohim that all people are created in the image of God. And let us say Amen.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
World Zionist Congress Election
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
What can I do?
As many of you know, my brother Dan made aliyah almost nine years ago. He lives in Jerusalem, where he is studying to be a Conservative rabbi. I got to see him a few weeks ago while I was leading Honeymoon Israel with the 21 couples from our community. Not long before I left for Israel, Dan posted a new Facebook profile picture. It was a picture of him, beaming, under a huppah, officiating at the wedding of his dear friends in Beit Hanan. When my dad saw the photo on Facebook, he asked me if Dan expressed concern about any consequences. Frankly it took me a minute to understand why my dad was asking.
But then I understood.
You see, it is both invalid and illegal for a Reform, Conservative, or Modern Orthodox rabbi to officiate at a wedding between two Jewish people in Israel. For a Jewish couple to be recognized by the State of Israel, their union must be performed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel or performed outside of Israel in a civil ceremony. Today Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, youth groups and rabbis in Israel receive at least $1 billion dollars annually from the state, which originates from an agreement made in 1948 when founding Prime Minister Ben Gurion empowered a then-shrinking Orthodox community. He gave them control over all religious affairs in Israel. My brother is among the 64% of Israelis who want separation of religion and state and the 64% who do not want any religious body to have governmental authority in Israel, and the 62% who want Israel to recognize a range of Jewish conversion ceremonies. He is among the 800,000 Israelis seeking an alternative to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, that simply want to enjoy on Israeli soil the spirit of egalitarian, intellectually and spiritually open Judaism that we enjoy right here on snowy ground. As a rabbinic intern, my brother is helping build one of the 87 Conservative congregations across Israel. His congregation is right in the heart of Jerusalem, at Kehilat Zion, where Ashkenazi and Sephardi, adults of all genders and life experiences dance and sing in an overflowing basement of a rec center while kids run around, swinging from window bars like a makeshift playground.
What can I do?
My colleague Rabbi Gordon Tucker writes the following, “Zionism was about allowing Jewish culture to flourish without the constraint of foreign domination, so that Jewish political life, intellectual life, moral development and its religious expression could reflect the full range of what the Jewish people believe and aspire. Alas, the last in this list—religious expression—has been hamstrung by invidious funding decisions that cut us out, and by offensive rules and insulting rhetoric besmirch our reputation.”
You may be asking, why I keep posing the question what can I do?
Why am I talking about my brother (aside from being proud) and reflecting on a definition of Zionism?
Because we find ourselves often wondering, in a world that seems complex and beyond our control with the flurry of daily events, how I might do something and draw from my spiritual life as a force for good? Is it possible to do anything but lift our hands in despair and lurch from crisis to crisis? So much of our relationship to current events in our country and abroad is dictated in such a way. Tragedy strikes, and community mobilizes. Can we do something with our hands to shape the world, or at the very least shape Zionism as Rabbi Tucker imagines, so that it remains strong and in consonance with the majority of Israelis who are counting on us to act? I believe we can. And we must.
Approximately every five years the World Zionist Congress convenes, the very same World Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, convened in Basil, Switzerland in 1897. It is meeting again in October 2020. Who gets to show up at the Congress? Well that depends on you. As Rabbi Tucker explains, “The more delegates we elect, the more seats we have at the table of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund, and other organizations. Since they are not formally government organizations, through them we can obtain precious funding to nurture the religious culture that we offer daily to an Israeli population that wants it and needs it. 2-3 million dollars can flow to our movement in Israel and throughout the world if we are represented well there.”
What can I do?
After Shabbat ends tonight, each of us has the choice to move from the reflection of the day to the action of the week. Take five minutes. If you are 18 years of age or older, go online and register to vote in the World Zionist Congress. There is $7.50 registration fee. After you vote, send the link to three friends and ask them to vote. If you’ve voted already, thank you. And please also spread the word. Our numbers in Minnesota stand at a low 156 voters. In the land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 reasons we take pride in our state, we must do better for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are counting on us. We have until March 11th, when voting closes.
Our own Rabbi Kravitz, Hazzan Dulkin and Heidi Schneider are represented on Slate 6, the Mercaz slate of candidates, that stands for the kind of wedding canopy, huppah, my brother created for his friends. Mercaz, which means center, supports the Israeli Conservative movement, known as Masorti, which secures the rights of anyone who has converted by a Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox rabbi to be recognized as a Jewish person in the Jewish state. Voting Mercaz advances all of the rituals and practices we take for granted as egalitarian American Jews. Voting Mercaz also supports hundreds of Israeli kids with special needs who celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies with Masorti communities, in partnership with the ADRABA Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities. 1,600 youth across Israel take part in the Conservative movement’s dynamic youth program, called NOAM. I visited many of these kids at summer camp in northern Israel, as rockets were falling on southern Israel in the summer of 2014. Voting Mercaz supports a Judaism that is welcoming, a Judaism that we are practicing this very morning, a Judaism that Nate is stepping into with pride.
Hopefully by now you realize this sermon is not just about asking each of us to vote, which is essential. But I am asking each of us whether we are able to look at our hands and find the capacity to DO SOMETHING with them, to do something to stand up for Zionism, to support our brothers like my own in Israel, to realize that we are not powerless when we look at a chaotic world. That we have something to add to that world— not just when people are trashing Israel or attacking Jews— but when we have the opportunity to vote, dream, and build toward a vibrant, pluralistic, and democratic Israel. We have that opportunity to heed the words of the Psalmist who warns, “Should I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. Let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not elevate Jerusalem above all my joy.” In A New Psalm, his commentary on that selection from Psalm 137, Rabbi Benjamin Segal writes, “Reflecting a world turned upside down, the poet used “not remember” and “forget” to pledge remembering and not forgetting. The withered hand and the frozen palate might reflect the act of pledging…”
What can I do?
Let us pledge. For Jerusalem. For the State of Israel. For hope.
I think of my brother performing his first wedding in Israel, an illegal and invalid act. A ceremony his brother thousands of miles away and a few degrees colder does in this very sanctuary without fear of detainment.
At the end of the Jewish wedding, we break a glass. It is meant to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem, an historic pain that cuts through an otherwise miraculous moment. We might imagine many such moments in our own lives. Pain punctuating joy.
We are so fortunate to have witnessed the rebirth of the modern State of Israel in these last nearly 72 years. And we have work to do to keep in mind Israelis who feel a sense of brokenness, but choose hope. Who choose to pick up the pieces. Israelis who get to work every day building with optimism. Israelis who rely on us to use our hands too, to not let them wither in disinterest or despair.
On this Shabbat I ask you to commit with me to helping pick up the pieces. To pick up the shards in the new week through our commitment to do something. To recognize we are not powerless when the world around us seems to be breaking in parts. That we have the strength, even in shaky hands, to register, to pull the lever online, and stand up for Zionism. To do so proudly, to encourage our friends, and to vote in the elections for the World Zionist Congress.
May our broken world, may our beloved Israel, may our lives find wholeness. And let us say: Amen.
Click here to Vote MERCAZ
Hazzan Joanna Dulkin
Spiritual Fitness (author unknown)
If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills,
If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches & pains,
If you can resist complaining & boring people with your troubles,
If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time,
If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,
If you can take criticism & blame without resentment,
If you can face the world without lies & deceit,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs…
Then you are probably a dog.
Today, I want to speak about how the act of sacred singing, as a spiritual practice – in other words, singing in spiritual community can improve your “spiritual fitness.”
The act of singing is both creative and cathartic, and it’s GOOD FOR YOU.
Yehuda haLevi, the medieval poet and thinker wrote: Prayer is for one’s soul what nourishment is for one’s body. The blessing of one’s prayer lasts until the time of the next, just as the strength derived from one meal lasts until another.... During the time of prayer, one cleanses the soul of all that has passed over it and prepares it for the future.
Think about that: prayer is nourishment for your soul: it is what the soul needs to stay “fit.” As with any fitness program, you don’t start out by running 26.2 miles or schvitzing for 90 minutes at an advanced Zumba class. Maybe you take the stairs instead of the elevator. You park farther away from the entrance to work or the store. You buy a fitness tracker and set small, meetable goals. Same with nurturing your prayer life, and here is my prescription: start small, perhaps with a niggun.
A niggun is a prayer that has been distilled to a wordless melody. A niggun is an invitation to travel inward, to shake you out of “auto pilot.” As one begins a niggun, they become less and less self-conscious of what is immediately around them, even of the tune itself. A person begins to experience a deeper and more personal form of prayer, and to tune into the prayerful energy of those around them.
The Piaceztner Rebbe, otherwise known as Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira was a 20th century Polish Rabbi whose life was brutally cut short in the Shoah. He left behind a stunning body of writing, including instructions for spiritual practice around meditation.
Taking a part of a niggun you know, turn yourself to face the wall, or just close your eyes, and think that you are standing before the Throne of Glory on which God sits, and with your heart broken you have come to pour out your soul to God with song and melody which come from the innermost part of your heart. Then you will certainly feel that your soul is coming out as you sing. If at first you were singing slowly before your soul in order to arouse it from its sleep, slowly, slowly you will feel that your soul has begun to sing on its own.
It will happen sometimes that was you sing, without intending it, you will spontaneously begin to speak words of prayer to God. … your soul comes out of its sheath to fly upwards…and from the depths of your heart you will cry out in pure prayer to God. And lest you think that such prayers are somehow less important that those written down the Siddur, you should know that prayers such as these come from the very same quarry from the soul itself is hewn.
Your soul comes out of its sheath, flying upwards. Song and melody from the innermost part of your heart. Pure prayer to God. I’ll take it!
The Zohar, a seminal mystical text, tells us that “In the highest heavens, there is a certain temple with gates that can be opened only by the power of niggun.” As Hasidism developed and flourished in Eastern Europe during the 18th century, the act of spiritual singing as a congregation was elevated to an essential element of the movement. The power of singing in devotional community was part and parcel of the Hasidic desire to cleave to God at all times. Practically speaking, if folks didn’t know Hebrew, or the prayers, or even how to read, it was the niggun, with its simple syllables of “oy yoy” “bam bam” or “lai lai” that became the universal accessible instrument of prayer; a way of transcending earthly concerns and connecting to the Divine. And also, practically speaking, the singing of melodies together, whether niggun or congregational melody, helps each community create a shared musical vocabulary and identity.
The next musical layer, after NIGGUN, is CHANT, probably the oldest form of Jewish music. We chant the Torah, megillot and Haftarah (i.e. we don’t sing them) because chanting is based on the language (insert fancy word: logogenic – language centered!) We also chant in a more contemporary context, through simple repetition of a small selection of words to a melody, such as “el na refa na la” that we sing for healing on Shabbat Mornings. The chant itself can be musically simple or complicated but the form is easy: sing, sing, sing, and repeat.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a master composer and chant leader, wrote an entire book about how Hebrew chanting heals the spirit, transforms the mind and deepens love. She is the author of hundreds of Hebrew chants, and teaches that “chant is an embodied practice (YOU FEEL IT IN THE BODY): we can’t stay in our heads, merely thinking ABOUT or contemplating ideas, no matter how sublime. When I chant, every molecule of my body is vibrating, jarring loose the power of stored memories and making that force available to me as I build the power of intention.” Her book teaches a new-old approach to song leadership, and details how to facilitate chanting circles, which have become quite popular.
Another phenomenon growing in popularity is singing circles, which we will have the opportunity to experience later tonight. Singing circles employ niggun, chant, song and sometimes short teachings that flow together to create a fully immersive experience. If you have ever sung around a campfire, or experienced an Israeli Shira b’Tzibur (community song session), a Quaker song session or even a Bluegrass Hootenany, you have tasted the magic of a singing circle. One of the people responsible for the many Jewish singing circles that have popped up all over the world is Joey Weisenberg, a visionary composer and founder of the Rising Song Institute (part of Hadar). Weisenberg wrote a book called Building Singing Communities and muses in his introduction: “In the last few decades, Jews around the US and elsewhere have begun to re-explore their collective singing heritage……..Just think how far we could come if we treated the songs sung in our day to day [lay] synagogue community as seriously as we do the music created by professional stage musicians. We could create an atmosphere of both great beauty and drama in our spaces of prayer – we would value each and every individual in our community as a creative musician, and encourage their efforts in an attitude of musical collaboration….this reality is possible, if only we educate ourselves about and hold ourselves to aesthetic standards, if we raise the bar just a bit higher on what we can achieve together in beautiful conscientious song.”
So, how do we achieve this? Weisenberg’s answer: just reframe the goals. What if the point of singing together was about Process and not Product? What if the main purpose of gathering people together in song were to “create communal musical energy” – rather than musical perfection? How would this feel?
Part of the answer is in today’s Torah reading: the Song of the Sea – a piece of Torah so important that the rabbis added it to our daily and Shabbat liturgy. And part of the answer is in our own experience. We can study it, or read about it, or hear today’s Torah reading, but I encourage you to live it, this evening, and make a move to improve your spiritual fitness.
I will close with a teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe, a Hassidic master known as the Netivot Shalom, that appears in our Siddur alongside the Song of the Sea.
I Will Sing
Sometimes we sing to ourselves—no one else hears the sound, yet our minds are singing.
Sometimes we sing—our vocal chords voice a tune, and all can hear it and recognize it.
And sometimes we sing and every cell of our bodies contains the song. Such songs transform both the singer and the listener.
That is the way that the people Israel sang as they were saved, in crossing the Sea.
Song is a part of being alive. It begins in the breath, then a melody, then grows into song, and singing together, the music becomes part of a larger group energy. What will happen tonight when regular people get together and sing? You should come find out! Shabbat Shalom.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share